Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Real Middle Class

In Sunday's NY Times, there is a fascinating look at NYC's middle class. The initial focus is on a family from Whitestone, and the portrait painted by Joel Kotlin should be seen by all of those ideologues who, in their eagerness to promote the mayor's tax on commuters, bowdlerize the concept of middle class into an unrecognizable caricature.

The reality is that, for NYC, middle class means the neighborhood and the interconnections of church, social clubs, the little league, and the local shopping area. These Whitestone folks, just like their counterparts in Bayside, Pelham Bay, Laurelton, Throggs Neck, Mill Basin and Tottenville, are often working two jobs and they make up the bulk of those city residents who drive into the city to work (the only 5%).

These folks quite often drive because the transportation infrastructure isn't there for them, or because they need to be able to use their cars to commute to a second job outside of the CBD. They are, however, the bedrock constituency that New York needs to counterbalance the growing polarization between rich and poor that is coming to characterize this city.

And, as Kotlin underscores, many of these solid folks are leaving town: "From 2004 to 2006, New York experienced a net exodus of 330,000 people. Many were blue-collar workers, but there was also a net loss of salesmen, middle managers, technicians, engineers and other members of the middle class, heading to places like Florida, North Carolina and the expanding outer exurbs in the metropolitan area. For all that, Whitestone continues to be a place where families come, settle and stay, sometimes two or three generations living under one roof."

The major reason for the exodus is the cost of housing, a cost that was exacerbated by the anti-middle class property tax hikes by the mayor in 2002. But it is also the overall tax burden that militates against keeping the bulk of these people in the city. By itself, the mayor's $2,000 a year commuter tax might not seem to be all that much, but as with everything else, we ned to put it into the right context.

In this case, it is the fact that NYC remains at the top of most lists when it comes to the overall municipal tax burden on residents. Elitists like the mayor simply don't get it-Whitestone may just as well be Istanbul as far as the Manhattan-oriented intelligentsia is concerned. And for those like the tax-till-you-drop folks at the DMI, well, these outer borough people are seen as no-nothing inhabitants of Dumfu*kistan.

We have a feeling that it will be these middle class folks, a diverse and increasingly vocal group, who will be the deciding factor in the next election cycle. All of those current elected officials who are looking to move up should be cautious about trying to mimic the mayor. What he's been able to get away with, will become an albatross for the imitators; and the electoral chorus will be singing: "Send in the clowns."