How the Other Half Still Lives
I conceived this piece as a way to dramatize the growth of poverty in liberal, pro-labor New York City. But there is also a bigger, national picture that frames the local reporting. This big picture has many layers. It is not only the Republican ascendancy in Washington, Albany and the courts. It is not just the capitulating silences of Democrats. It is not just the fading power of the AFL-CIO. It is not just the historical forces well beyond New York's capacity to influence--like global terrorism, the recessions of the business cycle, the bursting of the Internet technology bubble, the crushing state and city deficits made worse by Bush's radicalism for the rich. It's all of the above and more. For all of New York's real estate, banking, media, marketing and cultural power--and for all its mystique--it is still just a cork bobbing on the ocean of capitalism.
Only during FDR's New Deal was economic disparity significantly reduced. More recently, in addition to the dramatic redistribution of income upward, wealth (property, investments, stocks, bonds and other assets) has become even more concentrated in a few hands than income is. The wealthy fared as well under Clinton as they did under Grover Cleveland--also a Democrat--during the original Gilded Age. The top 5 percent of Americans now own almost 60 percent of the country's wealth--the same 5 percent who would receive most of the benefit from Bush's proposed tax cut.
Downward mobility is the hot new trend in the city of buzz and billionaires. By every measure, unemployment, homelessness and hunger are on the rise in New York. In December, unemployment jumped up to 8.4 percent, the highest it has been in five years, the highest of any of the country's big cities. New York has lost 176,000 jobs in the past two years, more than any other city. Today more than 1.6 million New Yorkers (20.2 percent of the population) are living below the federal poverty line; another 13 percent are barely above it.
And, as always, poverty is more severe among people of color. Blacks and Latinos comprise 47.5 percent of the city's labor force but account for 61.2 percent of the jobless. The city's poverty rate is 25 percent for blacks, 28 percent for Hispanics and 12 percent for whites. It's been double for people of color for generations. There are now 38,000 homeless people in city shelters each winter night--and 17,000 of them are children. Homelessness has increased by 82 percent since 1998. In 2002 the city's network of 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries affiliated with the New York Food Bank--many faith-based--fed 45 percent more hungry people than they did two years earlier. And about 90 percent of these hungry people are not homeless, and do have a history of work.
"Hunger among the working poor is a growing trend," Joel Berg, the director of the Coalition Against Hunger, told me. "It's caused by skyrocketing rents, a minimum wage that has been stagnant at $5.15 an hour since 1997, rising costs for health insurance and the city restricting access to food stamps while Giuliani was mayor." Every day the city's soup kitchens and food pantries provide about 1 million people with meals. The Coalition Against Hunger reports that because of increased demand, in 2001, the soup kitchens and food pantries have had to turn away 350,000 New Yorkers--including 85,000 children.
Every Thursday morning, at the Yorkville Common Pantry, on 109th Street in East Harlem, there is a long line of silent, dejected women with shopping carts, waiting for fresh meats and canned goods to be distributed by volunteers when the doors open at 11:30 am. On my occasional visits to this line, I saw that most of these Hispanic women were mothers with children who had sporadic histories of at least part-time work. I also met a recent Russian immigrant who had no coat and a woman attending some night classes who had lost her job, exhausted her health insurance and suffered serious depression but could not afford the medication to treat it. Her grandest dream, she said, is "to move to a safer block."
New York's economy has declined for seven consecutive quarters. Consumer confidence is vaporizing. Inflation is rising faster than wages. Personal bankruptcies are up as a consequence of credit-card debt and predatory lending by the jackals of recession. And to make future prospects even darker, the state has a $10 billion budget deficit while the city's is $3 billion, at a time when the President is refusing to assist the states. New York City now faces state-imposed transit-fare increases, college tuition increases and a $1.2 billion cut in state education funding.