We know from looking at Internal Revenue Service data that about 425,000 tax returns are filed in Erie County every year, and that just under 75 percent of tax returns report incomes of $61,000 or less, which is about the median income of a household in New York State.
That means that half of households in New York State have incomes over $61,000, and half under. This is overall a relatively prosperous state: The national median in 2016 was $55,322. That’s the last year for which we have reliable estimates—and those estimates are not about politics, but about the mechanics of collecting data. We won’t have data for 2018 until 2020, and we won’t really know precisely about the impact of the Trump administration’s actions until at least then.
What we do know is from 2016 Census estimates and from 2015 IRS tax return data, and here’s the snapshot for Erie County:
- Median household income here is just under $53,000, which is about $8,000 lower than the statewide median, about $2,000 lower than the national median, but slightly higher than Wyoming County, and about $8,000 more than households make in Allegany, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties.
- There’s a very sharp divide between city and suburbs: All but three of Erie County’s towns have higher median incomes than the county overall, while only one out of 18 Zip Codes inside Buffalo have household incomes above that line.
- Households in 15 of 25 towns in Erie County are above the New York State median, but zero of 18 Zip Codes in Buffalo are.
- And notwithstanding the comparative prosperity of most households outside Buffalo and Lackawanna, poverty and dependency exist in every suburban town.
There’s more to this picture, but the data we’ve followed for the past few years paint a pretty consistent picture of a modestly prosperous area in which fully one-fourth of the households has over $61,000 a year in income, with about 12 percent of the total reporting taxable earnings of over $100,000, but fully 51 percent reporting incomes of under $30,000.
Put a different way: The data from the last available federal reports show that a quarter of Erie County’s households meet the marker for middle class or better in New York State, which means that they have incomes from work, from pensions, or from other sources (usually not capital gains; see below) that yield the equivalent of about $30 an hour for a 2,000-hour work-year. Meanwhile, unfortunately, more than half of the households here don’t make even half that amount, which means that more than half the households here have incomes that are less than what full-time, year-round job paying $15 an hour would pay.
All the income-support strategies of the Cuomo administration in Albany, especially Cuomo’s support for a statewide minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2020, plus the Democrats’ ongoing support for supplements to the federal Medicaid program so that low-wage workers have health insurance, plus the state supplements to the school-nutrition program, are motivated by that trying to hit that $30,000 figure for as many households as possible. That number, which the MIT Living Wage calculator and just-retired Buffalo State College Professor of Economics Susan Davis and other local economists targeted, is about the lowest income that is needed around Buffalo to keep a family in rent, food, transportation, and childcare.
But the geography isn’t helping.
The effects of income segregation
The City of Buffalo and some towns like Cheektowaga and Evans continues to lose population, while a few towns, notably Amherst, continue to gain a tiny bit—but the overall trends of the Buffalo area are pretty consistent: the population of Erie County is down about 25,000 from 2000, there’s no in-migration except for a couple of thousand refugees a year for the past many years, and as household incomes rise, households migrate out from the urban core to the suburban periphery—especially to the Town of Amherst, which shares the region’s richest Zip Code with Clarence, the town with the highest median household income.
That’s the Brigadoon we’re living in: We keep sprawling despite a shrinking population, we keep segregating ourselves by income, and at a very nice point in the recovery from the Wall Street disaster of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, voters in almost every single suburban Erie County election district outside the cities of Buffalo and Lackawanna voted for the Republican presidential candidate who has acted to disrupt the status quo on federal taxation, income-support, health insurance, transportation, nutrition, and other structures that shaped what we see as of 2016.
The status quo in 2018 probably looks the same as in 2016. Despite a few dozen new dwelling-units high-income renters and condo-owners, and a “hot” real estate market in four of five of Buffalo’s 18 Zip Codes, the median household income almost certainly remains below $35,000 city-wide—with median household incomes above $40,000 in only five of 18 Zip Codes. The data on housing also do not support that “gentrification” and “displacement” are realities except to the extent that a few blocks in three of the more than 85 Census Tracts inside Buffalo have experienced rapid appreciation—but the data do continue to show that there continues to be outmigration to the suburbs (principally to Amherst and Cheektowaga) of working-class African Americans, Hispanics, and also of settled onetime refugees, continuing the pattern of suburbanization that has been occurring here since 1945.
The map of money in 2016 looks like this: 70 percent of the households in Erie County are in suburban towns that have median household incomes that are above $53,000, and 30 percent of households in Erie County are in Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, the City of Tonawanda, and in rural Collins and Concord, where the median household income is under $53,000. Poverty is concentrated in the urban core, and not even the robust, mostly celebrated but often-criticized presence of educated Millennials, former suburban empty-nesters, and Creative Class types (including so-called Trustafarians, the spawn of the truly well-endowed who return to Buffalo between semesters) is changing the landscape.
Will that landscape change?
We won’t know for a while.
What we do know is that in 2016, the suburbs voted Trump, for change, unlike the urban core, which (not very robustly) voted for Clinton and continuity.
Continuity meant keeping with our pattern of sprawl without population growth, and with our New York State pattern of Upstate dependency on Downstate prosperity, which works really, really well for everybody in Western New York, despite Erie County’s overall lower median household income. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the median income is higher in the suburbs of New York City, in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island. There are more richer people Downstate than Upstate; they pay more in New York State taxes than we do; they have less government employment per capita than we do; and as a consequence (there are other factors, like Upstate’s far-flung road system), Upstate pays one-quarter of New York State taxes but gets one-third of New York State spending, while Downstate pays three-quarters of New York State taxes but gets only two-thirds of New York State spending. We’re poorer, and our richer fellow New Yorkers foot our bills.
But voters here show little understanding of these contrasts, and voted for change in 2016.
Perhaps it’s because of the geography of money here. Suburban voters generally live in communities where the median household income is much, much more like the New York State median income, and so they tend to vote as if they have the kind of money that Downstaters have—except that Downstaters voted for Clinton.
Upstaters voted for the administration that will give Upstate, and the United States, disruption, mainly in the form of federal budget cuts, massively increased federal debt, still-undecided changes in trade policy (Western New York’s economic connections to Canada will be the subject of a forthcoming column), and a new federal tax law that was radically changed in a way that disrupts the 75-year-old New York State relationship with the federal fisc.
But we won’t have detailed, county-by-county data on its effect for another couple of years. We will soon know, as soon as next January, about Trump’s cuts: in Medicaid (most of which here goes doctors, hospitals, and nursing care for poor elderly and long-term disabled), in the Supplemental Nutritional Aid Program (otherwise known as Food Stamps), in the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), and in housing aid for low-income people.
At that point, the suburbs of Buffalo, and not just Buffalo, may awaken to the fact that over half of our fellow citizens live in households that have far, far less than the $15 an hour wage that Andrew Cuomo wants to be the new minimum—and far, far less in the way of federal supports that keep the wolf from a lot of local doors.
One wonders: Did the comparatively well-off suburban voters understand that that’s what they were voting for? Or did they think that 2016 would last forever?
Here are the data:
Bruce Fisher teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and is director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies. His latest book, Where the Streets Are Paved With Rust: Essays From America’s Broken Heartland (The Public Books/Foundling Press 2018) is available at Talking Leaves Books and at foundlingspress.com.