Big Gaps in the Big Apple: Measuring Well-Being in the New York Metro Area

Thursday, May 10, 2012
By Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, Co-Directors, 
What does well-being and opportunity look like in the New York metropolitan area? The typical Asian-American resident of the New York Metro Area lives over 9 years longer and has about the same education level as the area’s typical white resident, but earns $9,000 less per year. While we track gross domestic product (GDP) growth and inflation and stock market gyrations with remarkable regularity, we tend to pay far less attention to basic statistics like these, stats on crucial indicators of people’s capabilities to live fulfilled, productive lives.
One big challenge in philanthropy today is in measuring impact: is my focused effort moving the needle on issues I care about? The United Nations’ Human Development Index has become the gold standard in over 150 countries for both scanning the landscape in terms of need and then using the scan to monitor progress. Could it be useful for New York-area grantmakers?
Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, has created a modified version of the U.N.’s index for application in the United States. The American Human Development Index offers a non-partisan, fact-based look at how people are faring in three fundamental areas of life—health, access to knowledge and living standards—using official government data. GDP measures how the economy is doing; the American Human Development Index measures how people are doing. The Index is a unique tool for understanding today’s challenges in the interconnected way people actually experience them rather than as separate problems requiring separate solutions.
Our April presentation at Philanthropy New York focused on preliminary work on well-being in the New York metropolitan area—22 million people who live in the five boroughs of New York City as well as the surrounding cities and suburban towns that share significant economic and cultural ties with the Big Apple. What does the American Human Development Index reveal about New York’s neighborhoods? New York ranks seventh overall of the top 50 metro areas, behind such cities as San Francisco, Washington, DC and Boston. While it has strong health and higher education indicators, New York lags in terms of the proportion of adults who have completed high school. And the typical New York Metro Area worker earns $7,000 less in median earnings than his or her DC counterpart.
The American Human Development Index also reveals pockets of extreme disadvantage. In terms of basic survival, an Asian-American baby born in the New York Metro Area today can expect to outlive an African-American baby born on the same day by twelve years. When it comes to income, the New York Metro Area is home to the congressional districts with both the highest and the lowest median earnings of all 435 U.S. districts (Manhattan’s East Side at $60,000; the South Bronx at $18,000). They are five subway stops apart. Beneath these broad numbers, further work would enable a ranking of each of the 156 neighborhood and town clusters in the city (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau), and racial and ethnic groups in each of those neighborhoods, to set a first-ever benchmark for tracking progress on well-being.
What critical factors account for these large disparities? What policies, programs and practices are necessary to raise Index scores for everyone and to address the challenges of those left far behind? Measure of America uses rigorous social science research and innovative statistical exercises to shine a bright light on issues that limit opportunity for different communities, exploring such critical areas as demographic change, workforce alignment, housing, transport, environmental justice and more. Plans are afoot to produce a New York Metro Area report along the lines of what we’ve done in California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Marin County. For more information, to get involved, or to serve as a member of an expert advisory panel, you can reach us at
Find More By

News type