Boston’s Vanishing Middle Class

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By Phillip Martin | WBGH | June  9, 2014

Listen to the original broadcast here.

Ten miles from downtown Boston, Newton Centre sits at the crossroads of America’s upper-middle class.

At local cafés, business cards are exchanged and deals are made in the same space where European nannies meet to discuss life back home and caring for privileged infants here.

But the Mercedes Benzes and BMWs parked outside Peet’s Coffee & Tea mask the anxiety some here are experiencing about their place in the area’s complex economic landscape.

“I’m just one of many, many, many that were in my position, that lost their jobs,” said Ken Jaffe, a former community outreach executive at a local bank who was laid off in 2012. Before he was shown the door, he and his wife made a combined $150,000 a year. “But then all of a sudden, $120,000 is not there anymore.”

Jaffe, who has a daughter with Asperger’s syndrome, volunteers at medical clinics and food banks in between job searches.

“Constantly looking, constantly looking for work,” he said.

He said he once had a clear idea of what it meant to be middle-class.

“My father was a retailer,” he said. “He owned a catering business and a retail food store. And my mother was a secretary. Yet we could live on Mason Terrace in Brookline, which was considered middle class. And my father could also write charitable checks, and still we’d have a few dollars left over for his retirement. That was middle class.”

One-hundred-ten job applications later, Ken Jaffe 401K retirement account is nearly depleted.

“And now I’m dealing with a sizable debt to the IRS,” he said. “But insurance costs don’t go down. Your food costs don’t go down, and stretching with one child that needs outside medical care that we have to pay for out of pocket, I’m not sure that we will ever see the middle class again.”

Class insecurity is felt even by folks who make what most of us would consider a good income.

“I’m middle class, but I don’t feel so middle anymore,” said Jonathan Cohen.

Cohen says that in spite of earning “more than $150,000,” he’s still insecure. Cohen runs summer camps—and paying for that experience has long been a quintessential symbol of “making it in America” for many families.

“The cost certainly has gone up,” Cohen said. “It’s not the same camp. Requests for financial aid have gone up dramatically from people making what should seem like good money.”

And how far your money stretches depends heavily on where you live.

And living in Brookline, like Cohen does, or Newton is a far cry from living in Everett, and thus the difference in what we think of as middle-class. And Cohen says in his community, where the average home cost is $899,000, income is trickling down less and less each day.

“We have a well regarded school system that’s attracted lots of people,” he said. “But there’s talks about getting rid of the Metco program, because it costs so much, without looking at what the benefits are, not only to the kids coming from Boston, but certainly to the white, middle-class kids in Brookline, and the real value of that program.”

Cohen’s son attends Brookline High, and this father’s middle class anxiety centers on his son’s future.

“You want to be able to put away for his college education,” he said.

Cohen sighs with either resignation or disgust—it’s not clear. One-hundred-fifty-thousand a year is not what it used to be, he says.

“Between income taxes—and those, I think, are fair enough—and property taxes and where I choose to live,” he said.

But some have little or no choice where they live, and professor of social work Tiziana Dearing of Boston College, says even neighborhoods in Boston that view themselves as lower middle class are becoming too expensive for many.

“And we’re certainly seeing that in the real estate market today,” Dearing said. “Post-World War II and into the 1950s, we really put great cultural emphasis on the importance of owning your home in order to be middle class. But as the real estate market changed, that may be changing for us, too.”

Samantha Sanchez used to live in the city, growing up in East Boston.

But she moved to a less expensive neighborhood north of Boston. Sanchez works at a car-rental agency downtown. In fact, she’s always worked at car rental agencies:

“It was my first job,” she said. “Like I said, I grew up in East Boston. That’s what you did. You found a job at the airport. Once you find your niche, you stick with it.”

Many residences in East Boston, the very neighborhood where she was raised, are out of reach financially. One East Boston residence in recent days went for $900,000, a price few Bostonians could ever afford.

“The community there is changing so,” she said. “It’s, it’s terrible to say but it’s like becoming yuppies, and I hate using the term because it’s stereotypical but it’s true.”

This is East Boston’s waterfront, which in spite of unsightly liquid natural gas tankers navigating toward the harbor, is attracting new home buyers to the neighborhood.

“These old factory buildings that have been abandoned and no one has gone near them in years and now they’re these giant ultradeluxe, ultra-expensive things, and it’s all the surrounding areas,” she said. “It’s East Boston. It’s Chelsea, it’s all those neighborhoods when I was growing up me and my friends we use to all walk around.”

“I think that unless we can find a way to solve our housing problem, we cannot solve the income inequality problem,” said Barry Bluestone, an economist at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center. “Because if you think about income inequality, it’s not just, ‘Do you have a high income or a low income,’ it’s ‘How much does that income buy you?’ And so the real problem in Boston is not only do we have the fourth-highest degree of income inequality but we have the second or third highest cost of living.”

Leslie—who goes by one name—owns his own limousine service. Well, actually, it’s a van, but he will drive you anywhere—the mall, clubs, casinos, restaurants, and of course the airport.

“I go everywhere,” Leslie said.

He steers folks from Newton and Brookline, Everett and Roxbury, and has seen all sides of the economic picture in his rear view mirror as he drives. Leslie’s a self-made man and is on call 24 hours. But he’s the first to admit he will never become wealthy this way. All he wants to do is to hold on to his middle-class position in life. He’s all smiles during the spring and summer.

“It’s not bad when you’re working,” he said.

But in the throes of winter this proud Jamaican immigrant feels his middle class existence slipping away.

“In the winter, it’s a nightmare,” he said. “During the winter, the people from California, Arizona, Florida, don’t want to come to Boston. So it’s really slow, there’s no business … hard to make a living.”

And even though this limousine driver is literally mobile, he feels his own social mobility—the ability to climb up the economic ladder—is made difficult by the crush of competition, seasonal highs and low in his business, and by the region’s stifling cost of living.

Leslie just wants to hold on to what he was promised when he arrived in this country from Jamaica many years ago: a middle class existence in exchange for hard work.

“Last year, over 5 million people go through Logan Airport,” he said. “That’s good for business.”

How many were customers?

“Much less,” he said.

He’s not optimistic.

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