Two Middle-Class(?) Neighborhoods

MLewyn's picture

A few days ago, I partially responded to Joel Kotkin's defense of Sun Belt sprawl and attack on more "urban" cities like New York and Washington, arguing that the latter group of cities seem to be more attractive to the wealthy and more able to generate wealth.  But of course, I didn't really address the broader argument that New York is a two-class city.  Although Kotkin ferociously attacks environmentalists, his argument seems pretty similar to the left-wing argument that America is losing its middle class; the only difference is that Kotkin treats this as a problem of cities (and in particular, less-sprawling cities) rather than of the nation as a whole.

There is some truth to the argument; certainly, income distribution has become more unequal in the United States in recent decades.  Having said that, the argument in its purest form is something of an exaggeration; in city and suburb alike, there are places that are not dominated by the wealthy and the poor- both in urban and in suburban neighborhoods.

For example, my current neighborhood, Forest Hills, seems to be to be pretty middle-class (especially the northern part of it where I live, as opposed to wealthier Forest Hills Gardens to the south).  When I go to my synagogue or nearby synagogues, I don't meet anyone who seems to be obviously poor or fabulously wealthy- no big-firm lawyers, for example   So I decided to look at actual statistics to see if my feelings are backed up by reality.

Only 11% of households in my census tract earn less than $25,000 per year- and given that 20 percent of the tract's residents are over 70, some of them are probably retired people living off savings.  15% earn $25-50,000 (which I think of as lower-middle, or maybe working class), about 30% earn $50-100,000 (which to me is middle-middle class, at least given NY housing costs), 26% earn $100-200,000 (which people in Iowa might not think of as middle-class, but seems to me to be upper-middle class) and only 16% earn over $200,000 (pretty close to the Obama-approved definition of the upper class). 

I compared these numbers to my old census tract in Mandarin (a suburban part of Jacksonville, Florida).  I'm not sure what sprawl defenders' idea of paradise is, but I'm guessing it is someplace like Mandarin: a car-oriented area where you can still get a house for under $200,000.  Surprisingly the shares of households in each income class seemed almost identical: there were more households earning below $25,000 in Mandarin (21% as opposed to 11%) and fewer rich household (only 9%) but the share of households earning between $25,000 and $200,000 was about the same (71% in Mandarin, 73% in northern Forest Hills).* 

What do these middle-class people do?  Oddly, there is a significant occupational difference between Mandarin and Forest Hills.  Since Mandarin is a more politically conservative area, one might think that its residents are more likely to be entrepreneurs.  But 26% of Forest Hills residents are engaged in retail or wholesale trade, as opposed to 16% of Mandarin residents.  On the other hand, "eds and meds" (education and health care), which tend to be heavily government-regulated if not government-owned, seems more popular in Mandarin: 29% of employed Mandarin residents are in this sector, as opposed to 15% of my current census tract's residents.  On the other hand, Forest Hills has more public employees (9% as opposed to 3% of Mandarin residents).  The proportions of employed people in finance, insurance, real estate, and miscellanous professional positions are about the same.

To dig up similar information on your neighborhood go to the Census Bureau's American Fact Finder site.


*Though given cost of living differentials, this means Mandarin is probably somewhat wealthier.



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