The top fifth of Manhattan households received more than 50 times as much income in 1999 as the bottom fifth, according to analyses based upon Census 2000 data. Those in the top 20 percent averaged $366,000, those in the bottom 20 percent, $7,054. Those in the top group saw their average income increase $140,000, while those in the bottom group moved up only seven dollars. Manhattan is now the U.S. county with the highest disparity of income, surpassing the only county ahead of it in 1989, a former leper colony in Hawaii.
In 1989 a household needed at least $95,623 to be in the top 20 percent; by 1999 $115,800 was needed to make it to the top fifth, the highest amount for any county in the United States. When comparing income inequality among all 3,200 counties in the United States, Brooklyn ranks 24th, the Bronx ranks 35th, Staten Island ranks 234th and Queens ranks in the middle of the pack.
Who Is Affluent?
When considering New York City households, the characteristics of the affluent seem to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "the rich are different from us." Of the three million households in New York City in 1999, only about 110,000 (or about one in 26) had incomes above $200,000. The members of those households are very different from the rest of New York City's population. These elite are much more non-Latino white (83 percent compared to 42 percent of the population as a whole), and more likely to include a married couple (64 percent compared to 37 percent). Householders of the affluent households are better educated (79 percent of those over 25 with at least college compared to 28 percent.); more likely employed (93 percent compared to 73 percent), and more likely in managerial, business and finance, or professional and related occupations, (73 percent compared to 36 percent). Fully 56 percent of the affluent households consist of a married couple family with both partners in the labor force, which is 30 percent higher than for other households. The secret to affluence in New York, it seems, consists of having the right educational background (parents may be a big help here), succeeding in the right occupation, and having a spouse that did the same. Children of such couples certainly will have advantages over the children of the less affluent.
Digging a little deeper into income distribution for New York City, one finds high concentrations of upper-income households in the Upper East Side. In 1999, households in only 15 of the 2216 tracts in New York City had average incomes above $200,000. Twelve of those 15 tracts were on the Upper East Side, most bordering Fifth Avenue. This is no surprise of course; this is the way it has been for a century.
Two of the other three affluent tracts were in the Soho area near Wall Street, and one was in the Riverdale area in the Bronx that includes the private community of Fieldston, which surrounds the Horace Mann and Fieldston schools, with Riverdale school nearby.
When one walks up Fifth Avenue starting at 49th Street and continuing up to 96th Street every census tract through which one passes had an average income above $200,000 in 1999. This area of Manhattan contains one of the highest concentrations of the truly affluent in the United States. The co-ops along Fifth Avenue often sell for more than $20 million each. This is the neighborhood where a double-sized town house reportedly sold for more than $30 million, some of the doormen wear Ermine collars in the winter. Elite boutiques and other specialty stores dot Madison Avenue, where an appointment is preferred and one must ring a bell to be admitted.
The Upper East Side zip code 10021 generated the most donations for the presidential campaigns of 2000 of any zip code for both Bush and for Gore. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has one of his houses in the area. The Dalton and Brearley schools area located nearby, as is the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum and many art dealers. Of course, Central Park is near, and supporters of the Central Park Conservancy disproportionately come from this area. After all it is their backyard.
Though the affluent are concentrated in the Upper East Side, they also dot many other neighborhoods throughout the city, especially newer neighborhoods in Manhattan (e.g. Tribeca, Chelsea, Battery Park), as well as posh outer borough neighborhoods, including Fieldston, Forest Hills Gardens and Brooklyn Heights. Despite economic uncertainty the predominance of the Manhattan affluent is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.