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The Boston Globe

Politics

Middle class is key in New York City mayor’s race

Rivals debate what can help group

NEW YORK — It has become a common catchphrase for those seeking to lead the nation’s biggest city: New York is increasingly out of reach for the middle class.

That sounds inarguable in the home of the $125 million penthouse, the $1 million parking spot, and the $295 burger. And it is a strategic line for candidates hoping to capitalize on the view among many that ultrarich Mayor Michael Bloomberg was out of touch with the average person.

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But is it just populist campaign rhetoric, or is the Big Apple really hollowing out at the socioeconomic core?

Key statistics are mixed, but sketch a city of increasing economic extremes and a crunch in the middle. It is a trend nationwide, but the wealth has raced to the top faster here.

From a pier in Brooklyn’s middle-income Sheepshead Bay, charter fishing boat captain Keith Kmiotek sees a New York that’s tougher for middle-class or working-class people.

His father bought a house in the city on a carpenter’s income; Kmiotek, now a married father himself, rents and does not see a clear path to buying.

‘‘You’re choked out’’ as a New Yorker in the middle, he said. ‘‘You’ve either got to be very poor or very rich.’’

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That’s a theme public advocate Bill de Blasio has hammered on his way to a big lead in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary, telling a ‘‘tale of two cities’’ with have-it-alls on one side, have-nots on the other, and the center ‘‘in danger of disappearing.’’

Rival Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, frequently tells of her ‘‘actual record of delivering for middle-class New Yorkers.’’ Former US Representative Anthony Weiner has built his campaign around a series of ideas to aid ‘‘the middle class and those struggling to make it.’’

It is such a theme that a debate featured a video montage of them and fellow Democratic hopefuls John Liu and Bill Thompson repeating the words ‘‘middle class.’’ Other major candidates have talked up plans to help people either get to or stay in the middle class.

Tracking the middle class is tricky because there’s no standard definition of what it is.

Research reports conclude it has shrunk in New York City and nationwide in the past decade, continuing a trend that dates to the 1970s. Reports find the gains increasingly concentrated at the top of the income ladder.

‘‘The stratification is not new. It’s the degree and the dimensions,’’ says Fred Siegel, of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Under one widely used calculation of income inequality, the Gini index, New York City outranks the 14 next-biggest US cities and the nation as a whole, looking more like Paraguay and Thailand.

The top 1 percent of households on New York City’s income ladder had about 36 percent of all the income in 2011. That was three times their share in 1980, according to state tax data.

As for the middle, one basic measure — the median household income, adjusted for inflation — declined by about 4 percent in the city from 1999 to 2011, to about $49,500, US Census Bureau data show. Nationwide, the decline in median income was nearly 11 percent.

New York’s median rent-and-utility costs went up 8.5 percent from 2005 to 2011, to about $1,200.

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