Hurricane Sandy and Income Inequality debates..

Came across this article on Reuters from Pulitzer-prize winning columnist David Rohde “A Hurricane’s inequality“. The article points out how even a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy affected the rich and the poor differently and how the event highlighted income disparities in New York. The author used examples like the rich evacuating to hotels while service folks continued servicing. He then goes on to point out that “Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681”.

While I appreciate the point he is making, I am not sure the analysis is entirely fair. First of all the fact that everyone, irrespective of being rich and poor should have been able to retreat to safety. I view the fact that service folks continued servicing as a failure of the City authorities to enforce safety measures- businesses had no business (no pun intended) keeping employees back beyond a certain point.

That said, the income disparity between the top vs. the bottom quintile shouldn’t be surprising based on economic behavior. The top 20%’s earnings being high is an artefact of NYC’s ability to attract highly skilled labor that commands a wage premium, which in turn creates an abnormal demand for a secondary market of relatively lower skilled labor (nannies, waiters etc). Urbanization is known to create income inequalities for this reason- cities tend to attract from cheaper labor markets (immigrant, students etc). This is partially related to the Kuznets curve effect:

Except that the inequality continues to rise exponentially due to a free inflow of unskilled labor that is willing to compete on price with existing unskilled labor. Comparing top-bottom quintile income disparity in a city that is only ~400 Sq miles yet boasts 1.2 Trillion dollars in GDP is pointless- there is an extreme division of labor and a continuous supply of labor (skilled and unskilled) that is more than willing to compete on price. Profits/income are inversely correlated to competitive intensity, labor markets are regulated in order to contain this profit-maximizing behavior within rational limits. Now what is worrysome is that based on New York State’s minimum wage and a 40-Hour work-week, the lowest wages should be ~$15,000 p.a, the fact that it averages $9,681 in the bottom quintile could indicate a significant number of the labor market working below minimum wages, which probably reflects a failure in enforcing minimum wage discipline.

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