The “To Do” List for Middle-Class New Yorkers

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This month, a new report from The Center For An Urban Future, Reviving The City of Aspiration, examines the squeeze on middle class New Yorkers.

The struggle to afford life’s basics—and a few indulgences, too—is nothing new to urbanites of modest means. A 1907 New York Times piece headlined 'Very Soon New York Will Be A City Without Resident Citizens' reported, “Life in the big city is becoming impossible to the average householder, living on an average income.” ‘Average’ necessities were identified as rent, home-cooked meals, servants wages, ice, and coal. Occasional luxuries included theater and restaurant visits.

Over the hundred-plus years that have followed, the list of must-haves for the “average” New Yorker has evolved a bit. Herewith, a historical and current

New York Middle-Class “To Do” List

1) Buy A Home: In the 1950s, the blue and white collar families who bought homes in the city’s boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island — were still considered ‘typical’ New Yorkers. A 1960s Times feature profiled the spending habits of one Queens family: truck driver, at-home-mother, and kids. They owned a two-family house, drove an eight-year-old Buick, carried no debt, and had some savings. Butcher bills were a headache. “Incidentals” were small appliances and occasional take-out meals, movies, ballpark tickets, ice cream and candy, alcohol, and birthday gifts, as well as carpeting and the kids’ music lessons.

2) Or Rent An Apartment: Ira Levin’s bestselling 1960s novel, Rosemary’s Baby, depicted a newlywed couple’s life in a gothic Upper Westside apartment on the income of a marginally employed actor. The film version became a celebrated ode to The Dakota apartments. While Hollywood has a history of grandiosification, this particular scenario was described by New Yorker film critic Renata Adler as “almost too extremely plausible”. The neighborhood really was a Mecca for barely middle-class bohos and academics. By 2008, the price for an apartment in The Dakota hit $20 million.

3) Pay Painlessly for The Basics: Says Kevin Finnegan, a union attorney for health care aides at the low end of New York’s middle class, “Our workers live in poor neighborhoods in the boroughs. They decide between groceries and Metro tickets. Their kids, if they finish school, might work in retail and move into somewhat better neighborhoods, but there are many parts of Brooklyn that they couldn’t possibly afford. The inner suburbs are way out of financial reach, except for a couple of small pockets. As for the distant suburbs, even if they could find something affordable, they couldn’t pay for the commute. When I worked on Wall Street, I saw a different situation. There, the secretaries and managers” — New York’s traditional center middle class — “commuted from as far as Pennsylvania, some of them two hours each way.”

4) Take An Occasional Vacation And Night On The Town: Congressional researchers cite “the relative income hypothesis”: You measure your financial comfort in comparison to that of your neighbors. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the environs of Wall Street during the ascension of upper-middle-class yuppies and wealthy “have mores” during the 1980s. The perception of a “little” middle-class luxury leaped from good seats at a Yankees game to, say, a week at a Southwestern spa.

5) Send the Kids — All of Them — To College: “The key ingredient for upward mobility in the middle class formula is higher education,” wrote New York journalist William Kowinski in 1980. “Some families are pressed because they are trying to send two or three children through college simultaneously, whereas their own parents might have attempted to send only one at a time… ”

6) Safety First — Relocate That Home! Influential Harvard economist Elizabeth Warren, recently tapped by the Obama administration, has identified another key to middle class identity. Along with education she cites safety, saying that both are perceived to be more elusive now than a generation ago, with middle class families stretched to the breaking point to afford homes in safe neighborhoods and “better” school districts. “The cost of being middle class has shot out of the reach of the median family,” says Warren.

7) Use Quality Day Care: Until the 1990s, this item was labeled ‘Family Has A Stay-At-Home Mom’. The trick for urbanites since then has become for both parents together to earn enough to afford good day care...if they can find it.

8) Access Good Health Care: In New York City, this can be as difficult for the center and upper tiers of the middle class as it is for the lower rungs. In the boroughs, where health workers constitute perhaps a third of private-sector employees, some receive benefits through their union, Service Employees district 1199. Government clerks and managers, along with municipal police officers, firefighters, and teachers are also protected. But the issue has escalated for workers and managers at small companies, and even for corporate employees, where co-pays now take a substantial bite. Hardest hit are the self-employed: small retailers, manufacturers, restaurateurs (including donut shop and pizzeria owners), and artisans, as well as waiters, bartenders, cabbies, writers, artists, and performers.

9) Stay Out of Debt: The average cost nationally of a middle-class family to raise one child is estimated at $269,000. But that’s only until age 17. It doesn’t include High School senior year, or education costs, or college. There’s no bulk discount for siblings, either. To parents in New York and everywhere else, credit cards and home equity loans have been the — increasingly rare — coin of the realm.

10) Save For Retirement: Fuggedaboudit. Scratch this item off the list, too. One breezy but well-circulated estimate recently put the value of a New York dollar at 76 cents. Incorporate the costs above and think twice before you dare do the math.

One more important measure defines membership in the middle class: the often-maligned “striving” urge. It’s the expectation that one's life, and that of one’s children, is moving upwards. City dwellers everywhere are notoriously tough, and New Yorkers are famously resilient. But if this hope were to be lost, then the New York "without resident citizens" — a century in the making — might actually come to pass.

Zina Klapper is Deputy Editor of New Geography.