Middle Class in the City

“What is Middle Class in Manhattan?” asked this New York Times real estate section story this weekend that was widely passed around. Several friends sent it to me and asked, “What do you think about this?” Setting issues of affordable housing aside for a moment, let’s look at some of the numbers:

Most researchers define the middle class by calculating the median income for a place, and grouping people into certain percentages above or below the absolute middle.

By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year.

By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000.

But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power.

If it takes at least $80,000 to have a middle class lifestyle in Manhattan, well, I guess I’m a ways off from living a middle class lifestyle. The thing is, I live by myself in a studio apartment in a nice neighborhood, am paying my bills, and can do things like spend $28 on brunch whenever I feel like it, so I am of course living a middle class lifestyle. Later, the piece goes into what we value as defining who we are:

“Middle class, to me, is having a pretty good job, enough money to pay bills and rent, and then a little extra,” said Desiree Gaitan, 29, a manager of social media for Shairporter, a tech start-up that arranges shared taxi rides to New York airports. She says she feels middle class even though she makes about $40,000 a year (equivalent to about $17,900 a year in a more typical part of the country).

So what is middle class in Manhattan? We all have different thoughts and can’t seem to agree, though my feelings do align more with what Gaitan says. The one thing we can all agree on: the rent is too darn high.

Photo: Jeffrey Turner