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New York City is a Banana Republic

Ilana Novick

new report from Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Economic Opportunity shows that parts of New York City are nearly as economically stratified as anywhere in the world. 

According to the data from the Census Bureau, which runs the American Community Survey, if the borough of Manhattan were its own country (not that some residents don't already think it is), the income gap between the richest twenty per cent and the poorest twenty per cent would be on par with countries like Sierra Leone, Namibia, and Lesotho. 

Almost half of the city's residents were living below, or just barely on the poverty line in 2011. That's a jump of more than 3% since 2009, when the nation’s recession officially ended. More New Yorkers were poor in 2011 — 19.3 percent by the federal rate and 21.3 percent by the city’s standard — compared with 16.8 and 19.8 percent in 2007, before the recession. New York's  poverty line is measured differently than the Federal government's, taking into account the high cost of living. According to the City's definition, a two-adult, two-child family is poor if it earns less than $30,949 a year. The federal government sets the level at $22,811. The statistics are particularly surprising considering that more New Yorkers were working in 2011. Clearly, the jobs available aren't enough to bring the poverty numbers down. 

Though the report's author, Mark Levitan, told the New York Times “After two bad years, things are not getting worse, and that’s the beginning of things getting better,” he emphasized that these improvements may be short lived, because even these minor improvements in employment numbers may actually lead to the end of recession-related expansions of programs like food stamps. These slight declines in unemployment are not exactly a cause for celebration, and especially not a reason to decrease benefits. In fact, without the expansion of food stamps, the city’s poverty rate would have soared by 3.6 percentage points, to nearly 25 percent, according to the report. 

The results would also be more reassuring if the corresponding progress from the city's highest earners hadn't been so shockingly different. While the OEO report tries to seek solace in the fact that the poverty numbers levelled off, rather than getting worse, the ranks of New York's millionaires increased by 7.9% according to Capgemini's annual U.S. Metro Wealth Index. 

For a striking glimpse into how this plays out across neighborhoods, the New Yorker has an excellent infographic that shows the differences in incomes along subway lines here, where you can search by line and by stop to find where they city's richest and poorest live. Among the many interesting findings, $205,192 was the highest median income for any census tract the subway has a station in. That honor goes to stations on Chambers Street, Park Place, and World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. On the other end of the spectrum, Sutter Avenue on the L train in Brooklyn has the lowest median income at $12,288.