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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Earning $500,000 in Manhattan puts you well above middle class

The statement

An annual income of $500,000 "in Manhattan, believe it or not, is middle class."

Sal Albanese, candidate for mayor of New York City, on MSNBC

The ruling

Albanese, a Democratic former city council member, made the claim as he was criticizing a municipal tax proposal offered by one of his rivals, Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller.

"I disagree with Bill's proposal to tax people even more in the city," Albanese said. "As I said, what's at stake — in Manhattan, a half a million — half a million more in Manhattan, believe it or not, is middle class."

At this point, an off-screen voice shouted, "Half a million or more is not middle class!"

Unfortunately, there is no official definition of "middle class." The phrase has such a mom-and-apple-pie ring to it that politicians have been using the term expansively for generations.

But we'll look at a few methods. One is to define the upper boundary of the middle class as twice the median income.

Using demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we found that for Manhattan, the median income for all households was a little more than $66,000. Using this definition, the upper limit of the middle class would be $132,000.

The second way is to break the population into three broad categories. The bottom fifth would be lower-income, the middle 60 percent would be middle-income, and the top fifth would be high-income.

Census data shows that someone who makes $200,000 ranks in the top 16 percent of Manhattan earners. So a household could make it into the top 20 percent with roughly $180,000.

Just to be sure that Manhattan wasn't an unusual case, we also tried to factor the Big Apple's famously high costs. We used a city cost-of-living calculator provided by CNNMoney.com that accounts for food, housing, utilities, transportation and health care. The calculator allowed us to determine what income in other cities was equivalent to $500,000 in Manhattan.

We found a handful of cities in which $500,000 in Manhattan money worked out to roughly $200,000 in local income — Birmingham, Ala.; Tulsa, Okla.; Tampa; Cincinnati; Detroit; Charleston, W.Va.; Salt Lake City; Des Moines, Iowa; and Phoenix. Using Census data, we found that in each of these cities, the percentage of local households earning $200,000 ranged between 1 percent and 5 percent.

This confirms that in this far-flung sampling of cities, earning the local equivalent of $500,000 in "Manhattan money" puts you in the top 5 percent of local earners. Even by the most generous definition, that's not close to middle-class status.

When we contacted Albanese's campaign, spokesman Todd Brogan said Albanese got carried away during the televised appearance and defined middle class in a way he normally does not. "It was, quite frankly, a gaffe," Brogan said.

We rate the claim False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Earning $500,000 in Manhattan puts you well above middle class 03/30/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 3:35pm]

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