The release of this year's annual local poverty numbers didn't create much news in New York City and that's because there was no significant change. But no change is actually very bad news. New York City has created more than 440,000 new private sector jobs since the depths of the recession. Why hasn't poverty returned to its pre-recession level?
One reason is that the jobs being created are mostly low-paid jobs in retail, food services and fast-food restaurants. There are fewer high-wage and middle-wage jobs being created, leaving people desperate for work no choice but to accept lower-paying jobs. As a result, many people are making far less than they did before the recession.
We're at a critical juncture. We have a Mayor, in Mr. de Blasio who is deeply committed to actions to promote upward mobility. But much of what he wants and low-income New Yorkers need requires Albany to act. Here are a few examples of areas where action by state lawmakers would help create opportunities for low-income families and the working poor to move up the economic ladder, as opposed to falling further behind.
A Higher Minimum Wage; Renewing Rent Regulations
As part of his effort to raise wages and benefits for low-wage workers the mayor wants authority to raise the minimum wage in New York City. A higher minimum wage would immediately help blacks, Latinos and immigrants who make up the majority of low wage workers in our city. The good news is, the governor now says he would support legislation doing so after initially rejecting the mayor’s proposal. Increasing the minimum wage makes sense on several levels: it will give low-income families more disposable funds, almost all of which they will spend in the local economy. And increased consumer spending will spur job growth.
Albany can also help preserve affordable housing in the city by strengthening rent regulations when they come up for renewal next year. While the city’s poverty rate remained unchanged for the most part, rents have continued to rise in the city’s low-income neighborhoods putting an even tighter squeeze on household budgets for poor families.
Roughly 2.5 million people live in rent-regulated housing, including almost a million poor and near-poor individuals with incomes below twice the poverty line. The monthly rent is the biggest expense for low-income households, leaving very little disposable income to pay for food, clothes, a MetroCard, change for the laundry and other essentials.
The bottom line is this: low-income families and the working poor have not recovered from the Recession. But the rent they pay continues to rise. In fact, rising rents are to blame for the diminished supply of affordable housing for low-income residents. From 2001 to 2011, the city lost about 385,000 apartments affordable to low-income households with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. According to our latest data from the 2014 Unheard Third survey, 29 percent of poor households in the city reported falling behind in the rent during the past year. And 27 percent of low-income (below 200% of the poverty threshold) New Yorkers did so.
Re-investment in NYCHA
Finally, we need our political leaders in Albany, as well as here in the city, to make a long-term capital commitment to upgrading and preserving public housing. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is home to more than half a million families with an annual median income of $17,600. Over the last decade, the termination of city and state operating subsidies to NYCHA, starting with the State in 1998 and then the City in 2003, accounts for a loss of about a billion dollars. Until 2014 when Mayor de Blasio’s budget first relieved NYCHA of its $70 million payment for police services, the City extracted $100 million annually in payments for police and property taxes. The City and State combined have drained NYCHA of well over two billion dollars in the decade before federalization. Public housing residents are now paying the price for those policy decisions in the form of deteriorating living conditions.
With federal funding historically inadequate and unpredictable, city and state leaders must step up and provide the resources to preserve decent housing options for future generations. This requires a partnership approach by the City and State, starting with a ten-year capital commitment of two billion dollars -- $200 million annually – from recent multi-billion dollar bank settlements to compensate for recent losses and invest in needed capital improvements.
New York City is quickly becoming defined as a city for the very wealthy, populated largely by the very poor. We must ask ourselves if 1.7 million people living in poverty -- 415,000 of whom are black -- is an acceptable status quo. And if it is not, we must demand that our elected officials – and those seeking to hold office– commit to supporting policies that will help low-income individuals and families get ahead. For the good of the city, the annual tradition of simply shrugging our shoulders at unflinching poverty numbers must come to an end.