Tough Times

The New York Times goes slightly tone-deaf on the plight of the non-wealthy

As the economy continues to unravel, editors at The New York Times are keeping close tabs on how wealthy people are weathering the recession. But in three recent stories, the paper failed to consider how the other half is living through the financial decline.

Yesterday’s Times put a silver-lining spin on the recession with a rosy story about falling rents in New York. Renters are getting unprecedented perks, such as discounts for renewed leases, and one-month-free incentives in buildings whose landlords are scrounging for tenants. In fact, the three couples or families mentioned in the story were able to get handsome savings. A two-bedroom apartment listed for $4200 was rented for $3215; a three-bedroom/three-and-a-half-bath went for $7400, after an initial price tag of $8500. One modest two-bedroom in Brooklyn was scooped up for $1900 (original price $2000).

New York real-estate prices have always been notoriously steep, and a little bit of give in a ruthless market is a good thing, right? Well, sort of. What the story doesn’t bother asking is what effect these rent concessions will have on poorer families. These so-called discounted apartments are still exorbitantly expensive by the standards of the Times’s readers, but the headline implies that these rent breaks are available to everyone, not just the super-wealthy who can afford these luxury apartments. What’s more, the piece shows a lack of awareness of its own bias toward the very wealthy, by neglecting to consider the consequences and implications of the much-touted discounts.

As the city continues to lose jobs—and not just those on Wall Street—what will happen to those who can barely afford housing? Will landlords convert their properties to low-income housing to benefit from government subsidies and guaranteed tenants? Or will poor families have nowhere to go? Will cash-strapped landlords stop making necessary repairs to their properties? As wealthy New Yorkers abandon their high-priced digs for (relatively) cheaper apartments, will they start to push out middle- and lower-income families living in the boroughs?

These are questions that the Times does not answer. Given the affordable housing crunch that plagues this city, a headline and a story that allege the availability of cheaper apartments blatantly clash with the reality faced by many New Yorkers. Unless the headline “A Month Free? Rents Are Falling Fast” is changed to include the clause “On Originally Over-Priced Luxury Apartments,” the statement simply does not reflect the reality on the ground.

The circumstances associated with wealthy couples’ divorces must have also been jarring for most low- and middle-income Americans in the middle of their own divorce proceedings. At the end of December, the Times published a piece on divorcing couples who are struggling to sell their shared homes:

In a normal economy, couples typically build equity in their homes, then divide that equity in a divorce, either after selling the house or with one partner buying out the other’s share. But after the recent boom-and-bust cycle, more couples own houses that neither spouse can afford to maintain, and that they cannot sell for what they owe. For couples already under stress, the family home has become a toxic asset.

“It’s much harder to move on with their lives,” said Alton L. Abramowitz, a partner in the New York firm Mayerson Stutman Abramowitz Royer.

The three couples interviewed for the story own homes that were, at the time of purchase, appraised at $2.3 million, $1 million, and $1.5 million. No one takes lightly the loss of wealth that many homeowners have experienced as a result of of the current housing slump. Still, couples who were able to afford such expensive homes in the beginning of their relationships are likely to pull through just fine in the aftermath. But what about low-income families in which pooled incomes barely provided for necessities? Faced with divorce, lost jobs, and falling home prices, these spouses are much less likely to part ways with “starter money” in the six-figures.

Here’s another story about how the wealthy are dealing with this economic downturn: “As the Rich Get Poorer, Teenagers Feel the Crunch,” which catalogs how teens from affluent families are now getting after-school jobs to pay for their own expenses. One student makes $150 a week through tutoring and baby-sitting jobs, another $80 a weekend taking care of animals at a vet’s office. Allowances that were $100 a week have dropped to $60.

The absence of the low- and middle-income voices in these stories is unfortunate. Wealthy teens who are saving for “a ring, a necklace, a handbag” are now competing for jobs with poorer teens whose incomes are necessary to keep families afloat.

To be fair, the Times have covered at how lower-income families are doing, such as this piece on how the poor are scaling back on medications they can no longer afford, or this recent analysis of how some states’ welfare agencies are cutting their rolls despite growing unemployment. And its The Neediest Cases series is excellent. But stories like these make the omission of their voices in other stories ever more noticeable.

One explanation for the disparity between the two sets of stories may be the sections which assigned them and the reporters on the job. Stephanie Saul, who covers the pharmaceutical industry, medicine, and regulation, penned the story on scaling back on medication, and Jason DeParle, author of a book on the welfare system, wrote about the welfare crunch—while rock critic and former Details editor John Leland wrote the divorce piece. Elizabeth A. Harris, who wrote the rent piece, frequently writes for the real-estate section. It’s possible that reporters who cover “softer” beats may need to be edited more closely by the hard news side to ensure more rigorous reporting.

When the stories are taken as a whole, the Times’s coverage seems to draw distinctions between “wealthy” stories and “poor” stories, drawing artificial lines of income where commonalities may provide a thread of mutual understanding. Rent, divorce, and raising children are shared experiences, regardless of income level. But to only include the few wealthy individuals unnecessarily segregates the stories about these two interrelated groups of people, relegating lower-income stories to welfare lines.

Simultaneously, the disparity in stories highlights, but doesn’t address, the disparity of conditions between those rich and poor. While those New Yorkers who can afford $8500 rents are saving $1100 per month, those who can only pay $1100 may be getting squeezed out. Brave reporting could confront those differences, but divided storytelling creates a further rift.

The fascination with wealth is an affliction that spares no one. On MTV’s ultimate wealth bonanza, “My Super Sweet 16,” prodigal sons and daughters are celebrated for their extravagant birthday parties. And, on the other side of the spectrum, the business press makes heroes of CEOs. But the tough times ahead call for sober assessments of the quality of life of all Americans, not just the rich.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.