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Why Is Brooklyn Dying?

The borough has experienced a drop in average per capita income, but there's a good reason for that.
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Brooklyn Bridge. (Photo: CristinaMuraca/Shutterstock)

Brooklyn Bridge. (Photo: CristinaMuraca/Shutterstock)

Brooklyn is dying. So what? Income is on the slow road to oblivion with real estate prices in tow. Superficially, the numbers look bad. Blame China:

While Brooklyn has gained international fame in recent years for its artisanal pickle-makers, hip-hop impresarios, and concierged condos, New York City’s largest borough has also undergone another—less media-friendly but (at least for longtime residents) equally unlikely—transformation. Over the past several decades, hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and sometimes undocumented immigrants from the Chinese province of Fujian have crammed themselves into dorm-like quarters, working brutally long hours waiting tables, washing dishes, and cleaning hotel rooms—and sending their Chinese-speaking children to the city’s elite public schools and on to various universities. The new Chinese immigrants are quietly having as great an effect on Brooklyn’s social, economic, and cultural landscape as are the borough’s hipsters and “trustafarians.” In turning a once-forgotten, now-overcrowded portion of Brooklyn into a launching ground into the middle class, they’re challenging new mayor Bill de Blasio’s portrait of New York as “a tale of two cities.”

For a neighborhood or borough, lower income equals bad. For immigrants, lower income for a neighborhood or a borough equals good. Feeling income per natural:

If we interpret income per capita to indicate material welfare, this is unsatisfactory. While production has a place, people, not patches of Earth, have well-being. The focus on income per resident has rested more on the spread and use of national accounts data and on statistical cost and convenience than on conceptual or welfare-theoretic foundations. But if income per resident is used as the measure of Salvadorans’ welfare it leads to untenable conclusions: if a Salvadoran moves from the countryside to San Salvador to get a factory job that raises her income 30 percent, this will be recorded as a welfare improvement for Salvadorans on average, but a 500 percent increase in income from a factory job in Texas does not (with, at best, only the portion remitted to residents counted).

Here we suggest and estimate a new statistic: income per natural, the mean per person income of those born in a given country, regardless of where they now reside. Income per natural differs substantially from income per resident. This is obviously true of small countries with large emigration—Guyana, Jamaica, Liberia—but it is not limited to a handful of tiny nations. 42.8 million people live in countries whose income per natural is 50 percent higher than its income per resident; 235 million people live in a group of countries where the difference is 20 percent or more, and for 1.1 billion people the difference is 10 percent. The estimates of differences in income per natural are consistent with estimates of the differences in other indicators calculated on residence or natural basis such as poverty or child mortality.

When Chinese talent moves from Fujian to Brooklyn, both places see a drop in average income. From a place-based perspective, that's a bad result. From a people-based perspective, the migrant just won the global lottery.

Urban planning in the United States is place-based. Economic development in the United States is place-based. Workforce development in the United States is place-based. Community development in the United States is place-based. All U.S. approaches are blind to the fact that the migrant from Fujian to Brooklyn just won the global lottery.

We see a poverty problem where there is a prosperity solution. Brooklyn isn't dying. Brooklyn is an engine of upward mobility with Spike Lee as a shining example.