The middle class is key to any city’s future


What are your favorite cities in the US and abroad? Chances are you like cities for their vibrancy, diversity, people, foods, smells, sights, sounds, and opportunities for work, learning, play and life.

These cities can only exist with vibrant middle classes to do the work, pay the taxes, and sustain life (including birthing the kids that are the city’s future).

I have had the opportunity to live, work in and visit cities around the world. I have noticed that cities dependent on one industry or activity (such as resort tourism, for example), are not interesting, exciting, vibrant, dynamic, or sustainable. They are missing a middle
class. There is nothing more depressing and dispiriting than to visit a resort where you are surrounded by the wealthy attendees and minimum-wage attendants. It is laughable when such wealthy patrons then try to ameliorate the situation with low-cost housing and other half-baked solutions. Raising wages for the largely itinerant labor force does not work. You need a middle class.

Some of our “normal” and “regular” cities are heading down this path. They are losing their middle classes.

The Decline of Middle-Class Neighborhoods

Several studies document the trend. According to a Brookings Institution study released last year, as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58% in 1970 to 41% in 2000. In their place, poor and rich neighborhoods are both on the rise, as cities and suburbs have become increasingly segregated by income.
Middle-income neighborhoods – where families earn 80 to 120 percent of the local median income – have plunged by more than 20 percent as a share of all neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. They are down 10 percent in the Washington area. Only 23 percent of central city neighborhoods in 12 large metropolitan areas were middle income in 2000, down from 45 percent in 1970, according to Brookings.

In Los Angeles – the most hollowed-out metropolitan area in the country over the past three decades – the share of poor neighborhoods is up 10 percent, rich neighborhoods are up 14 percent and middle-income areas are down by 24 percent.

There are non-economic consequences for cities that lose a lot of middle-income residents. The disappearance of middle-income neighborhoods can limit opportunities for upward mobility, the authors of the Brookings study say. It becomes harder for lower-income homeowners to move up the property ladder, buy into safer neighborhoods, send their children to better schools and even make the kinds of personal contacts that can be a route to better jobs.

The Exit of the Middle-Class

In New York, according to “New York’s Delicate Migration Balance,” a report released by the city’s controller last year, 300,000 residents a year are moving out of the city to other parts of the US, twice the number who relocate to NYC from elsewhere in the country – and that was before this year’s financial meltdown.

Middle-class families – notably households with annual incomes between $40,000 and $60,000 along with households earning more than $140,000 – make up a disproportionate segment of the army heading for the exits. "Those who leave appear to be younger, better educated and slightly more affluent," the report says. More than 40% of the adults making up the exodus have at least a bachelor's degree; 20% have a master's degree or higher.

That is devastating news, writes Errol Louis (“Call an ambulance – our middle class is bleeding,” New York Daily News, 9/16/07): “It means the backbone of the city is weakening as hundreds of thousands of teachers, cops, firefighters, bus drivers, security guards, transit workers, barbers and administrators – a big slice of the people who make the city go – give up on New York every year.”

The report also suggests that a lot of what people think they know about the supposed link between gentrification, housing prices and neighborhood change is wrong: "contrary to the tone of public discussion, New York City is not experiencing an influx of educated, affluent, working age residents." Louis concludes:

“Communities, and the city as a whole, thrive when we have many different income groups living side-by-side – civil servants near retirees, welfare moms next door to teachers and carpenters.
“All are equally valuable, and all need to stay in New York. Inner-city areas especially need a critical mass of adults who can put in the enormous amount of casual time and volunteer effort it takes to raise a neighborhood's children. The kids need to see – and learn from – all kinds of working people in the streets, parks and libraries. Schools that don't get time, attention and pressure from middle-class parents are more likely to fail.”

A Natural or Man-Made Trend?

In a way this trend is natural, a tale of upward mobility: those who can move to a better neighborhood do. But why do middle-income neighborhoods “tip” towards rich or poor? Why this “big sort?”
Public policy analysts scratch their heads. Some blame the loss of middle-income neighborhoods on the loss of the middle class itself, but that can’t be it: incomes for all types and in all income quintiles of households have gone up (except for single-female-headed households with kids), although they have gone up faster for higher income households. But there are natural reasons for that too: higher income households have more income earners, with higher skills, working more hours.

Others blame the bifurcation of housing costs, that is, the lack of affordable middle-class housing. According to a New York University study, the likeliest households to exit in New York were those earning between $40,000 and $60,000 (the solidly middle-class in a city where the median household income is $40,000). Though these made up only 17 percent of non-elderly households in 2005, they accounted for 22 percent of those households that left.

Any middle-class – or even upper-middle-class – flight is understandable given the chunks of income that New Yorkers pay on housing.

Of the 110,663 Manhattan homes with a mortgage, nearly one fourth spend at least 35 percent of the household’s monthly income on housing costs, according to Census estimates. Of the 562,469 occupied rental apartments in Manhattan, over 34 percent spend at least 35 percent of the household’s monthly income on rent. Another 8.4 percent spend 30 to 34.9 percent.

Of the 182,226 Brooklyn homes with a mortgage, over 46 percent spend at least 35 percent of the household’s monthly income on housing costs. Of the estimated 590,843 rental apartments in Brooklyn, nearly 42 percent pay at least 35 percent of the household’s monthly income on rent.

Others blame sprawl, complaining that exurbs are bleeding cities of the middle class. But it is hard to argue that people’s freedom of choice about where to live is the problem, and that they should be forced to live in expensive, deteriorating cities.
It’s middle-income jobs, stupid

In a recent article in City Journal (Summer 2008), “Houston, New York Has a Problem,” Edward Glaeser compares Houston to New York and comes to the conclusion that Houston is preferable because it welcomes the middle class, while a heavily regulated and expensive New York drives it away. It is a devastating comparison:

“Houston's great advantage, it turns out, is its ability to provide affordable living for middle-income Americans, something that is increasingly hard to achieve in the Big Apple. That Houston is a middle-class city is mirrored in the nature of its economy. Both greater Houston and Manhattan have about 2 million employees.

“In Manhattan, almost 600,000 of them work in the idea-intensive sectors of finance, insurance, and professional services; only 2% are in manufacturing, and fewer than that in construction. Finance increasingly drives New York City's economy as a whole. By contrast, Houston is a manufacturing powerhouse that makes machinery, food products, and electronics, with a retail sector twice the size of Manhattan's and lots of middle-class jobs.”

New York used to be a place where a lot of middle-income jobs were created. That’s not happening anymore: from 1975 to 2005, New York City shrank as a regional job hub relative to 12 surrounding counties in Long Island, southern New York and northern New Jersey, according to the Center for an Urban Future.

Back in 1975, New York City accounted for 53.1 percent of the 5,022,801 jobs in the New York region. By 1980, the city’s share of regional jobs had diminished to 50.5 percent. In 2005 – the last year the figures were tallied – the 12 surrounding counties accounted for 52.8 percent of the 6,171,642 jobs in the New York region.

No middle-income jobs, no middle class.

What the Middle Class Needs

The real obstacle to a thriving middle class in New York is too much government involvement in people's lives, writes Nicole Gelinas in The New York Sun.

In housing, for example, constricting the supply of apartments through regulation makes rents, on average, more expensive, not less. As for schools, Medicaid, and other government programs, all of the $58 billion New York spends annually must come from somewhere, and it comes from high taxes. As the city's independent budget office has noted, state and local taxes within the five boroughs are the highest in the nation, nearly 50% higher than in the average city. Due in large part to these high taxes, big corporations and small businesses alike have a hard time locating middle-class jobs here.

Living cities must be growing cities that go through constant cycles of renewal of people, economies, and industries. Creative destruction is a necessary city dynamic. This means private-sector job creation. That requires healthy business growth, which adds to the tax base, not public sector job growth, which drains funds from the system.
There is in fact a “Virtuous Circle” of metropolitan wealth creation: it starts with business growth, leading to job growth, leading to tax revenue growth, making more government services and infrastructure possible, enhancing quality of life for all inhabitants. We all draw from and contribute to this economic food chain. Without it, cities cannot have real life.

The key to maintaining and growing a middle class is not the government provision of services, benefits and subsidies. It is government provision of the few things government is supposed to provide: protection of persons and property and a social and legal environment which promotes the pursuit of happiness and the general welfare – most fundamentally and importantly, the freedom to start and operate a business without onerous taxation and regulation.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a business futurist and trend guy. He publishes Growth Strategies, a newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends, and is a professional public speaker []. Roger is US economic analyst for the Institute for Business Cycle Analysis in Copenhagen, and North American representative for its US Consumer Demand Index.