Inequality in New York City is equivalent to Swaziland

I’m from New York City. To be more specific, I’m from the Upper East Side. It’s a mostly affluent area. My zip code growing up was 10128, which always makes those “richest zip codes in the United States” lists; in fact, on the Forbes list, it’s up there — and the No. 1 zip code in the United States is actually about 20 blocks from where my parents still live and where I grew up. 

We weren’t super affluent or anything, but my parents do OK. That’s neither here nor there, but I wanted to provide a little bit of context. What is relevant is this: New York City is obviously a great place and a world-class city, and there’s a lot going on there. Since 2012, I’ve lived in different places — Minneapolis, then the Dallas Metroplex — and when you meet people who have only been to NYC on school trips or once/twice here and there, they always ask you: “OMG. New York City? What’s that like? And why did you leave?”

The party line on “why I left” is pretty basic — New York City is expensive, and places like Dallas/Fort Worth are less expensive, and you can save a little more money and have a different kind of life, albeit not being on the same subway line as the Met. It’s all different, sure, and a good deal of my friends still do live in New York City (as well as my parents), but you do see a good deal move outside — either to suburbs/exurbs or out of the Northeast altogether — every year or so. I’ve written about the shift away from coastal cities before, as well as people leaving the traditional “great young people cities” for more Rust Belt-ish options. Here’s some more context.

This morning, I was reading an article on CityLab about “The Divided City” — essentially, trying to determine where the axis of a modern city resides given the likely presence of inequality — and I found this 2012 article taking major U.S. cities and equating their inequality rates to other countries for global context. Consider this:

The disparity between New York’s (.504) richest and poorest is comparable to what you’d find in Swaziland (.504), a place not generally noted for its economic dynamism or quality of life (its average life expectancy is the lowest in the world).

Wow. That hits home, eh? It did for me. Again, I’m from NYC.

You might stop and say this — “That’s a stupid stat, because the richest people in NYC are some of the richest people in the world.” That wouldn’t be 100 percent wrong. The context of using NYC to evaluate rich/poor dichotomies might be a fool’s errand, because the real wealth at the top is so great.

But then consider this:

Inequality in Denver (.455) is comparable to Jamaica’s (.455). Seattle’s Gini (.439) is similar to Nigeria (.437).

Seattle and Denver have rich people, sure — especially as Seattle has become more of a tech center, and, oh well, Bill Gates also lives there — but it’s probably not the same as NYC, at least in most people’s eyes. And still, they’re equivalent to Nigeria — probably a further-along country than Swaziland, but not anything people would be calling “first-world” or “economically-well-balanced” just yet.

This study with these pull quotes is from 2012, so you could also argue that maybe things have gotten better since then — in reality, they’ve probably gotten more imbalanced. That would mirror the broader U.S. trend.




Ted Bauer