What Is Middle Class in Brooklyn Now?

Brooklyn brownstones

It shouldn’t really be news at this point when a family needs to consider turning to financial aid in order to pay for two children to go to private universities—after all, a school like NYU costs over $70,000 a year now; who can afford that without financial aid? This isn’t news! Except, of course, when the family worrying about college costs is the first family of New York City. Then it’s news. 

The New York Times reports that Brooklyn Tech senior Dante de Blasio “is currently mulling offers from a short list of exclusive schools, with Yale and Brown among the front-runners,” and that this decision is putting a great deal of financial pressure on the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense: The de Blasios’ elder child, Chiara, already attends a private college, Santa Clara University, where tuition is approximately $50,000/year, which would put the combined cost of education next year for the de Blasio children somewhere north of $100,000. This is a lot of money! Especially considering that McCray is not taking a salary this year as a chairwoman of the city’s non-profit division, and that the mayoral salary of $225,000/year barely qualifies as middle class in New York City anymore. So how will the city’s first family possibly afford college for both kids?

Well, don’t bother worrying too much about the de Blasios. As the Times notes, the family lives rent-free on the Upper East Side, and they own two properties in Park Slope worth well over $2 million and upon which they draw an income of over $100,000/year. (Yeah, never forget that despite his progressive bona fides, de Blasio is a landlord.)  And so even though de Blasio recently admitted, “there’s going to be a big challenge in figuring out financial aid and visits and all sorts of stuff,” chances are, the family will fare just fine. And, you know, after all, Dante (and Chiara before him) is a product of this city’s public school system, so should he need to go to a CUNY school due to money issues, he’ll just be continuing in the sometimes grand tradition of a public school education. In other words, the kids’ll be all right.

But what about all the other families in New York City? If an annual family income exceeding $300,000 isn’t enough to comfortably send two kids to school, then what happens to everyone else? After all, other than the fact that the de Blasios own and collect rent from property, they live what could pretty typically be construed as a middle class existence: kids in public school, a (prior to Gracie Mansion) home with not enough bathrooms, a public servant’s salary. There is nothing extravagant about this, nothing which demonstrates profligacy whatsoever. We can all, in other words, put our Internet pitchforks away—this family is not ready for a feature in the Times real estate section.

And yet. It would be wrong to ignore this story, because the situation that the de Blasios find themselves in now, wherein they are financially stable by pretty much any objective means, and yet still can’t easily afford dual college tuitions is troubling. After all, beyond just the economic requirements needed to be middle class, there have long been other components acknowledged when we talk about the middle class, and one of them is most definitely the ability to be able to afford your children’s higher education. But if the de Blasios aren’t middle class in Brooklyn, then who is?

Census data shows that the median income in Brooklyn is just under $50,000/year, and the Pew Research Center defines middle class households as those earning between 67% and 200% of the local median. This means that in order to be middle class in Brooklyn, a household must make between $33,500 and $100,000 each year, putting the de Blasios way above the accepted range of what could be considered middle class in Brooklyn. But median rents for one-bedrooms in Brooklyn range from $4,000/month in DUMBO to $2,170/month in Windsor Terrace to $1,290/month in Canarsie, making one-bedrooms in DUMBO prohibitive for even the uppermost reaches of Brooklyn’s middle class and even one-bedrooms in Canarsie difficult for those earning $33,500/year; and when formerly stalwart middle class-neighborhoods like Windsor Terrace are difficult to rent one-bedrooms in unless prospective renters are making $100,000/year, you know there’s a problem.

Pew recently conducted a study which confirms that America’s middle class is most definitely shrinking—all fifty states demonstrated a reduction in who could qualify as being middle class. In New York state, the percentage of middle class residents fell from 45.1% in 2000 to 42.3% in 2013, and more people than ever are spending over 30% of their income on housing—41% in 2013, as compared to 36% in 2000. What all of this means is simple enough: Our high housing costs are bankrupting the middle class, and, soon, the only people who will be able to remain are those who have moved into the upper echelons of income-earners, or those too poor to afford to move on. After all, even the de Blasios probably wouldn’t be able to afford two college tuitions if they weren’t living rent-free for a few years! This is why, in other words, the middle class will soon become a myth in Brooklyn, because anyone making enough money to be able to afford traditionally middle class comforts—college tuition, occasional vacations, nights not plagued with financial stress-induced sleeplessness—is no longer middle class.

While it’s a nice idea to pretend that Brooklyn’s middle class still exists and it comprises families with kids in public school, in which the parents work for the city, and have a modest home on the fringes of a popular neighborhood, this is a dangerous fallacy. The people in Brooklyn who are earning middle class salaries can not even dream of owning a home (or even renting on the fringes of a popular neighborhood) anymore, and most probably don’t live in—or couldn’t afford to move to—neighborhoods where the public schools are competitive and successful. These basic assumptions of what it means to be middle class in Brooklyn have now vanished; this middle class Brooklyn is now little more than a dream, one that will never become a reality again as long as it grows increasingly unaffordable for the middle class to live here.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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5 COMMENTS

  1. there’s a reason i waited 3 years to try and have a second kid. they won’t be attending college at the same time. maybe I’ll have finished paying mine off by then. i probably grew up super lower middle class-1br queens apartment for me, a sibling and a single mother working full time, with no financial support otherwise. if i were a high school senior in that same situation and i knew what i knew now, a full time job, not college would be what I was worrying about for my post graduation life.

  2. The question is not what is Middle Class in Brooklyn now.
    The real question is what happened to Brooklyn.
    The beautiful/crass/unique Brooklyn mix of neighbors and neighborhoods,
    of generations of families, of deep roots and stunning blossoms,
    of social and ethnic energy , of economic and class diversity,
    of struggle and strife and sometimes even success.
    It was a big gritty vibrant part of what made New York New York.
    A special place. A very special place. Different from everywhere else. Brooklyn!
    Trampled by the gentrifiers now, and drained by real estate blood-suckers….
    Brooklyn is no longer Brooklyn. And that is our loss.

  3. Oh Stan Chaz – you said it beautifully – what happened to the Brooklyn we knew –

    Brooklyn no longer has a soul…..

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