American Cities Shed the Middle Class

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American Cities Shed the Middle Class

The nation’s middle class is shrinking. Between 1970 and 2000, middle-class neighborhoods in the 100 largest cities in the nation dropped from 58 to 41 percent, outstripping the corresponding drop in mid-level incomes from 28 to 22 percent. While 55 percent of low-income families lived in middle-class neighborhoods in 1970, only 37 percent did in 2000.

In addition, a comprehensive study by the Brookings Institution — the Living Cities Census Series1 — found that the middle-income profile of central-city neighborhoods shrank from 45 percent to 23 percent in the same time period. Meanwhile, even suburban neighborhoods shrank in their percentage of middle-class families, slipping from 64 percent in 1970 to 44 percent in 2000.

The overall trend shows that the middle-class is not just moving, it’s dwindling, and neighborhoods are increasingly likely to tip toward being either very high or very low income in both cities and the near suburbs.

In part, this is an unintended paradox of a robust economy. The housing market, for example, has been booming until recently, and high prices have erected a barrier to many middle-class families. In New York City, the number of apartments that might be rented by the average firefighter or police officer dropped by 205,000 between 2002 and 2005, according to The New York Times.2

Being middle class has different meanings in different places. It covers a wide range of household incomes, from about $20,000 in Miami, to $40,000 in New York and Boston, to $60,000 in San Francisco. But that class of family is shrinking, and neighborhoods that are predominantly middle-class are disappearing from the cities and their nearest suburbs.

For example, a recent survey by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University reported that families there that earned more than $50,000 were twice as likely to leave the city as those with lower incomes.3 More than 50 percent of that city’s firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel, nurses, and teachers live outside of San Francisco, where the median home price has reached a daunting $780,000.

And it’s not just large cities that are experiencing middle-class flight. A recent survey conducted by the Portland Press Herald4 newspaper in Maine showed that less than 12 percent of all housing built there since 2002 was suitable for middle-class income levels. Homes priced below $250,000 were becoming rare. Instead, developers in many cities are building expensive condos to attract well-off Baby Boomers and empty-nesters...

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