So You’re Rich for an American. Does That Make You Rich for New York?

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 29 2014 5:11 PM

So You’re Rich for an American. Does That Make You Rich for New York?

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Looks like money.

Photo by Afton Almaraz/Getty Images

New Yorkers have a notoriously skewed sense of wealth—at least when they work in industries like finance or media and live in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It’s hard not to, seeing how we’re surrounded by expensive restaurants, expensive apartments, and expensively dressed people who seem able to afford it all.

So, as an econ writer, it’s usually a somewhat strange experience when I get into conversations here about class. If I mention that a six-figure salary counts as rich in much of the country—that just $250,000 gets you into the top 2 percent—the response is usually, “Sure, but that’s not New York rich.”

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Except, it sort of is. While working on my column today about what counts as rich in America, I pulled a bit of Census data to compare income in New York City and the entire United States. The greater New York metro area may be home to an enormous share of the country’s 1 percenters, and it's certainly a magnet for exorbitant, plutocratic wealth. But in the city itself, the basic income curve isn’t that exceptional. In the entire U.S., according to the Census, about 22 percent of households earn six figures. In NYC, it’s about 25 percent.

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What about cost of living? Don’t working professionals in New York—those of us who aren’t Wall Street plutocrats—have a right to feel a bit poorer because of the insane amount of money we pay to live in shoebox apartments? Real estate here is expensive, and we don’t get much square footage for our buck. But as I wrote yesterday, the high rents in this city are balanced out somewhat by the low, low cost of commuting on the subway. (Not paying for a car, or gas, or car insurance is pretty financially sweet.) Combine that with the fact that salaries are somewhat higher than average here, and New York is reasonably affordable compared with other large cities. Of course, you can easily make it unaffordable by moving to that lovely tree-lined block in Brooklyn or Manhattan that’s just steps to the park, a great coffee shop, and a subway station. But those are consumption choices.

The upshot: If you’re rich by U.S. standards, you’re probably also rich by New York standards. Now, if you do want to see a city where incomes are crazily out of line with the national norm, check out San Francisco, where 39 percent of households make six figures—it really is becoming a city for the rich.

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Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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