Gotham Gazette

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Changing New York City

The latest data from Census 2000 paints a picture of changing New York City that is stunning, exciting and in some ways disturbing.

There are more foreign-born New Yorkers than at any time since 1910. New York is a better-educated city, but it is also a less English-speaking city. For the affluent and extremely affluent it is a substantially richer city; for the poor and middle ranks, it is a poorer city. Most workers in New York depend on public transit to get to work, and it takes them much more time to get to work than workers elsewhere. During the 1990s, the travel time for workers increased. For renters, it is a somewhat more expensive city to live in that it used to be, but for homeowners, the expense is astronomical. New York City has always been much different from the rest of the state and the nation. In the 1990s, it diverged even more.

Origin and Language

In 1980 about 24 percent of New Yorkers were foreign born (this category does not include Puerto Ricans or those born in other US territories that are not part of the 50 states and the District of Columbia). By 1990, foreign born had reached 28 percent, Now it is 36 percent. In 1910, New York City was 40 percent foreign born. If present trends continue the city may return to those levels before the end of the decade. Those born in Europe and North America account for a smaller fraction of all foreign born even though their total numbers increased, while those born in Asia, and especially Latin America and Africa, are up sharply. Indeed, those born in Latin America now account for 53 percent of the foreign born in the city. They now top 1.5 million, an increase of over 500,000. African-born more than doubled from 42,000 to 92,000. For Asia the growth was about 275,000, and they now account for about 24 percent of the foreign born.

The census also collects information on ancestry, which is a self-report of ethnic identity. The number of Arabs in New York City rose from about 52,000 to 71,000, while the number of Africans went from 53,000 to about 122,000. Most European ancestries declined, while those saying they were "American" went from about 157,000 to 238,000.

Those speaking a language other than English at home went from 40 percent to about 48 percent in the decade, and about one quarter of them report that they do not speak English very well. Despite this, the proportion of adults over 25 who graduated from high school went from 68 to 72 percent, while those with a college degree increased from 23 to 27 percent. Over 25 percent of the population that is from 21 to 64 years old report some disability, while 46 percent of those 65 or over report a disability. This is an increase from 29 percent, but the question is somewhat different than the one used in 1990.

Money and Housing

Some of the most stunning results concern money and housing. In the United States as a whole, median household income increased, while poverty declined slightly. Like most cities in a band beginning in Rhode Island and Connecticut and stretching down to Washington, DC, median income (the income earned by the household in the middle of income distribution) fell in New York City during the 1990s. In New York City it declined from $38,706 to $38,293. (All these figures are adjusted for inflation.) Information on what sort of families and households garnered higher income, and what sort garnered lower income is not yet available. For New York City, the results show that only Manhattan registered strong gains, with an increase from $41,872 to $47,050. All the other boroughs suffered declines. Those in poverty increased in New York City, also bucking a general national trend. However, when one examines those at the higher income brackets one finds that the rich did get richer in the 1990s. Those in Manhattan in the top 20 percent of the income distribution made at least $95,000 in 1990; now they make at least $119,000.

New York is an expensive city to live in. According to these new census results, the proportion of homeowners (about 400,000 of the roughly 3 million households in New York City) who pay more than 35 percent of their income for housing costs soared from about one fifth to well over one quarter during the 1990s. Who exactly is paying such a high proportion of their income to live in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn (counties with among the highest proportion in the United States) will be known later this summer.

For working New Yorkers, getting to work seems to be a particular hassle. New York City contains four of about 12 counties in the United States, where less than half of all workers get to work by automobile. Commuting rose about four minutes for the median worker, to 40 minutes. This means that many New Yorkers spend even more time getting to their job from their very expensive home.

Some point to New York City's rapid growth of immigrants and its decline in median income and link these two trends. Immigrants, they claim, just make less money. Though true in certain respects, it is also the case that other cities with rapidly growing immigrant populations, including Dallas and Houston, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago showed strong income gains (The exceptions were Miami and Los Angeles.) Indeed, looking carefully at the national figures, it seems that counties with high tech industry (Silicon Valley, the Washington State headquarters of Microsoft), with finance (Manhattan, San Francisco and Chicago), or with Casinos (Tunica, Mississippi) did well in the 1990s.

Figuring out the meaning of trends the recent census figures reveal will keep demographers busy for several years, and maybe until Census 2010 is released.

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.

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