The Working Class Can’t Afford the American Dream
The national conversation in the U.S. is focused squarely on improving the lives of people in the working class. The debate revolves around exactly how to do that. Politicians and pundits have all sorts of ideas, from efforts to save jobs, create tax cuts, subsidize housing, and provide universal healthcare. Thing is, people don’t even agree on how to define the working class, much less how their living conditions stack up across the country. We created a data visualization to illustrate this complex situation.
Each bubble represents a city. The color corresponds to the amount of money a typical working-class family would have left over at the end of the year after paying for their living costs, like housing, food and transportation. The darker the shade of red, the worse off you are. The darker the shade of green, the better off you are. The size of the bubble also fits on a sliding scale—large and dark red means the city is totally unaffordable. Bigger dark green bubbles likewise indicate a city where the working class can get by.
The data come from our new True Cost of Living Tool. It’s kind of a big deal because it lets you drill down to a specific city and search through layers of relevant information to understand exactly how much money it takes to live in any given area. We stitched together a variety of different reputable sources, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics for income levels, the National Bureau of Economic Research for tax data, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the cost of food. Basically, you can check our work.
This map tells us several things about the working class in America. Of the ten most populous cities in the country, the only place where you can enjoy a decent standard of living without taking on debt is San Antonio. Out of the top 50 largest cities, only 12 are considered affordable. Low-wage workers are better off in smaller cities.
The geography of affordable cities is also remarkable. Newark, NJ, Chesapeake, VA and Jacksonville, FL are the only coastal locations where a worker can support his or her family. There are exactly zero affordable cities on the West Coast. Matter of fact, inexpensive locales tend to be far away from the coasts and can be found in the interior of the country. This is especially true in the southwest in states like Arizona and Texas.
So where are the best places from a financial perspective for a working-class family to live? Here are the top five cities with the net surplus remaining after living expenses:
1. Fort Worth, TX ($10,447)
2. Newark, NJ (($10,154)
3. Glendale, AZ ($10,120)
4. Gilbert, AZ ($9,760)
5. Mesa, AZ ($7,780)
Arizona dominates the list. If we were to keep going, the Grand Canyon State would take #6 and #7 too. The Sun Belt clearly has an economic advantage for workers.
The worst places for working class folks to live shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the affordable housing crises in New York and California. Here are the five worst cities:
1. New York, NY (-$91,184)
2. San Francisco, CA (-$83,272)
3. Boston, MA (-$61,900)
4. Washington, DC (-$50,535)
5. Philadelphia, PA (-$37,850)
You read that correctly. The typical working-class family would need an additional $91K+ per year in New York City just to break even on a reasonable standard of living.
Do you think a working-class family can comfortably live in your city? You might be surprised by the results. Enter your information in our tool to find out.
Do you need more info about our data? Visit our True Cost of L iving (TCL) Tool.