How the Other Half Still Lives | The Nation


How the Other Half Still Lives

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Every evening at about 7:30, a van from the Coalition for the Homeless stops on the fringe of Chinatown in lower Manhattan. And every evening about fifty or sixty women step out of the shadows to receive a free meal of hot soup, fruit and bread in polite silence. They almost all had seamstress jobs in garment sweatshops or worked in restaurants before 9/11. Now they barely survive on family help, extensions of unemployment insurance and charity. Most of them live doubled up, or tripled up, in Chinatown, which has by far the highest population density of any New York neighborhood: 189 people per acre compared with eighty-two people per acre in the rest of Manhattan.

Chinatown--located a mile from Ground Zero--was also the community hardest hit by the terrorist attack. Because of security checkpoints, traffic congestion during the season in which garments had to be trucked and a sudden drop in tourism, Chinatown's economy collapsed in the weeks after 9/11. Sixty-five garment factories in the neighborhood closed in the year after the attack. Three-quarters of Chinatown's work force temporarily lost their jobs in the weeks after the attack, according to the Asian American Federation, a community advocacy group. Although Chinatown employees were only about 1 percent of New York City's work force, they suffered 10 percent of the unemployment caused by the calamity. Even three months after 9/11, the Asian American Federation estimates, about 8,000 Chinatown workers were still unemployed. Making all this worse is Chinatown's immigrant character. This includes a cash-based economy, a dearth of documentation and credit histories that are needed for government or charitable assistance, and many middle-aged workers with a limited command of English. Chinatown also suffers from internal political feuds and divisions. Moreover, most of Chinatown's housing stock dates back to the nineteenth century.

Because of all this disproportionate deprivation, the city's Department of Business Services commissioner, Rob Walsh, nominated Chinatown to be one of the state's new Empire Zones, which would provide lower taxes and cheaper utilities to attract new businesses, creating jobs. But in December 2002 the city's application for Chinatown was rejected by Governor Pataki. He chose six upstate and rural areas to be designated as Empire Zones, but not the city's neighborhood most in need of help. The last economic development zone selected by Pataki was upstate Rensselaer County, which happens to be represented by Joe Bruno, the GOP majority leader of the State Senate. Chinatown happens to be part of the district represented by Democrat Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Assembly. As Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." Walsh was outraged. He told me, "This is wrong. When you analyze the numbers of poverty, of job losses, of the concentration of small businesses that are hurting, there is no comparison between the needs of Chinatown and the needs of well-to-do Rensselaer County. Chinatown is the hardest-hit community in the whole state." New York City contains 40 percent of the state's population but has only ten of the state's seventy-two Empire Zones.

The two Georges--Pataki and Bush--seem to harbor some deep resentment against New York City, and keep denying the city the revenue and assistance it deserves. Pataki's hostility seems to be primarily political--the city is predominantly Democratic in state elections and Pataki has never carried it. The President's antagonism seems deeper and more personal. Bush is the evangelical cowboy for whom New York seems to be emblematic of the diversity, cultural experimentation, religious pluralism, individual freedom, social programs and now antiwar feeling that he loathes. Friends of mine who knew Bush well when he was the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise say that even then, early in his intolerant, born-again fanaticism, he made disparaging remarks about New York in the context of welfare, drugs, immigration and disorder. So even as Bush exploited the patriotic passions unleashed by the mass murder of 9/11, he did not do anything to rescue a community like Chinatown, or help with Medicaid, or revenue sharing, or block grants to the state, or education funds to make the city whole.

Cheating the Poor Out of Food Stamps

About 800,000 city residents are eligible for food stamps, but do not receive them. During Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's second term, barriers to access were intentionally created, causing a 42 percent drop in recipients. A federal judge, the federal Agriculture Department and Governor Pataki's social service commissioner all found that poor people were being denied access improperly. City officials were claiming to visitors that they had no applications. The applications that were distributed were sixteen pages long and unnecessarily complex. Other bureaucratic games were played to discourage participation in the program. Giuliani's administration fostered a subtle culture of rejection.

Giuliani came to see--and speak of--food stamps as a costly "welfare program" that increased what he called "a culture of dependency." But in fact, food stamps were started as a nutrition program to combat hunger. The program's original federal sponsors included Republican senators from farm states, like Bob Dole, who saw the program as assisting their home state economies through subsidized urban food purchases.

In November 2002, with food pantries swamped by rising demand, New York City somehow removed 11,000 qualified people from the food stamp program. City officials quickly admitted this was a mistake--paperwork errors causing delays in recertifications. The City Council then dispatched undercover investigators to the offices where food stamp applications are supposed to be easily available to the public. But one-third of these undercover testers were sent away without applications, even when they were insistent with clerks and bureaucrats. These rejections were a clear violation of the law. At a December 16, 2002, City Council public hearing, the city's Human Resources commissioner, Verna Eggleston, and her deputy, Giuliani holdover Seth Diamond, told the stunned Councilmembers they were concerned about the cost of enrolling more recipients. They seemed indifferent to the fact that food stamps are often the last barrier between crying children and the cramps of hunger. The chairman of the Council's committee, Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, reminded the commissioner that not only is the program 100 percent federally funded but that the federal government also pays half of the city's administrative costs.

Only malice, or the most wretched incompetence, could explain the city's failure to provide food stamps to half the city's poor population. Food stamps add at most $4,000 of food to the table of a family living on less than $15,000 a year. They also recycle the money immediately back into the poor community's economy of supermarkets and bodegas. And if every poor New Yorker who is eligible received food stamps, it would inject almost $1 billion in federal benefits into the city's economy. Food stamps are the mother of all win/win propositions. At the Council's hearing, de Blasio asked commissioner Eggleston, "Why is it you can find someone when there is a problem, but you can't find someone when you have a benefit to offer them?"

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