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Trending: What it takes to be ‘middle class’ in Southwestern Connecticut

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To be considered “middle class” in Stamford, a family has to bring in between $93,541 and $153,008 a year, according to an analysis performed for Hearst Connecticut by a University of Connecticut professor.

That’s more than double the national minimum for middle class, which Pew Research Center pegs at $39,418, confirming what many residents already know about the city: It’s expensive. Maybe even too expensive for America’s Every Man and Every Woman.

When Stamford resident Jessica Devaney first moved to Stamford in 2007 after graduating from college to begin her teaching career, she found the city a bit more expensive than she’d expected. With a studio apartment in the basement of someone’s full-time home, Devaney said she was still spending “almost half my paycheck on rent,” so she found a second job as a household manager – which involved doing laundry, grocery shopping and driving teenagers around town – for a family in Darien.

“It wasn’t a bad job,” she said. “But I think in my childhood vision of being like a middle class teacher, that probably didn’t involve a part-time job too.”

Six years later, she still works “various part-time jobs,” though at the age of 29, she is no longer single (she got married last year), and she and her new husband recently bought their own home in Stamford’s Cove section.

“I do feel like we’re middle class,” she said. “Between a teacher and a software developer, we are middle class. But that’s what you need. You need that much income to be at the regular old middle class level where you can go out to dinner once in a while, take a vacation once in a while and not be living completely paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Across America, 85 percent of people who describe themselves as middle class say it’s “more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living,” according to a 2012 Pew report, entitled “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.” And here in Southwestern Connecticut, the baseline for entering the middle class is significantly higher than the national average.

The threshold for being classified as middle class here ranges from a basement of $51,688 in Bridgeport to $263,473 in Weston, with a wide range of communities sprinkled in between, like Danbury at $79,668 and Greenwich at $169,466.

But the middle class is about more than just income ranges.

Jeremy Pais, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs who analyzed income data for Hearst Connecticut, said that while definitions of middle class have shifted over the decades, homeownership is an important component, along with a car for each adult in the family.

“Some might say that you could go almost as far as to have the two cars, two kids, white picket fence,” he said. But it doesn’t have to be that cookie cutter.

“It’s whether they have disposable income to do recreation, to go out to dinner when they want and go on vacation, while still having their basic bills and everything met,” he said. “So they’re stable enough where they’re taking care of the things that they need to do, and yet they have enough money to do some of the things they want to do, like go on vacation or put in that swimming pool.”

A household income in the $39,000 range may be the gateway to that lifestyle in many parts of the country, but it doesn’t cut the mustard in Stamford, where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the median value of a home weighs in at $571,400 – more than three times the national average.  And sometimes that can pose problems for the city in terms of marketing Stamford as a place for corporations to call home.

“If you’re talking to companies thinking to relocate here, having people come from other parts of the country with lower housing costs, then it becomes problematic,” said Stamford’s Director of Economic Development Laure Aubuchon.

“It can be a hurdle,” she said, “because any good CEO wants to be sure that if he’s bringing employees, they’re not financially disadvantaged by the move, coming here.”

And while the lifestyle characteristics of the middle class – while hard to define – are relatively equal across the country, the dollars it takes to buy that life ebb and flow. According to the Pew report, people who identify themselves as middle class in America’s West say it takes about $70,000 for a family of four to lead that life. Respondents in the South gave the same estimate, while those in the Midwest said it would take $60,000 and those in the East said the cost of admission is $85,000.

“A dollar just goes a lot further in Nebraska than it does in Fairfield County,” said Rep. Jim Himes, who represents Fairfield County in Congress.

“To have a middle class lifestyle in a high-cost area like Fairfield County requires much more money than it does in much of the rest of the country. It’s not like we’re unique; the same is true of New York City, San Francisco and other high-cost areas that make it a lot harder to be middle class,” he said. “And that’s a good thing for people who have the skills that are required in places like Fairfield County and a really bad thing for people who don’t.”

That has led to a middle class that’s tougher to crack into he said, comparing today’s version of middle class America to the one that existed in his grandparents’ generation, where “most Americans were middle class because after high school, they walked down the street and went to work in the factory” or as a police officer or firefighter.

“One of the huge challenges we face in Fairfield County is that the teachers and firefighters, nurses and policemen who serve a town like Greenwich find it very, very challenging to find housing in the town they serve,” he said.

So challenging in fact, that the vast majority of Greenwich’s employees don’t live in the town. The average employee in Greenwich’s police department takes home about $78,000 a year, according to payroll data; for employees of the town’s school district it’s $87,000. At those rates, middle class lives in town – where home values are so high that they go above the Census Bureau’s top price range of $1 million, and are not even listed – can be out of reach for many of those public employees. Only 14 percent of police department employees live in town, along with 24 percent of teachers, according to records obtained by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.

Stamford isn’t very different. The average teacher salary in Stamford Public Schools was budgeted at $68,000 this school year, and payroll data for police shows that the average salary without extra duty earnings in 2012 came in at $104,417.

“It’s amazing what our house cost in Stamford, and that in New Haven, it would be $150,000 less for the exact same house on the same plot of land in the same neighborhood,” said Devaney.

“I don’t mind working hard, and I realize nobody made me live in Stamford, but it is sometimes a little frustrating to look at the comparison,” she said.

maggie.gordon@scni.com; 203-964-2229; http://twitter.com/MagEGordon; http://facebook.com/TrendingWithMaggieGordon

Maggie Gordon

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