Are you part of San Francisco’s disappearing middle class? 

click to enlarge Melissa LaBonge
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • Melissa LaBonge of The City has a well-paid job that puts her solidly in the middle class, but fears she’ll have to join friends who’ve had to leave the increasingly pricey city.
Melissa LaBonge is among a disappearing group of San Franciscans.

The 38-year-old Potrero Hill resident and her boyfriend together make $80,000 — about $7,000 more than the median household income — making them solidly part of The City’s shrinking middle class.

“Very few still live here,” LaBonge said of her middle-class friends. “Most of them have moved. ... Everyone else has three jobs.”

As the debate continues about affordability and the housing crisis, and how large a role the tech sector plays, San Francisco has become a city of haves and have-nots. A slow but very real trend has been transforming The City’s population over the past three decades — a hollowing-out of the middle.

In that time, the number of middle-income households — now only about 33 percent of the population — has declined while the poor and rich, especially, have increased, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The simplest way to understand the trend is to picture an inverted bell curve, with the middle class being at the bottom.

More than half the households in San Francisco — about 66 percent — are either very poor or very well-off, while the rest are somewhere in the middle, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.

For the past 30 years, the number of middle-income households has slowly been in decline, but the data show a precipitous recent change: The City’s richest households increased by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012 as the middle declined by almost the same percentage. Bear in mind that The City’s population grew by about 20,000 from 2010 to 2012.

In 2012, of The City’s 341,721 households, only 114,960 could call themselves middle class, accounting for only about one-third of all households. Those at the bottom — some 28 percent of households — number 95,774, while the 131,285 at the top make up a plurality of all households at about 38 percent.

Academics and journalists have been arguing over and writing about the phenomena for decades, while The City itself also has clearly drawn lines of who is poor, who is middle class and who is rich.

The most recent housing-cost report by The City’s economists, released in 2012, contained more than housing data. It also laid out how much San Francisco is becoming increasingly divided and how much you have to make to be called middle class or, if you are lucky, rich.

Those in the middle are broken into three parts: low, moderate and above-moderate income. Technically, any household making from 50 to 150 percent of the area median income — roughly $73,000 — is defined as middle class.

The lower-middle class — for example, a construction worker making $45,000 and his wife, a part-time waitress, making $10,000 — has since 1990 been in slow decline, making up about 55,000 people as of 2010.

The middle of the middle class, according to The City, might be a single man who is a designer making $67,000. This group’s numbers also have declined, hovering just below 60,000 in 2010.

An upper-middle-class household would be a couple with two children — one a professor making $85,000 and the other an architect making $65,000. Unlike their middle-class brethren, this group — a small proportion of the middle — has increased over this period to about 36,000.

Almost all of these numbers about the middle class have gone down since, as the data used by The City are a few years old. Besides breaking down who fits where on the income ladder, little is said in The City’s report about the cause of the middle’s decline.

“San Francisco’s income mix may be changing for many reasons. We cannot isolate factors that have led to net decline in low and moderate income households,” notes the report, which only posits some possible causes — job opportunities, cost of living and housing prices.

Relatively well-paid LaBonge, who works at a nonprofit, considers herself lucky — she has a $1,012-a-month, rent-controlled apartment. Still, she’s looking for another job outside of San Francisco. It’s just too expensive here, she said, and her landlord just moved into the building.

Median incomes: 2012

$53,000: U.S. median household income

$61,000: California median household income

$73,000: San Francisco median household income

Income groups according to The City’s calculations:

33: Percentage of middle-income households in S.F.

41.7: Percentage of middle-income households in California

44: Percent of middle-income households nationwide

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 American Community Survey

S.F. income breakdown:

The Bottom:

Very Low Income: A single person with one child making $35,000 or less

The Middle:

Low Income: Young couple – one makes $45,000, one makes $10,000

Moderate Income: Single person making $67,000; or two housemates, one making $50,000 and the other making $42,000 Above Moderate Income: Married couple with two children – one makes $85,000, the other makes $65,000; or a single person making $100,000

The Top:

Upper Income: Married couple without kids, one making $75,000 and the other making $100,000

Source: Mayor’s Office of Housing Middle Income Data, 2012

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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