As New York makes an uneven recovery in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, harsh economic truths obscured by the city’s shining opulence are coming to light. With its global status as America’s financial capital, the consequences of New York’s crushing income inequality holds lessons for the entire nation. Whether we learn from them will be a task of the next president.
The annual economic output of New York and its suburbs is larger than South Korea, Switzerland or Saudi Arabia.
Yet, as Adam David Rohde reported in The Atlantic Magazine, income inequality in the city “rivals parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Despite the shine of the Big Apple, wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few in a way that is matched by few places on earth.
One out of three workers in New York hold hourly wage jobs. When these men and women who clean offices or take fast-food orders do not work, they do not earn. According to the latest census data, the bottom 20 percent of wage earners in New York make under $10,000 a year.
As salaried workers and the wealthy fled to hotels or second homes in advance of the storm, “the city’s army of cashiers, waiters, and service workers remained in place,” Rohde writes.
In Sandy’s wake, New York’s inattention to these inequities has had severe consequences.
In cash-strapped areas such as the Rockaways, Red Hook and Coney Island, over 40,000 people are homeless because of the hurricane. As temperatures dropped to freezing at the weekend, seniors were trapped in high-rise public housing towers without food and water. The same is true for the disabled. Half of the storm’s deaths occurred on working class Staten Island where many first responders—deployed to other areas of the city—live.
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s focus the day after the storm was on opening Wall Street. The impact of inequality seemed far from his thoughts. But that Empire State of Mind puts a great many number of his citizens at risk. In that, New York is in the same boat as the rest of America.
Where we go from here needs to be a major focus of the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.