Just Your Average Family

March 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

This sceptred isle . . .this happy breed of men, this little world . . .
Against the envy of less happier lands . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, Manhattan.

Even for those of us in the social science biz, anecdotal evidence is more striking than systematic evidence. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers, that is a statistic. The death of a single Russian soldier, that is a tragedy.” And when it comes to making an impression on someone’s mind, statistics lose out almost every time. Almost. Sometimes you come across one of those numbers that speaks so loudly it stops you in your tracks.

Sure, I know about income inequality and how it’s been increasing, mostly because those at the very, very top of the income ladder are raking in larger and larger amounts. I also know that middle-class and upper-middle-class families are returning to the cities. I know that in my town, New York City, the “good” schools, public and private, are flooded with applications — far more than when we went through this ordeal with my son back in the 90s.

Parents with more kids and more money. There was even a story in the Times a couple of months ago about the Mercedes GLs and other pricey SUVs crowding the streets near expensive preschools at drop-off and pick-up time. It had gotten so bad that the director of one school sent a letter to parents telling them to have the drivers wait somewhere else. (“Drivers” was the word used. The parents themselves were certainly not driving, but they also don’t care for the word “chauffeur.”) The Times story was angled mostly at the foibles and status games of the rich, as in the following: “In the letter, [the director] played perhaps the only bargaining chip she has, stating that failure to observe this rule could hinder their children's chances of getting into the kindergarten of their choice.”

But today, the Times told the story with a single number, and here it is: the median income for white families in Manhattan with children under age 5 was $284,208. The median, not the mean. In other words, the middling Manhattan white family has an income higher than 99% of all US families.

Nevertheless, I’d bet that most of those Manhattan families feel that they don’t have quite enough money. I don’t have data on them, just a strong hunch based on what we know about people and money.

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