Is New York’s Income Inequality Actually a Good Thing?


There’s a media cycle that we’re all pretty familiar with by now, wherein a cultural phenomenon is written about ad nauseum (e.g. Miley Cyrus’s tongue) and a stance is taken by the majority of like-minded media outlets (it’s a very long tongue), only to be negated for the sake of, well, for the sake of…I don’t know? Garnering attention, sometimes. Being professionally contrary, others. (Hi, Slate!) But, every once in a while, a wholly different opinion is offered, not for the sake of devil’s advocacy, but because maybe, just maybe, conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. And so even if this different opinion doesn’t completely alter popular perception, it does, at least, make you reconsider ideas that seemed to be irrefutable. Or, ha. Maybe it’s just another conservative ideologue trying to convince New Yorkers that having lots of billionaires around is good for them? Yeah, maybe that.

Such is the case with Ed Glaeser’s editorial in the New York Daily News this past weekend, in which he tackles the idea of income inequality and the “two cities” narrative that Bill De Blasio has embraced as he continues his campaign for mayor. The enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots in this city is indisputable, and it is one of the most common talking points, not only in the mayoral race, but also among, well, just about everybody in just about every venue (editorial pages, bars, etc.). And it’s pretty rare that you hear an argument supporting the fact that there is such a huge gap between the mega-rich and everybody else. I mean, sure, Bloomberg is always on hand with some kind of bon mot related to his love for Russian billionaires, but very few people who aren’t themselves billionaires ever defend New York’s one percent. Because what exactly is there to defend when it comes to the fact that some people can carelessly drop $500 on a dinner for two, while others struggle to pay their $50 electric bill each month? And so it was with no small amount of skepticism that I read Glaeser’s op-ed, cheerfully titled “A Happy Tale of Two Cities.” Because, happy? Has Glaeser ever been inside a housing project? Does Glaeser know anything about the oppressiveness of debt, or the psychic weight with which the unemployed are burdened? What exactly would he say to defend this system? Would I be justified in reading this with one eyebrow raised about as cynically as an eyebrow can possibly be raised? Let’s find out!

Glaeser starts off by acknowledging that New York is indeed the income inequality capitol of the country, but claims that this inequality is actually a sign of vitality. Glaeser writes, “Rather than seeing the disparity between those at the highest and lowest income levels as a disease, we might consider it a defining feature of a remarkable city with unique assets that attract residents from a range of backgrounds…the urban juxtaposition of wealth and poverty can be jarring, but it reflects the enduring appeal of city life to both haves and have-nots.” Glaeser points out that New York’s appeal as a place for the wealthy, makes it similarly appealing for those who want to become wealthy. He further reasons that because New York has a relatively high level of economic mobility, it’s a much better place to be poor than rural areas or even other urban areas like Atlanta, which have far lower levels of economic mobility. Glaeser also claims that rather than being a hostile place to poor people, New York is actually such a welcoming place to lower income people (public transportation, social welfare programs, economic opportunity etc.) that they come here and never want to leave because it’s just so great.

So, well. I understand what Glaeser is trying to say, and I follow the (flawed) logic behind the ultimately conservative claims that he makes, but just because he presents his opinions in a cogent manner, doesn’t mean that they’re worth anything at all except to the extremely wealthy people who maybe don’t want to feel bad about how disproportionate their extremely good fortune is. I mean, it’s a nice, Bloomberg-ian notion that the poor people in New York are here because they benefit from being in this city, and not just because they have nowhere else to go. And it’d be fun to think that there really was some sort of natural balance that existed between the haves and have-nots, whereby each individual benefited directly or indirectly from being in proximity to the other. But the truth is that while Glaeser believes that “it is critical to recognize that cities rarely make people poor,” this city has, through a double-whammy combination of eliminating middle-income jobs and affordable real-estate, made just about everybody who isn’t extremely wealthy struggle in one way or another. Glaeser’s belief that being generous to the poor will only “attract more poor people to the city and may ultimately make the city more unequal” is disingenuous and not even in line with anything De Blasio or most conservatives are proposing. Things like De Blasio’s plan to increase taxes in order to pay for a Universal Pre-K program isn’t going to cause an influx of lower classes, it will serve to make life bearable for the families who can’t afford to have both parents—or even one parent—work because of the high cost of childcare and pre-school programs. In places where free UPK has been instituted (like Washington D.C.), it has been a huge success with families of all income levels, not just the lower classes.

One of the main problems with Glaeser’s argument, and all similar conservative arguments, is the assumption that all government programs are in place for the benefit of the bottom ten percent, and moreover, that once people benefit from government programs, they will never be able to, I guess, stop suckling from the teat of John Boehner. Or something equally gross. Just kidding. Nothing is equally as gross as the idea of suckling from John Boehner’s teat, or John Boehner’s anything else. Anyway. The income inequality in New York isn’t due to waves of poor people coming to New York, amassing wealth, and being replaced by new poor people. It is due, in part, to the disappearance of a middle class that has either been absorbed into the lower class or fled the city because they’ve been priced out. Glaeser and his ilk claim to promote diversity by portraying the income gap as a product of diversity. Why would anyone want a city where everyone makes the same amount of money, Glaeser asks. Wouldn’t that be just like if we got rid of the city’s culinary diversity and had one bland cafeteria-style restaurant feeding everyone? Uh, no. No, it would not be like that, and it’s insulting to even suggest that. Giving opportunities to everyone in the city, not just the upper and upper-middle classes, would actually increase the diversity of everything from the types of people you see in jobs that tend to be held only by the economically elite to the types of faces you see in neighborhoods that can only be inhabited by the economically elite.

It’s a sad reality that de Blasio gets painted as some kind of communist (not that I even think that’s necessarily a bad thing) every time issues like public schools versus charter schools or Universal Pre-K get brought up. If people like Glaeser truly cared about New York, and truly wanted economic mobility for the lower and middle classes, they would understand that social programs related to things like education need to be made available to everyone who needs them. And a side effect of this might just be lowering the income gap, which would be a good thing for everyone, even those in the top one percent. Would it lead to an exodus of the ultra-rich, as Glaeser seems to fear? I kind of doubt it. I kind of doubt that strengthening this city so that it remains a clean, low-crime, prosperous center that will attract motivated and creative people will lead to wealthy people throwing up their hands and decamping for…where, exactly? Florida? Texas? Bermuda? London? Back to Russia? I guess, if that happens, we can worry then. For now, it just might be better to concentrate on making life better for the people who actually live here, and intend to stay.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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