How the Other Half Still Lives

How the Other Half Still Lives

In the shadow of wealth, New York’s poor increase.


In 1890 the great photojournalist Jacob Riis published his now classic book about immigrant tenement poverty in lower Manhattan, called How the Other Half Lives. During the past few months I have tried to retrace some of Riis’s steps through modern New York’s pain and deprivation. As New York’s (and America’s) economy has turned bleaker and bleaker, I hung out in unemployment offices, food-stamp application centers and the occasional job fair, where lines of job-seekers were never short. I traveled around in a van with volunteers from the Coalition for the Homeless as they distributed free hot meals at night to the city’s most defeated and destitute inhabitants.

I visited union halls, food pantries, immigrant community centers and the dreadful Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx. I interviewed community organizers, economists, politicians, leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups–as well as the jobless, homeless and hopeless. I wanted to understand better how the other half lives now, and who was responsible for this misery in the midst of this new, twenty-first-century Gilded Age of excess produced by the money culture, corporate scandal and the concentration of wealth and power.

What I learned was that in some ways little has changed since Riis published his reportorial findings in 1890. The poor are still largely invisible to the complacent majority. Most Americans don’t see the everydayness of poverty. It is segregated in “bad neighborhoods” and in impersonal government waiting rooms. We don’t see all the people being told there are no applications for food stamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don’t have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal.

In one way we are even worse off than we were 113 years ago: We have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow.

Something else in addition to poverty’s invisibility that harks back to the first Gilded Age is the widening economic disparity between the rich and poor. During the Reagan presidency, the poor lost tremendous ground. And during the Clinton presidency, the rich did fabulously well. In 1998 the top 1 percent of households collected almost 17 percent of the nation’s income. And now Bush is proposing a tax cut that gives the richest 5 percent of taxpayers most of the economic gain. This is a class-warfare policy of shooting the wounded and looting the amputees.

What is amazing is that this expansion of inequality took place without ever becoming a noticeable issue in American politics. This growing concentration of wealth has given the superrich domination over politics through extravagant campaign contributions and media ownership, which has made large elements of the media sound like Republican echo chambers. The increasing gap between rich and poor and the erosion of democracy by vast wealth are not hot-button talk-show issues because so few politicians with a national following agitate about them with continuing conviction. Only Ted Kennedy, John McCain and the late Paul Wellstone come to mind. None of the leading Democrats seeking the 2004 presidential nomination are talking about the maldistribution of wealth or mobilizing a new war on poverty or a massive jobs program. Cerebral, suburban Gary Hart was quoted in a February 2 New York Times Magazine profile as saying: “How do you make the principles of equality and justice and fairness work in a time when everyone’s well off?” I would gladly take Hart on a tour of New York’s communities of sorrow.

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.

The Low-Wage World

Most poor people work. The roughly $10,700 a year that $5.15-an-hour minimum-wage jobs pay is without question not sufficient to hold a family together in New York. But a big part of the city’s poverty crisis is the World of Low-Wage Work, just above the legal minimum–“McJobs,” as organizers call them. There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are trapped in such jobs, from which they can be fired or lose shifts on the whim of a supervisor, at big chain franchises like McDonald’s, Tower Records, Duane Reade drugstores and Gristedes supermarkets.

In testimony before the City Council on behalf of a living-wage bill, David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, a nonprofit social service agency, said that “one-in-five New York workers earns less than $8.10 an hour. Three-quarters of those earning less than $8.10 an hour are living in poverty.” According to a comprehensive CSS study, 52.6 percent of low-wage workers are women; six out of ten have a high school diploma; and more than one in ten is a college graduate. Eight in ten are people of color. They are not teenagers working part-time jobs or subsidized members of middle-income households. More than 90 percent of those trapped in low-wage jobs are adults. More than 75 percent are now working full-time. They are not substance abusers, alcoholics or the mentally ill.

More than 600,000 New Yorkers earn between $5.15 an hour and $10 an hour. Some 56 percent of these low-wage workers have no health insurance for their families, 52 percent have no pension or 401(k) plan and 37 percent receive no paid leave. The CSS survey found that 27 percent of these workers fell behind in rent payments during the past year, 18 percent had their utilities shut off and 14 percent had to postpone necessary medical treatment. This low-wage world includes busboys, waitresses, janitors, food-service workers, store clerks, security guards, porters, maids, home health aides, day laborers and deliverymen. In late January, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that more than 200 deliverymen were being paid less than $3 an hour by the Duane Reade drugstore chain. Most of these workers are immigrants from West Africa; as a group, they had been cheated out of $1 million in back pay.

A political tragedy is that only three unions are aggressively trying to organize the most underpaid workers: Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, also of the SEIU, and the Hotel Trades Council, which is unionizing maids, housekeepers and employees of private clubs. Without the protection of unionization, collective bargaining and job security, low-wage workers are powerless in this savage season of high unemployment and intense competition for bad jobs. The simultaneous trend of Republican electoral ascendancy shoves these low-wage workers into a deeper hole, since Republican policies like tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor increase poverty and diminish the standard of living.

But late last year, the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council did pass two important laws to protect low-wage workers. They were enacted mostly because of the intense lobbying and targeted campaign donations of Local 1199 and Local 32BJ. First, the Council passed a compromise version of the living-wage law that gave 50,000 home healthcare workers–Local 1199 members–a minimum wage of $8.10 an hour if they have health insurance, $9.60 if not. This will become $10 an hour by 2006. The law covers employees of companies that receive homecare contracts from the city government–the basis for the legislative jurisdiction over wages. The scope of the bill was narrowed during negotiations between Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with about 2,000 building and other service workers deleted from coverage. But Local 32BJ got something else in return that they desired almost as much. This was the Displaced Building Service Worker Protection Act, which requires landlords, managers and contractors of newly acquired commercial properties of fifty units or more to retain on the payroll all union and nonunion workers for a ninety-day grace period.

32BJ was a notoriously corrupt union a few years ago. But now, under president Mike Fishman, and with an engaged membership of 70,000, it made its presence felt at the City Council. Every time there was a hearing on this bill, there were seventy-five or a hundred union members in purple union T-shirts, filling the chamber. A recent court-authorized wiretap recorded unsolicited praise for this union under Fishman’s leadership. A Genovese crime family capo known as “Sammy Meatballs” was overheard talking about the union. “It’s a very good union for the men,” the gangster was complaining. “Y’know what I mean? Usually whoever belongs to it don’t want to give that up. The men get treated good and they get good salaries.” In the bad old days, this union was in collusion with the mob, selling labor peace and signing sweetheart contracts that screwed the membership. Now Local 32BJ is starting to demonstrate that even in this harsh economic and political climate, a democratic union can make a positive difference.

The difficulty is that too many private-sector unions are too timid or too much a part of the Establishment to hire the best organizers, think big, take risks and embrace an activist mission. Fishman, Dennis Rivera of Local 1199 and Peter Ward, the leader of the Hotel and Motel Trades Union Council, are the exceptions. Unfortunately, they don’t have the jurisdiction to organize the exploited workers at the large nonunion chains.

It is hard for people in low-wage jobs to break out of the cycle of poverty. They obey the law, pay their bills, try to improve their education, stay away from drugs–and they still remain where they are, in bad jobs and in bad neighborhoods. Unionization is almost the equivalent of the lottery for them. When I asked Fishman about his philosophy of unionism, he replied: “Our power comes from our ability to take to the street. It is the only power we have. We can create chaos. I believe unions have to risk everything every day. I know our members are always one contract away from destitution.”


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?”

Homeless Children and ‘Generous Anger’

When the economy is strong, the homeless population contracts. When the economy is weak, the homeless population expands. The Emergency Assistance Unit–the gateway homeless intake office in the Bronx–is a more reliable economic barometer than the computerized Dow Jones. When mothers and children applying for shelter are sleeping on the floor, or on desks in the office, you know the economy is lousy.

With the recession now in its third year, New York’s homeless population is larger than it has ever been. In the late 1980s the shelter population peaked at 28,700. Now it is 38,200. More than 85 percent of the city’s homeless population are families, including 17,000 children. Forty percent of these nomadic children suffer from asthma and have no regular doctor. Two years ago, so many mothers with young children started showing up at the office of the Coalition for the Homeless that a playspace and toys were added to the waiting room.

A year ago, with the help of advocates and union members, I was able to sneak into the EAU office. It was something straight out of Dickens or Jacob Riis. Desperate mothers and crying children with running noses were searched for contraband. With the shelter system clogged, the homeless often had to sleep in these offices for two or three days under bright lights before being offered a place to stay. A court order precluding applicants from sleeping overnight in the EAU was routinely violated. Seeing this place gave me a feeling of “generous anger”–the phrase Orwell invoked to describe Dickens’s writing about the poorhouse.

To be sure, not all of the homeless want help. These days the street homeless seem to be “more hard-core than before,” in the words of Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst for the coalition, who also helps deliver meals to them on many nights. Based on my own interviews, most of the single adult men on the streets don’t want social services, medication or Medicare. They prefer to be left alone. Many appear to suffer from serious mental problems, but the state does not provide nearly enough supportive housing units for the mentally ill. This group does not like shelters; they prefer sleeping in subways or in the waiting room of the Staten Island Ferry terminal in winter. Some of these street people tell me they have been homeless for years. They profess no interest in job training, medication or counseling. They present an intractable problem that seems immune to charity, common sense or romantic liberalism.

Every governmental attempt to ameliorate poverty seems to attract its own breed of parasite and leech. New York has had scandals involving poverty programs, community school boards, nursing home operators and Medicaid fraud, kickbacks to politicians for helping get state contracts for drug and alcohol rehab facilities, and politicians monopolizing twenty-year no-bid care leases. Now there are rapacious landlords getting paid by the city to house homeless families. This racket started as a temporary experiment under Mayor Giuliani in August 2000 but grew to 2,000 apartments, dozens of landlords and millions of dollars paid to them out of the city’s treasury. The city has been paying these landlords an average of $2,900 a month–a total of $33 million since last July. But the volume of the homeless flood is so large that the city has no time to verify the backgrounds of these bottom-feeder landlords and the conditions of their squalid apartments. One complex of buildings, where the Human Resources Administration placed 260 families, had so many hazardous and unsanitary violations of the building code that a judge took ownership away from the landlord and placed the complex in receivership. Tenants of another Brooklyn complex have sued, charging that they were evicted so their landlord could rent to 125 homeless families.

There are two silver linings on the horizon. In December, Mayor Bloomberg announced an ambitious five-year plan to build or rehabilitate 60,000 units of low- and middle-income housing, some of which would be set aside for the homeless. Bloomberg also doubled the number of rent vouchers and public housing apartments immediately available to homeless families. And on January 17 the Bloomberg administration and advocates for the homeless, led by the Legal Aid Society, reached an agreement that settled twenty years of rancorous litigation. This agreement codified the existing court order requiring the city to provide shelter to the homeless as a permanent legal right. It also granted to the city the authority to eject from the shelter system–whenever the temperature was above freezing–people who refused an appropriate apartment or engaged in misconduct like assault or theft.

The Frontier of the Possible

Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America and my mentor, used to recommend “locating the frontier of the possible” when it came to devising a strategy to shrink poverty. A recent frontier-defining survey by the Community Service Society disclosed a broad common agenda shared by the poor and middle-income and even high-income voters. This included raising the minimum wage, national health insurance, a larger investment in public education and more affordable housing. (Affordable housing was the highest priority among low-income voters.)

The November 2002 local elections did offer some hopeful signs that can be duplicated. The intransigently progressive State Senator Liz Krueger was re-elected on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in a district that had been held by a Republican for thirty years. Krueger was outspent by her Republican opponent, Andrew Eristoff, by six to one but was elected by a margin of almost 60-40. In terms of advocating for the poor and creating coalitions, Krueger is the frontier of the possible in electoral politics. The new union-based Working Families Party received 90,000 votes statewide, winning a permanent position on the ballot and serious leverage in swing districts. David Paterson was elected New York’s first black party leader in the state legislature, as rank-and-file Democrats in the State Senate revolted and threw out Martin Connor as their leader. Paterson then named maverick Eric Schneiderman as his deputy. Schneiderman had survived a Republican and Democratic deal to end his career by redistricting him into a Hispanic district, where it was hoped he would lose a primary. But Schneiderman prevailed, with the support of the heavily black and Latino healthcare workers’ union Local 1199/SEIU.

There is also little doubt that the near-suburbs are trending Democratic. The black and Latino populations of Nassau and Westchester counties are growing. If the Democrats can gain six seats in the State Senate over the next six years, they can become the majority. Paterson, Krueger, the WFP and organizer Jonathan Rosen of the New York Unemployment Project are now planning exactly such a long-term strategy of grassroots membership organizing and registering of low-income voters in the suburbs.

I hear a lot of talk about how “all we need” is one good liberal talk-show host on network radio or cable television, or all we need is a liberal policy think tank to compete with the conservative Manhattan Institute with its easy access to op-ed pages. But I think the frontier of the possible is also community-based organizing, the grunt drudgery of real voter registration and a renewed union militancy on behalf of the nickel-and-dimed low-wage workers. We need phone banks and Spanish-speaking union organizers as much as we need a left-wing Limbaugh.

Change comes from the bottom up. Change comes from ordinary people in political motion. This has been true from the 1936-37 sit-down auto factory strike in Flint, Michigan, to the strike-filled rise of New York’s garment, transit and healthcare unions, to the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, who wrote the 1965 Voting Rights Act with their mud-caked boots, to today’s growing antiwar movement.

The message of history is that only a participatory democracy can challenge a predatory plutocracy.

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