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The Reign of the One Percenters: How Income Inequality Is Destroying Our Culture

The corporate elite have wrecked New York's neighborhoods, driving out artists and intellectuals and stifling the creative culture that made the city so famous.

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"Here," I tell her, standing in the canyons of world finance, "is what New York is about. Sociopaths getting really rich while everyone else just sits on their asses and lets it happen."

Cancer

Talk is cheap, anger without action is a turnoff, and even at fifteen my daughter sensed that her father's rage was born of impotence. I thought of Mark Twain's line, "The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner." A few weeks later, Léa was gone, back to France, where she lives with her mother. I had new material to chew into bitter cud. It was a report titled "Grow Together or Pull Further Apart?: Income Concentration Trends in New York," issued in December 2010 by a Manhattan-based nonprofit called the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). The twenty-five-page report only quantified in hard data what most New Yorkers--the ones struggling to survive (most of us)--understood instinctively as they watched their opportunities diminish over the past three decades.

New York, the FPI informs us, is now at the forefront of the maldistribution of wealth into the hands of the few that has been ongoing in America since 1980, which marked the beginning of a new Gilded Age. Out of the twenty-five largest cities, it is the most unequal city in the United States for income distribution. If it were a nation, it would come in as the fifteenth worst among 134 countries ranked by extremes of wealth and poverty--a banana republic without the death squads. It is the showcase for the top 1 percent of households, which in New York have an average annual income of $3.7 million. These top wealth recipients--let's call them the One Percenters--took for themselves close to 44 percent of all income in New York during 2007 (the last year for which data is available). That's a high bar for wealth concentration; it's almost twice the record-high levels among the top 1 percent nationwide, who claimed 23.5 percent of all national income in 2007, a number not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. During the vaunted 2002-07 economic expansion--the housing-boom bubble that ended in our current calamity, this Great Recession--average income for the One Percenters in New York went up 119 percent. Meanwhile, the number of homeless in the city rose to an all-time high last year--higher even than during the Great Depression--with a record 113,000 men, women, and children, many of them comprising whole families, retreating night after night to municipal shelters.

But here's the most astonishing fact: the One Percenters consist of just 34,000 households, about 90,000 people. Relative to the great mass of New Yorkers--9 million of us--they're nobody. We could snow them under in a New York minute.

And yet the masses--the fireman, the policeman, the postal worker, the teacher, the journalist, the subway conductor, the construction worker, the social worker, the engineer, the architect, the barkeep, the musician, the receptionist, the nurse--have been the consistent losers since 1990. The real hourly median wage in New York between 1990 and 2007 fell by almost 9 percent. Young men and women aged twenty-five to thirty-four with a bachelor's degree and a year-round job in New York saw their earnings drop 6 percent. Middle-income New Yorkers--defined broadly by the FPI as those drawing incomes between approximately $29,000 and $167,000--experienced a 19 percent decrease in earnings. Almost 11 percent of the population, about 900,000 people, live in what the federal government describes as "deep poverty," which for a four-person family means an income of $10,500 (the average One Percenter household in New York makes about that same amount every day). About 50 percent of the households in the city have incomes below $30,000; their incomes have also been steadily declining since 1990. During the gala boom of 2002-07, the trend was unaltered: the average income in the bottom 95 percent of New York City households declined.

 
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