Why Can’t American Cities Create and Maintain a Middle Class?
(This is my first submission as an essayist to the League. I am not an expert in urban planning or socio-economics but they are fields that interest me. This has been a subject I have been mulling about for the past few years especially as many friends from high school and college are starting to get married and have children of their own. -ND)
by New Dealer
The Sunday Styles section of the February 18th edition of the New York Times contained the article linked to above. The headline was “Creating Hipsturbia”. The article is about first and second generations of the new/hipster Brooklyn moving to various towns in the Hudson Valley. These are the people who fled the suburbs and swore that they would never return. They are moving back now because they are in their thirties and are starting to get concerned with school districts, noise levels, and other quality of life concerns. The thrust is that these hipster-parents are taking a bit of Williamsburg to Tarrytown.
The article was received by the Internet with the usual scorn and sarcasm that most articles from the Sunday Styles section garner. Slate sarcastically declared: “The New York Times discovers a New Trend: Adults with Kids Are Moving to the Suburbs.”(1)
Despite the sarcasm of the article, I think that this is an intriguing problem of social policy and planning. Why should having kids mean moving to the suburbs? Why have American cities become inhospitable places to raise children?
The blowback articles bring up a lot of good points. There is a racial aspect because most of the people moving to the suburbs are white. These people are also economic winners because they can afford houses worth nearly a million dollars in some of the nicest towns in Westchester County. Yet this leaves cities with a huge demographic differences; they seem to be populated by the very rich and the very poor. Cities have decided to have a transitional middle-class made up of young professionals in their 20s and 30s.
I think this is a problem. Cities should be for everyone and I generally think it is good when places are diverse on all levels. The problems seem to be a perfect mess of structure, definition, educational needs and desires, and possibly simple supply and demand. There is too much demand and not enough supply in cities for the concerns of a middle class.
Problem I: What Does it Mean to be Middle Class?
This is the definitional problem. The United States can’t seem to come up with a good working definition of what it means to be middle class especially in term of income ranges.
Part of this is because of geographic diversity. Being middle-class in New York or San Francisco probably requires a higher income than being middle class in Chicago, Portland, Denver or Seattle because of real estate prices and rent. My current salary allows me to live a nice middle life in San Francisco and afford a one bedroom apartment. If I moved to Portland, a comparable apartment seems to cost several hundred dollars less according to a cursory Craig’s list search. Sometimes over a thousand dollars less.
The problem is that cities need a middle class. They need teachers/professors, social workers, police, firefighters, administrators, low and mid level accountants, clerks, and a lot of other people who make decent but not extraordinary salaries. These people should not be required to commute extraordinary hours to their jobs. Even my very modest and broad definition of middle class is likely to cause a lot of dissent and argument.
II: Good Public Schools
This seems to be the driving reason why many people with children move out of cities and into suburbs if they can afford it; many American cities seem to find it hard to maintain good public school systems and the private school’s cost an arm and a leg. The best private schools in New York can cost just as much in tuition as the most elite private colleges and universities. The only reasonably affordable private schools seem to be of a seriously religious bent.
I don’t have children but my mom spent her career in as a public school teacher and administrator in NYC. NYC (and other cities) seem pretty good at developing and maintaining good elementary schools. When I was looking for an apartment in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s, the real estate agent always told me whether an apartment was in a desired school district or not. Often these apartments could be minutes from each other. After elementary school, it seems to be absolute chaos. Most cities have a handful of good high schools that require an admissions test and the rest are absolutely a mess in terms of educational opportunities. I’ve also observed that cities work hard to make sure elementary student stay in their neighborhoods for school but middle and high school students can have long commutes to and from school without concern from the Department of Education.
There can also be tension in economically diverse neighborhoods about the needs of students. My brother lives in a section of Brooklyn called Williamsburg. The residents of this community are ultra-Orthodox Jews, working-class Latinos, childless Hipsters, and a growing number of upper-middle class and often white professionals. The main users of the public schools are the working-class Latinos and the upper-middle class professionals. This leads to a lot of tension because each community has very different wants and needs in terms of schooling for their children and there is often a class. When I visit my brother, I often see the Latino community organizing to protest changes that the upper-middle class professionals want to make to the elementary schools. Neither group can afford to send their kids to private school and both have very different demands to make on the public schools. The Latino Community might need and want more ESL. The professional community more art and music classes. This ultimately causes white flight because the upper-middle class professionals can afford a mortgage in Westchester and to send their kids to suburban public schools. I think this is bad for all parties involve because it means less resources for urban schools and also less understanding between different cultures and groups.
III: Noise Control
This is the hardest issue because it just might be the nature of a city to be a noisy place especially cities like New York and San Francisco which are dense compared to American standards. Many of the people interviewed for the New York Times article said that they were tired of living next to twenty-somethings who party all the time. This is understandable. When I lived in Brooklyn, my neighborhood (Boreum Hill aka Boring Hill) was more residential and known for family living but could still generate a lot of noise at two or three AM on a weekend.
The problem for me here might be more aesthetic and personal than anything else but I think diverse communities are nice. I like being in line at my coffeeshop on a Saturday morning and seeing young people, families with their children, and retirees. Call this the Jane Jacobs Dream, which might not be true in real life.
IV: Conclusion and Questions
These three problems and probably many more seem to be the main contributors to why many American cities cannot retain middle-class families. Instead as mentioned above, they settle on a transitional middle class. These transitional middle class tends to be young, university-educated or higher, and childless. They can make very little money or a lot of money but it is their childless nature that allows them to be middle class and live in a city. After rent and other bills, all of our income can be used for recreational purposes. We can go to bars, restaurants, movies, concerts, non-necessary shopping, clubs, etc. However, most of these people will get married and start families and then they will move to the suburbs and the cycle will repeat itself. I do not know whether cities have decided on an transitional middle-class by intent or accident.
I wish I could offer solutions to these problems but I cannot. If I get married and have kids, I will probably also move to the suburbs because I can see myself earning a reasonable living but not enough to afford a city mortgage and private school tuition even if my wife also works and earns a good income. There is only my sense that this is not a sustainable or desirable situation as described above.
My questions to the League are broad: What are your thoughts on these issues? Do you think it matters at all or is it just a silly Jane Jacobs-esque dream to have a diverse and working city at all levels? Why can’t cities seem to manage having good public schools and why are private schools so expensive unless run by religious organizations? One of the big concerns in the voucher fight is that the vouchers will only cover tuition at religious and often very-conservative schools. I am especially interested in hearing from people outside the United States because based on limited experience, it seems non-American cities are much better at maintaining middle-class families that are urban.