What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class

The New York TImes ran an article this weekend about how difficult it is to be middle class in New York City. The Times piece focused specifically on Manhattan because, as we all know, the Times thinks Brooklyn is some sort of exotic place where people don’t really live, they just travel there, by cab, before rushing back to the island across the East River they call home. Or maybe the New York Times doesn’t realize that the difficulties of being middle class exist in Brooklyn too? Again, it’s really hard to say what the Times thinks of Brooklyn at all and, for once, this isn’t really my point. But when the Times says that Manhattan is “probably the only place in the United States where a $5.5 million condo with a teak closet and mother-of-pearl wall tile shares a block with a public housing project,” I feel the need to point out that this exact same situation exists in Brooklyn, notably in a recent Vogue piece on the home of Miranda Brooks and Bastien Halard. The couple live with their two children in a four-story brownstone with hand-printed wallpaper and art by Elliott Puckette and Hugo Guinness. This extraordinary home also just happens to be across the street from the Gowanus Houses. So! Brooklyn is special too.

I wanted to go into this article with an open mind. I wanted to read it and find out that the Times was paying attention to the New Yorkers who live on incomes in the mid-five figures and still manage to get by in a city where it is possible to order a $2,000 plate of spaghetti for dinner. The Times wonders, “In a city like New York, where everything is superlative, who exactly is middle class? What kind of salary are we talking about?” Well, as it turns out, the Times is talking about a salary of about $200,000 per year. Yes, that is the new, barely-scraping-by middle class. In fact, according to one woman, making $250,000 per year means “hanging on by the skin of [her] teeth.”

The Times explains that the biggest expenditure for New Yorkers is housing and reveals the shocking fact that the average Manhattan rent is “$3,973 a month, [which] costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide.” This is insane. We already knew that rent was insane, but seeing it like this is basically sickening. The Times goes on to point out that it isn’t just housing that makes someone middle class but also “lifestyle” which to the Times means putting children in private school because, as one struggling, “middle class,” tenured professor at Columbia University put it, “The trauma of kindergarten I still have not forgotten.” Quite a sentence there, tenured professor at Columbia University. So sorry that your kindergarten experience was terrible enough to dissuade you from a life in academics, I guess.

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