Color of Law: New York, City of the Poor

poverty1As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you, New York, New York.” The problem is that if you are counting on making it in New York City, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

A recent report by The Center for an Urban Future public policy organization dedicated to dealing with the problems facing low-income and working-class neighborhoods in New York City, suggests that the Big Apple is too expensive for most people to live. The report, called Reviving the City of Aspiration: A study of the challenges facing new York City’s middle class confirms what many New Yorkers already knew anecdotally – with an ever-widening gap between earning power and expenses, New York is unable to sustain a middle class.

In a city where even many upper middle class families are stretched to their limits, the cost of living is beyond the reach of most working families. The city lost more than its fair share of blue collar manufacturing jobs over the years. There are no new jobs to create or sustain a middle-class lifestyle, and there is little hope of upward mobility. New York City never was cheap, but it was once perceived as a city of aspiration, a place where people could live, work, scratch their way up the ladder, and raise a family. But people are leaving, and the path from poverty to the middle class is proving far more elusive.

These days, the city is losing a number of demographic groups, including people with a bachelor’s degree, families, immigrants, municipal workers, and the Black community of Eastern Queens, one of the country’s largest African American middle class populations.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the poor are rising. In 2005, 46% of New Yorkers living in poverty held regular jobs, a 17 point increase from 1990. And 31% of New Yorkers over age 18 work in low wage jobs.

There are a number of challenges facing working families. First and foremost, of course, is the high cost of living, particularly exorbitant housing costs. In addition, the price New Yorkers pay for electricity, phone service, auto insurance, parking, milk, home heating oil and state and local taxes are among the highest in the nation. While most families require two working parents to make ends meet, child care is prohibitively expensive, averaging $13,000 to $25,000 per year, per child. Then there are the inferior quality schools and the long, uncomfortable commutes on public transportation for people who live outside Manhattan, in one of the outer boroughs. And there was the housing boom which led to haphazard construction, diminishing the aesthetic qualities of many New York City neighborhoods, and straining the infrastructure of many communities.

Just to understand how bad things are, consider this: in Manhattan, the nation’s most expensive urban area, it takes an annual salary of $123,322 to enjoy the same standard of living as someone making $50,000 in Houston. In San Francisco, the nation’s second most expensive place, you would need $95,489 to live like that person in Houston. In Queens, NY (the fifth most expensive area in the nation) $85,918. In Nassau County, NY, $83,168. In Los Angeles, $80,583. In Boston, $72,772. What about Philadelphia? You would require $69,196. Chicago, $63,421. In Atlanta, only $53,630.

As for those who are leaving New York, where are they going? Well, it should be no surprise that they are moving to places such as Philadelphia. I’m not surprised because I am a New Yorker who moved to Philadelphia. I was born and raised in New York, and although I had lived in a number of places – as diverse as Boston, Detroit and Tokyo — I was a New Yorker. You can never really get the New York out of your system, even if you try, and you probably wouldn’t want to do it in any case. A New York community activist and journalist, I came to Philly for law school, where I met my wife, a Philadelphian turned New York activist. We had grand ideas of moving to Brooklyn after law school. But we were pulled back to Philadelphia, in no small measure, because we had expensive college and law school education, but with public interest careers with modest salaries serving underserved communities. You do the math. And besides, Philadelphia is a great city with a distinctive, down-to-earth character, a thriving arts community and public parks, and a sizable progressive community, albeit with its problems and challenges like any other city.

Meanwhile, New York, the capital of American capitalism and global capitalism, has become a city that only AIG executives, hedge fund managers, art dealers, and hotshot corporate lawyers can afford. The rest are poor, strangled and struggling. This is a scenario that would make Dickens blush. Yet, this was in the works for years before the economic crisis, in a city and a nation that has witnessed the dramatically widening gap between rich and poor, via public policy. And how telling that the titans of capitalism – who have brought down Wall Street through their own unchecked greed, and have no qualms about taking their corporate stimulus welfare payments – are now fighting vigorously to kill the Employee Free Choice Act and other initiatives that would help average working New Yorkers earn a living and raise their families.

As the report notes, there are a number of things that should be done to save New York: better-paying jobs, upgrades to infrastructure, diversifying the economy to include green jobs, and utilizing community college as a path to upward mobility. And there is the need to move away from the construction of luxury developments and sports stadiums, towards building affordable homes for everyday families, people with middle incomes, and professionals.

In the end, New York City provides a reality-based cautionary tale about the future of America, mired in poverty, about its priorities, what it has become, and what it can become. This city that never sleeps, and other cities as well, will experience economic and social death without a vibrant middle class and viable opportunities to earn a living.


Click here to read Part 1 of this series: Now the Robber Barons Replace the Welfare Queens (and Rightly So).

Click here to read Part 2 of this series: Please Don’t Feed the Prison Monster.

David A. Love Editorial Board member, David A. Love, JD, is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is

This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.


  1. says

    I grew up in Queens, NY. It is very rough growing up in this city. I was in the Army for 5 years and got to live all over the country. This city, by far, is the worst if you want to raise a family, save money, own a home and have a good quality middle class life. Heres an example, the reason why most mid career NYPD officers make in the upwards of 110k a year is so they dont fall into corruption. They make just enough to not look elsewhere to pay the bills.
    My qualifications are, 5 year army infantry veteran, Bs in criminal justice, and a current federal law enforcement officer. I make around 60k a year, (i just started). My wife cannot quit her bartending job and go to college full time becasue we would struggle paying our bills off my salary alone. So where is the American Dream gone? My parents live in a shoebox of a home, crammed and cramped with no privacy. Guess what… the house was appraised at 600,000$…. Are you kidding me? Mind you this is what you call a middle class home? So if i cant afford a 5-600k home than me and wifes combined salary of 100,000$ a year isnt middle class. ITS NOT. 100K A YEAR IS NOT MIDDLE CLASS.I am just trying to figure out why the hell am i still here. Dont we all deserve the American Dream? A beautiful little house, with a white picket fence, children running in the yard, dog on the porch, nice car in the driveway. Example, A friend of mine is a police Lieutenant, he makes about 130k a year. The wife doesnt work, they have 2 kids and 2 small cheap cars. All he does is complain about how he stuggles with his bills… thats not normal… 130k+ should take you places. NY is way too expensive for middle class people. I feel like a poor man, but i have excelled in my life.

  2. Connell says

    This was definitely a very insightful article, but one aspect of this situation that should be pointed out is that there are still plenty of working class people who can afford to live in Manhattan. This is because they have been living in their homes for quite some time, and their rent/mortgage is often drastically lower than the newer residents living right next door to them. Example: a lot of older residents in the Hell’s Kitchen/Chelsea area are still paying “working class” prices, while the young professionals next to them are paying five times as much.

  3. says

    This truly needs to be dated. I got here via a search engine and have no idea when this very insightful article was written. A date should be included before the article begins.

    That being said, it isn’t the authors fault and I found this article very helpful.

    I am using a tablet so maybe that’s why the published date doesn’t show, but it should.

  4. says

    I’m a guy who moved to New York when he was a kid and now I’m fresh out of college and can’t afford to move out. In order to get my own place, I need to accumulate enough money for a home, car, and find a great new job outside of the city all at the same time, but there’s certainly no possibility of me keeping my current job while moving someplace nearby. It’s pretty rough to grow up here.

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