Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
A new survey shows that city residents feel increasingly trapped by a government that favors the rich.
New York City has long been a beacon of economic opportunity, not just for Americans but for people around the world. Like millions of others, my own grandparents came through Ellis Island from Southern Italy more than a century ago in their quest for the American Dream. But higher housing costs and limited opportunities are now squeezing the middle class and threatening that dream for a substantial share of residents, according to a new survey by Public Agenda and WNYC.
The survey, which took place from June 29 to July 21, 2015, covered more than 1,500 residents of the Greater New York region, dividing respondents into three location-based categories: the city itself, the surrounding suburbs, and further-out areas. The survey shows a region—and, even more so, a city—where a large majority of residents believe that their economic situation is threatened by high housing and living costs, as well as fading jobs and economic opportunities.
Residents’ increasing concerns
On one hand, an overwhelming majority of survey respondents say that high living costs (79 percent of metro residents and 93 percent of those who live in the city) and high housing costs (78 percent metro, 90 percent city) are serious problems. (These percentages include respondent answers of “very serious” and “somewhat serious.”) On the other hand, the lack of good jobs is said to be a serious problem for two-thirds of all metro residents and 79 percent of those who live in the city. In addition, 76 percent of survey respondents are worried that the wages of working people are staying flat, while 73 percent say that the middle class faces more economic insecurity than ever before. And 59 percent of respondents believe that children from low-income families lack a fair chance to get ahead.
Only 39 percent of respondents say that the reason people are falling behind is due to a lack of opportunity as opposed to their not working hard enough. And while 46 percent of all respondents believe that racial discrimination prevents some people from getting ahead, in the city that number climbs to 58 percent.
What’s even more worrying is that the survey paints a picture of a city and region whose people increasingly believe that government policies favor the rich and advantaged over the middle and working classes. Seventy percent believe that the wealthiest have the most influence over government decisions, and 58 percent say government policies respond mainly to the needs of the rich and powerful. A majority of New Yorkers believe that the government is currently doing a bad job addressing the income gap between the rich and poor (52 percent of all respondents and 58 percent who live in the city), and even more say it is doing a bad job of addressing the high cost of living (56 percent overall and 65 percent of those who live in the city).
But a substantial majority of New Yorkers across the city and suburbs alike favor public policies that would lift wages, help restore opportunity, redistribute income, and rebuild the middle class. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents—and 64 percent of those who live in the city—say that requiring employers to pay $15 an hour would mostly help workers in their area. Three-quarters of all respondents and 82 percent of those in the city favor more government spending on early childhood education. Seventy percent of all respondents favor raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthy.
That said, a majority of New Yorkers say they are satisfied with the quality of life in their neighborhood. But this percentage is substantially higher for suburbanites (84 percent for those nearby and 88 percent for those further out) than city residents (73 percent). Interestingly enough, for all the talk of New York being an alienating city, a greater share of city dwellers (67 percent) report feeling connected to people in their community than their counterparts in nearby (60 percent) and further-out (57 percent) suburbs. Unsurprisingly, schools are more of a concern for city dwellers than suburbanites: 63 percent of city residents rate a lack of good public schools as a serious problem compared to 29 and 28 percent of those in nearby and further-out suburbs, respectively.
The same was true of crime, which 65 percent of city residents say is a serious problem, compared to 34 percent in nearby suburbs and 29 percent of those in further-out suburbs. The pattern is even more pronounced when it comes to the relationship between the local community and the police. Two-thirds of city residents view “negative relations” between the two as a serious problem, compared to just 28 percent of those in nearby suburbs and 16 percent in further-out suburbs.
These percentages also vary substantially by race and ethnicity. Around twice as many black and Hispanic residents (53 and 56 percent) believe that negative police-community relations are a serious problem, compared to 27 percent of white residents. When it comes to crime, 56 percent of black residents and 54 percent of Hispanic residents say it is a serious issue compared to 35 percent of whites.
Ultimately, the survey paints a picture of a people who perceive their own economic condition to be declining and under threat, and their city’s government to be captured by the rich and powerful—and perhaps even complicit in the decline of the American Dream. So long as New York leaders continue to favor the rich, this situation is only likely to worsen in the future.Top image: T photography / Shutterstock.com