Four facts you may not know about low-income New Yorkers

Irene Lew

In this post, we mine our annual Unheard Third survey and other data sets to glean insights into the economic outlook for low-income New Yorkers—the more than 3 million city residents who earn less than twice the federal poverty level, or about $40,000 for a family of three.  What are the positive factors that are opening the gateway to upward mobility for these residents, and what’s holding working-age households back from getting ahead? Here are some highlights of our findings.

(You can also read the full analysis, and find lots more data, at Upward Mobility: In sight for more New Yorkers, still out of reach for most.)



Low-income New Yorkers are becoming much more optimistic about their economic futures.

We’ll start with the good news.  Between 2016 and 2017, we saw a substantial increase in the share of low-income New Yorkers who think they are “climbing up” the economic ladder—as opposed to being stuck or losing ground. There are plenty of factors behind this rising optimism, including strong job growth and falling unemployment, but we think it’s worth noting that policies that improve the wages and job security of low-income workers are making a big difference. For example, more than a third of poor, hourly-wage earners in our survey said they were better off due to recent minimum wage increases.



Nearly 1 in 4 low-income working New Yorkers have ZERO emergency savings.

Despite positive economic signs, low-income, emplotyed, working-age respondents in our survey still worry (a lot) about their economic futures. That’s partly because 43 percent of them have less than $500 in savings put away in case of an emergency. Low savings means financial instability, as unforeseen expenses such as rent increases or medical bills have to be absorbed into already tight family budgets.



Hardships for low-income, WORKING families are astoundingly high.

With so little financial cushion, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many low-income families suffer financial hardships like falling behind on the rent, being unable to fill a prescription, or being unable to afford subway or bus fare.  What’s particularly concerning is how many New Yorkers in our survey suffer many of these hardships, even among households who are working. Among low-income, working-age respondents who were employed full time, 34 percent suffered three or more serious economic hardships.  And among households that were already experiencing difficulty paying the rent or were facing other housing hardships, rates of additional hardships like skipping meals or going without health insurance were substantially higher than in households that didn’t experience housing hardships. 



But hardships for seniors are dramatically lower—thanks to the social safety net. 

Older New Yorkers in our survey experienced far fewer hardships than those of working age. Programs aimed at helping seniors meet their basic expenses seem to be making a big difference here. For example, only 7 percent of poor respondents age 65 and over reported falling behind in their rent or being unable to afford subway and bus fare, compared to over a quarter of working-age respondents.  Seniors in New York City are eligible for reduced fares, and those in rent-regulated housing are exempt from rent increases—policies which appear to be alleviating housing and transit hardships.


So how can we ensure that financially vulnerable New Yorkers keep making progress on the economic ladder?  Check our full analysis for ideas on how New York City and State can simplify the minimum wage to give all workers a boost; strengthen protections for vulnerable tenants; and ensure policies like paid sick days, paid family leave, and the newly-enacted “Fair Fares” transit discount for riders in poverty are reaching people who need them.  

Want to explore these findings further? Check about the full analysis at

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