|New York City Social Indicators 1997 - A Tale of Many Cities
By Irwin Garfinkel and Marcia K. Meyers
In this inaugural report of the Columbia University New York City Social
Indicators Survey, we use data collected in a telephone survey in 1997 from
a random sample of New York City families to assess the well-being of New
Yorkers. Well-being is measured in terms of human, financial and social
assets, economic and social living conditions, the adequacy of
institutional supports, and satisfaction with the city and its services.
The New York City Social Indicators Survey is a unique effort to take the
"social temperature" of the city. No other data source measures the
well-being of all New Yorkers across so many do-mains and in such depth.
The Best and Worst of Times
Like the Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, from which we adapt our
title, we find that for some New Yorkers this is the best of times and, for
others, it is, perhaps, the worst of times.
--One in seven New York families has assets of more than $100,000; more
than four in ten have zero assets or even a negative net worth.
--Three of four New York families are headed by an adulty in good to
excellent health; one in twenty is headed by an adult in poor health.
--Two of ten families are headed by an adult with a college or graduate
degree; three of ten are headed by a high school dropout.
--One in twenty families has an income at least ten times greater than the
poverty line; nearly three of ten families have incomes below poverty.
Bloated at the Bottom
Some observers have described the city as "hollow in the middle." Our data
suggest instead, that, compared to the U.S. as a whole, New York may more
appropriately be described as "bloated at the bottom" by the high
proportion of families with very low assets and very impoverished living
--The proportion of New York adults with college or graduate degrees is
about the national average while the proportion who are high school
dropouts is one and one-half times the national average.
--The proportion of New Yorkers with assets over $100,000 is lower than the
national average while the proportion with no or negative assets is twice
the national average.
--The proportion of New Yorkers with incomes ten times the poverty level is
about the national average while the proportion with incomes below the
poverty line is almost twice the national average.
--The proportion of New York families who go hungry is more than twice the
national average, and the proportion living in overcrowded housing is three
times the national average.
The City's Rich Diversity
The averages tell us that New York is different from the rest of the
country. But New York is not a city of averages - it is a city of contrasts
and of extremes. In a city as large and diverse as New York, the story of
well-being is inevitably more complicated than a tale of only two cities,
rich and poor. In this first report, we only begin to suggest the many
stories associated with the city's rich racial, ethnic, religious,
linguistic, and family composition diversity.
One story is that of large differences between White, Black and Hispanic
New Yorkers. On virtually every measure, White New Yorkers are more
advantaged, enjoy better living conditions, and rate the city and its
institutions more highly than others. And among people of color in the
city, Hispanics are the worst off in their economic and living conditions.
--More than three out of every ten White New Yorkers have at least a
college degree, in comparison to fewer than one in ten Black or Hispanic
--About three of every ten White New York families have no financial
assets, in comparison to four of ten Black families and seven of ten
--More than seven out of every ten White New Yorkers rate police protection
in the city as good, in comparison to fewer than five of every ten Black
Another story is of somewhat smaller, but still quite large, disparities
within groups. Differences between immigrants and non-immigrants are
particularly striking. On most measures of well-being, immigrant families
lag behind their U.S.- born counterparts. ·
--Among Hispanic families, 37 percent of immigrants could not count on
borrowing even $100 from family or friends, compared to 24 percent of
--Among White families, 30 percent of immigrants are poor, compared to 13
percent of non-immigrants.
--Among Black families, 20 percent of immigrants live in overcrowded
housing compared to 14 percent of non-immigrants.
The story is still more complex, however, because on some measures of
well-being, New York's immigrants report themselves to be faring better
than their U.S.- born counterparts. The most encouraging news concerns
--In Black families, 88 percent of children in immigrant families are at or
above grade level, compared to 74 percent of those in families headed by a
--In Hispanic families, 56 percent of immigrant parents report no serious
adjustment problems for their child, compared to only 30 percent of
Although they are worse off than U.S.- born families on many dimensions,
immigrant families also describe themselves as more satisfied with many
as-pects of life in the city.
--Among Hispanic parents, 77 percent of immigrants agree with the statement
that their children are getting a good education, in comparison to 57
percent of non-immigrants.
--Among Black New Yorkers, 40 percent of immigrants think that the city has
become a better place to live in recent years, in comparison to 16 percent
Large Distance between the Affluent and the Poor
New York is a city of great, and perhaps growing, inequality. The story of
inequality is conveyed most dramatically when we compare the well-being of
New York families with incomes at or below the poverty line to that of
families who are reasonably affluent - those with incomes at least four
times the poverty threshold. The distance between these New Yorkers is
vast, not only in income but in other dimensions of economic and social
--The odds that a family cannot get an emergency loan of $100 from family
or friends are over 10 times greater for poor families than for affluent
--The odds that a child is disabled are twice as high, and the odds that he
or she is behind in school are more than six times greater, in poor versus
--The odds that New Yorkers consider their neighborhood unsafe are nearly
four times greater for poor families than for their affluent counterparts.
--The odds that a child lacks health insurance and doesn't go to pre-school
or day care are four times greater if he or she lives in a poor rather than
The Most Vulnerable New Yorkers
It is not only the extent but the distribution of compromises to well-being
that tell the story of New York City. Different groups of New Yorkers face
very different risks and have very different odds of experiencing
compromises to their well-being. Changes over the life cycle capture part
of the story but, on most measures, age-related differences are
overshadowed by differences between families with and without children.
--Among families headed by young adults, 46 percent of those with children
are headed by high school dropouts, compared to 13 percent of those without
--Among families headed by an adult over 30 years of age, 31 percent of
those with children are poor, compared to 21 percent of those without
--Among families headed by an adult under 30 years of age, over half of
those with children live in bad neighborhoods, compared to just over
one-quarter of those without children.
With limited income and assets, families with children emerge as the most
distressed New Yorkers. They are the most likely of all New Yorkers to be
poor, to experience hunger and problems paying their utility bills, to be
living in overcrowded and substandard housing. And among families with
children, the 50 percent who are headed by a single parent are the most
disadvantaged of all. Single parent families in New York have less of
everything. One-half are headed by an adult with less than a high school
education; two-thirds have no financial assets; more than one in ten care
for a disabled child; nearly six in ten are poor; one in eight goes hungry
some of the time.
Extreme levels of disadvantage among families with children are troubling
in the present. They bode ill for the future as well, insofar as they
translate into worse odds of success for their children.
--The odds that a child is behind a grade level or in special education are
nearly three times greater if he or she is in a single parent family.
--The odds that a child has adjustment problems are almost three times
greater among children in single parent families.
--The odds that a parent rates his or her child's school as unsafe or poor
in quality are twice as high for single parents.
Taking the Measure of the City
In this inaugural report of the New York City Social Indicators Survey, we
set out to take the "social temperature" of the city and its residents. We
find that New York City is different, on average, from the rest of the
country. But we also find that New York is not a city of averages; it is
not one city but many cities; not one story but many stories. New York
City: A Tale of Many Cities only begins to capture the diversity of the
city by telling the stories of New Yorkers who differ by borough, race,
ethnicity, immigration status, age and family type.
More than any other U.S. city, New York is a city in which contrasts
coexist: the rich live alongside the poor; the youngest and the oldest
residents share the same streets; native-born citizens mingle with
immigrants from nearly every country of the world. It is a city of great,
and perhaps growing, inequality in financial, human and social assets,
economic and social living conditions, adequacy of institutional supports
and satisfaction with the city and its services. This report documents the
magnitude and some of the concrete manifestations of inequality in the
city. It raises, but cannot finally answer, the question of what this means
and whether it should be a source of shared concern for all New Yorkers -
whether they are enjoying the best, or suffering the worst, of times.