NEW YORK — It's become the common catchphrase for those seeking to lead the nation's biggest city: New York is increasingly out of reach for the middle class.
That sounds inarguable in the home of the $125 million penthouse, the $1 million parking spot and the $295 burger. And it's a strategic line for candidates looking to capitalize on the view among many that ultra-rich Mayor Michael Bloomberg was out of touch with the average person.
But is it just populist campaign rhetoric, or is the Big Apple really hollowing out at the socioeconomic core?
Key statistics are mixed but indeed sketch a city of increasing economic extremes and a crunch in the middle. It's a trend nationwide, but the wealth has raced to the top faster here.
From a pier in Brooklyn's middle-income Sheepshead Bay, charter fishing boat captain Keith Kmiotek sees a New York that's gotten tougher for middle-class or working-class people.
His father bought a house in the city on a carpenter's income; Kmiotek, now a married father himself, rents and doesn't see a clear path to buying. And he's frustrated by what he considers a tax structure that works for the wealthy and a social-service system directed at the indigent.
"You're choked out" as a New Yorker in the middle, he says. "You've either got to be very poor or very rich."
That's a theme Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has hammered on his way to a big lead in the polls ahead of Tuesday's Democratic mayoral primary, telling a "tale of two cities" with have-it-alls on one side, have-nots on the other and the center "in danger of disappearing."
Rival Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker, speaks frequently of her "actual record of delivering for middle-class New Yorkers." Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner has built his campaign around a series of ideas to aid "the middle class and those struggling to make it."
It's such a theme that a debate Tuesday featured a video montage of them and fellow Democratic hopefuls John Liu and Bill Thompson repeating the words "middle class." Other major candidates also have talked up plans to help people either get to or stay in the middle class.
Tracking the middle class is tricky because there's no standard definition of what it is.
Various research reports conclude it has shrunk in New York City and nationwide during roughly the last decade, continuing a trend that dates to the 1970s. Reports also find the gains increasingly concentrated in the top rungs of the income ladder, a shift particularly pronounced in New York.
"The stratification is not new. It's the degree and the dimensions," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
Under one widely used calculation of income inequality, called the Gini index, New York City outranks the 14 next-biggest U.S. cities and the nation as a whole, looking more like Paraguay and Thailand, according to U.S. Census Bureau and CIA figures.
The proverbial "1 percent" of households at the top of New York City's income ladder – here, that starts around $500,000 – reeled in about 36 percent of all the income in 2011. That was three times their share in 1980, according to state tax data analyzed by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research center.
Nationwide, the 1 percent's slice of the income pie grew more modestly, from 10 percent to 20 percent.
As for the middle, one basic measure — the median household income, adjusted for inflation – declined by about 4 percent in the city from 1999 to 2011, to about $49,500, Census Bureau data show. Nationwide, the decline in median income was nearly 11 percent.
While the median income dropped, New York's median rent-and-utility costs went up 8.5 percent from 2005 to 2011, to about $1,200, growing faster here than in the nation's next five biggest cities, according to New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Some two-thirds of New Yorkers rent their homes.
But by some measures, New York has fared well during a rocky decade. The unemployment rate spiked less in New York than in other major cities from 2001 to 2011, according to the Furman Center. Labor officials say the city has more than recovered the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Bloomberg points to accomplishments with benefits for the city as a whole, such as lower crime rates and longer lifespans, during his 12-year tenure.
"The middle class is the vast bulk of people in this city. .... To say that we're driving them out, I think, just doesn't make any sense," he said recently while trumpeting a Queens development he called the city's largest new middle-class community in at least 40 years.
In an interview with New York magazine, Bloomberg said he found de Blasio's "two cities," rhetoric divisive. He added that one of the best ways to help the city's have-nots is to attract even more wealthy people to the city.
"They are the ones that pay the bills," the mayor said. "This city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it's one group paying for services for the other."
Bloomberg also implied that poor New Yorkers have never had it better.
"By most of the world's standards, you ain't poor," said Bloomberg. "I'm not being cavalier about it, but most places in the world our poor are wealthy."
But things aren't easy for Akin Isci, who emigrated from Turkey 15 years ago because he felt New Yorkers respected each other regardless of their backgrounds.
The 38-year-old married father recently left his longtime job at a gourmet market because he was denied a raise after a promotion, he said.
Since 2001, "everything has gotten harder. ... The average people, they're sort of surviving," he says. "But, of course, they thank God that we live in a beautiful city."
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