Unequal Lives



If there’s one issue that has dominated the left in recent years, it’s our belated recognition of the explosion of economic inequality in the United States. Most of us were aware of its growth through the Clinton and Bush years, but when the Occupy movement captured headlines in 2011, followed by the amazing success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, inequality became so central to the national conversation that even Republican presidential candidates felt compelled to address it.

In 2013 New York City elected a new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who had dominated the Democratic primary and the general election with a laser-like focus on the issue. Most of his supporters were actually living the crisis. The number of New York City households reporting incomes of more than $1 million rose from fewer than 15,000 in 2009 to nearly 22,000 in 2013 under the Bloomberg administration. Meanwhile, half the city’s households struggled to make it on less than $25,000 a year.

De Blasio’s recognition of the problem was one thing; whether he could convince people that he might actually do something about it as mayor was another. Given all the political and economic obstacles at play, what can a mayor of New York City actually do about economic inequality?

To solve a big problem, one first has to understand what caused it. Few people—even those who write about it sympathetically—fully comprehend the complex ways inequality affects the lives of millions of Americans. This is a trait we share with conservative pundits, most of whom simply ignore it. This class-determined distance undermines any sense of urgency we might bring to the issue. What follows is a snapshot of life in unequal America, followed by an assessment of how de Blasio has, so far, tried to change it in the nation’s largest city.
One of the most pressing causes of economic inequality is spatial inequality. It is deeply intertwined with racism, both legally (via housing ordinances) and informally, via individual choices and community pressure. In 20 percent of U.S. zip codes, nearly one-quarter of adults have no high school degree, 55 percent of adults are not working, and 27 percent live below the poverty line.

Most of the problems caused by economic inequality derive from how Americans segregate themselves spatially by wealth and income. Take K-12 public education, in which the school a child attends is usually based on where she or he lives. In the United States as a whole, students in public schools consistently underperform their counterparts in every other Western-style democracy (as well as in quite a few countries that are neither). But if you separated America’s poor from the comparison, the problem would disappear at almost every level. In Massachusetts and Minnesota, poverty is much rarer than most other places in the United States. If we used just their results, for example, the United States would rank among the top six performers worldwide in fourth-grade math and science.

The problem is not public education itself but income-based geography. Beginning in 1994, five cities contributed to the “Moving to Opportunity Experiment,” an initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in which selected poor families were given vouchers to move out of areas of concentrated poverty. Those students who moved before they turned thirteen were found, over time, to earn an average annual income 31 percent higher than those in the control group. As a result of the investment made in their futures—a little over $3,000 per year—they can be expected to pay back $22,400 more in federal taxes over their lifetimes.

What’s more, these results likely understate the problem because even those families who tried and failed to move were already far more likely to see their children succeed than those who showed no interest in leaving their neighborhoods in the first place. Only a quarter of those who were eligible applied, and in-depth interviews with participants demonstrated that the families that gave it a shot were those who organized their entire lives around protecting their sons and daughters from the dangers of poverty.

Members of the media frequently focus on the relative absence of minority students in college, which is indeed a problem. But students who come from the lowest socioeconomic quartile are far more underrepresented. As a recent study by Richard D. Kahlenberg noted, “In 2006, whites were overrepresented at the most selective colleges by 15 percentage points, but the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population was overrepresented by an astounding 45 points.”

In recent decades, America’s top colleges have made considerable headway in diversifying themselves racially, but economically, almost not at all. According to sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack, half of low-income black undergraduates at top colleges are recruited from wealthy private high schools (which they attend with the support of special programs). Students from poor backgrounds who were educated at public schools are not only far less likely to make it to college, they are also less likely to graduate. Children of wealthy families are now six times as likely to graduate from college as those from poor ones. Even if a young person from a modest economic background manages to overcome these odds and graduate from a competitive college, his or her problems are hardly over. In 2012, more than 70 percent of college seniors graduated with debt, which on average amounted to nearly $30,000 per student.

Spatial inequality can affect the health of its victims as dramatically as education. As a report by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child noted, “overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parent(s), exposure to violence, family turmoil” impact a child’s physical and emotional development, and can take a toll comparable to that of drug or alcohol abuse. Most shockingly, economic inequality attacks even within the womb. Conditions of concentrated poverty can provoke the bodies of pregnant women to release hormones such as cortisol, which can cause premature and underweight birth, preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), fetal growth retardation, postnatal developmental delays, and metabolic diseases as the child grows.

The structural disadvantages that afflict poor young people are so numerous and daunting that it requires remarkable luck and fortitude to even come close to overcoming their effects. Childhood stress is also associated with depression, heart disease, and addiction later in life. Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased competition and anxiety about one’s status. This offers a partial explanation for why, according to a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, it is the wealthiest 60 percent of people between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-five who live longest. If these trends continue, the difference in life expectancy at age fifty between men in the top 20 percent and bottom 20 percent will increase from five years for men born in 1930 to more than twelve years for men born in 1960. And for poor women, life expectancy might actually be falling.
The problems described above are hardly new; what is new, however, is their relationship to economic inequality. And I haven’t even mentioned law enforcement, economic opportunity, political exploitation, cultural deprivation, or environmental degradation. Most Americans have no idea what it’s like to be poor. Survey after survey demonstrates that we routinely underestimate the degree of inequality in our society. According to a study conducted by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely in 2011, the average American believes that the top 20 percent of the population owns a bit below 60 percent of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 40 percent owns a little less than 10 percent. In fact, the figures are 84 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively.

Why do most of us know so little? Ignorance, too, is partially the result of spatial inequality. According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, people tend to use their own neighborhoods and communities as a gauge of how much wealth other people possess. Among middle- and upper-class people, these inflated estimates of average wealth in the broader American population correlate with a belief in “greater perceived fairness of the economic status quo, and opposition to redistribution policies” than among those who live in neighborhoods that better reflect the nation’s norms.

Inequality is so widespread and so entrenched in the United States that it prevents us from seeing the truth about its causes and effects. Based on conversations with my well-educated, liberal-minded, well-to-do (but not super-rich) friends, these delusions are the rule rather than the exception. As I researched my book, I did a small, unscientific experiment: I quizzed friends and colleagues about how many stop-and-frisks the New York City police had conducted under Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the last four years of his twelve-year mayoralty. The issue was prominent during the mayoral election in 2013, albeit one that appeared to be of primary concern to African Americans and Latinos. (The rampant use of stop-and-frisk by the NYPD, which de Blasio opposed, was declared unconstitutional in 2013.)

Everyone included in my survey was a liberal who read the New York Times every day; some even wrote for it. But nobody even came close to the right number. Their guesses for this four-year period were all somewhere between 20,000 and 200,000, with most in the vicinity of 50,000. The true number, according to the NYCLU, was over 2 million.

My friends and I all take the subway. We all walk the city’s streets. But none of us had any idea what was going on just a mile or two—or, in some cases, a few blocks—away from us. Spatial inequality had isolated us from even knowing how differently poor people of color experience law enforcement in New York, one of the most liberal of American cities. Personally, I could not even recall seeing a single stop-and-frisk take place at my regular subway stop, at 96th and Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I was living in another world.

One of Mayor de Blasio’s political problems grows out of this disjunction. He was elected largely by people who are forced to live with the consequences of inequality. But he is judged daily by media-savvy elites who have little interest in or compassion for the poor. De Blasio understands that his priority as mayor has to be safe, clean streets and the encouragement of a healthy economic environment in which the city’s vibrant commercial sector can continue to grow. But beyond these fundamentals—and in spite of the fact that the mayor’s agenda is hamstrung by the power of Albany and Washington—de Blasio can already point to an impressive list of accomplishments that try to reverse the direction of city government from that of his predecessors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio’s most obvious achievements are those that were at the heart of his campaign. He did not succeed in raising taxes on the super wealthy (given New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s closeness to his hedge-fund and corporate contributors, this was never on the cards). But, early in his tenure, de Blasio did fulfill his promise to create an entirely new pre-K program that now serves almost 70,000 four-year-olds.

Then, in his second year, de Blasio successfully pushed through the city council a new zoning plan that, although likely to increase density in many desirable neighborhoods, will also significantly increase the number of affordable housing units in a city where these are disappearing at an alarming rate. City officials say they are on track to create or retain 200,000 such units over a ten-year period. De Blasio has been mostly successful in imposing this requirement on the real-estate industry as a condition for it to profit from the luxury housing market. This plan will not, of course, eliminate rents too high for many wage-earners to afford. But it does spell marked progress toward addressing the problem.

Other less trumpeted advances of de Blasio’s time in office include: the creation of a city ID card available to undocumented workers and others to allow them to take advantage of city services and cultural institutions; the building of free wifi kiosks in all boroughs; and a change to summons and tickets rather than arrests for marijuana possession.

Not everything has gone well, of course. De Blasio does not have complete control over the city’s police department and seems unable to address the horrific conditions at the city jail on Rikers Island. Public housing, starved by both the federal and state governments, remains a burning sore. But the message that has clearly swept through the entire bureaucracy is that addressing inequality is a fundamental responsibility of the mayor and the city government. De Blasio has instructed all his deputy mayors and department heads to ensure that the levers of municipal power are directed toward improving the opportunities and the lives of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

One way to judge the success of these efforts is to examine the data in the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR). This document, mandated by the New York City Charter, is released twice annually and serves as a public report card on city services for New Yorkers. De Blasio’s first MMR, issued in September 2014, included an unprecedented “Focus on Equity” statement, which explained how each agency was working to promote fairness and equity with respect to the delivery and quality of services.

The report noted a number of recent changes in this direction. The city, for example, created an advocate for aggrieved taxpayers within the New York City Department of Finance to help low-income residents ensure that “similarly situated property owners are treated fairly.” The Department of Environmental Protection created a Home Water Assistance Program to provide an annual water-bill credit to low-income homeowners. The Department of Consumer Affairs noted that it had “informed 400,000 businesses and millions of residents of the city’s Paid Sick Leave law.” The Office of Emergency Management reported the initiation of “a wide range of programs that mitigate a disaster’s impact on communities, so they can return more quickly to their prior conditions.” The second MMR, issued in September 2015, continued this focus. It noted that the city now had fewer children in foster care than the previous year and that immigration assistance for undocumented youths increased by more than 30 percent.

Addressing inequality in a class-stratified city like New York that is primarily run by the wealthy and powerful is no simple task, and the de Blasio administration does not have a roadmap it can follow. Take the question of public space. Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn are cleaner, safer, and more beautiful than ever, thanks to the work of the wealthy private conservancies that fund them. But de Blasio wants parks in poor neighborhoods that have suffered from “decades of disinvestment,” as he put it, to be just as clean, safe, and beautiful. He would like to see these same wealthy conservancies take some responsibility for them as well, since the city lacks the funds to clean and police all of them.

De Blasio did not go nearly as far as he might have here. He stopped well short of demanding that private funds raised for the richer public spaces be shared with the poorer ones—something that many activists have long advocated. But even these modest steps led to complaints of class war. The New York Observer, for instance, which is owned by real estate mogul Jared Kushner (who is also the son-in-law of Donald Trump), is a reliable echo chamber for the voice of the city’s most powerful real estate families who control it. A recent editorial complained, “If there’s one thing some self-styled progressives can’t stand, it’s success.” The Observer accused “the mayor and his progressive allies” of practicing “the politics of envy” by instituting “redistributionist park policies” in place of “politically incorrect noblesse oblige” that, in the paper’s view, is the proper way to care for the city’s public spaces.

Once again, the issue here is whether poor and lower-middle-class people should have access to decent parks in a city where they are not a luxury but an absolute necessity. Yet not only is every step to achieve this a struggle; even getting people of power and influence to consider the problem is a struggle. But informing ourselves about the awful reality of poverty may be the first step to addressing it.


Co-published with Dissent Magazine.

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a columnist for the Nation, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he conducted his original research on economic inequality.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a columnist for the Nation, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he conducted his original research on economic inequality.