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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Boom 1990's?

It such an accepted fact that the 1990's were a boom time in New York City that some New Yorkers are looking back at the decade with something close to wistfulness. But emerging data suggests that the truth is more complicated -- that the income for the middle class actually dropped in the metropolitan region.

At first glance, the boom seems indisputable. Between 1990 and 1999, personal income in New York City grew from 182 to 278 billion dollars; the average income per capita in New York City went from about $24,895 to $37,453. Even taking into account inflation the growth is still a very healthy 20 percent.

But both the Census Supplementary Survey and estimates based upon the Census's Current Population Survey provide grim news for New York. The Current Population Survey's estimates reported that the median income dropped in all five boroughs between 1989 to 1998. The estimated decline ranged from about $8,500 in Queens to about $3,100 in the Bronx.

How are both sets of figures possible, one showing greater affluence, the other a decline in income?

Looking at each of the five boroughs, the following stark fact becomes plain: The growth was in Manhattan, where the average income grew from about $61,000 to $82,000. boroughs. But the Census 2000 Supplementary Study suggests a decline in the other boroughs. Unfortunately, the survey did not question enough respondents so that reliable quantitative estimates can be made. But we will soon know what it suggests is true.

To understand how much total income there is one only need consult aggregate statistics. Such statistics show very healthy income growth in New York City. To figure out who earned the income requires data based upon surveys. Such data is much harder to come by. The census only occurs once every 10 years. It provides detailed income data by small geographic area. Other Census Surveys, the Current Population Survey, the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, the American Housing Survey do provide income data, but not for small areas. Because sample sizes in such surveys are small, the level of geographic detail is not great.

We now await the Census 2000 income data. Given the scattered results from other data, it seems very likely that the much heralded boom of the 1990s mostly helped the rich and very rich who live in Manhattan and other places with high concentrations of the affluent. The mythical "person or household in the middle" who receives the median income undoubtedly lost ground. If the poor made any gains, they were dwarfed by the gain of those at the top. In the same way that many companies have been restating their earnings in the wake of Enron, when Census 2000 finally releases the economic data for persons and households we may find that we must "restate the 1990s."

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.

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