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

By Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, Co-Directors,
Measure of America

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

2 Responses to “Big Gaps in the Big Apple: Measuring Well-Being in the New York Metro Area”

  1. 1 Barbara Clifton Zarate May 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    As a Trustee of the Marin Community Foundation, and as a native to the County of Marin, I cannot say enough about the tremendous impact the Portrait of Marin has created here. Almost daily I get insight to enlightened conversations and new opportunities that are influenced by the findings. Many agencies and community groups have put to service the report and are using it to create change. The Portrait of Marin provides understanding and direction in a time of uncertainties. Thank you Measure of America for your amazing expertise and an excellent report!

    • 2 Kimberly Miller June 4, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      While at Oxfam America, I was involved in two studies with Measure of America, the Portraits of Mississippi Louisiana. They provided such an important baseline for discussion and advocacy after the disaster of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and even Gustav and Ike in 2008. The depth and readability of the report gave us an invaluable tool to advance conversations about the slow pace of post-Katrina recovery, particularly in African-American, Vietnamese and Latina Populations. The authors are also terrific communicators who translate their work to the public. In advocacy meetings with state elected officials these documents helped to support our campaign for a Mississippi Housing Trust Fund. Legislators also used these documents to prepare their own briefs on a number of issues that supported their own legislative efforts and a prominent local advocate for low-income and minority citizens told us the Portrait of Mississippi was one of Oxfam’s greatest legacies on the Gulf Coast. Although the report in MS was released in ’09, local academic projects are still showing signs of influence by its methodology.

      Having worked in the non-profit sector in New York City for almost a decade, I spent much of my time during the recovery period looking for data that matched the quality and accessibility of a Measure of America report, and am so glad that we brought them into our efforts.

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