Poll: Black New Yorkers feel they are slipping further down economic ladder

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Each year the Community Service Society surveys New York City’s low-income residents about their views and on what programs and policies would help them get ahead economically.

Just in time for the start of the 2016 legislative session, the latest findings from the annual Unheard Third poll are in. And the conclusion is that many New Yorkers are still waiting for our government leaders to address problems that are making it harder for them to move up the economic ladder.

Among the poor, 8 out of 10 feel they are not getting ahead, including a quarter who see themselves losing ground. Nearly four out of ten low-income New Yorkers reported experiencing three or more hardships, such as skipping meals and falling behind in the rent, and one-quarter of low-income residents reported experiencing five or more.  These hardships are in many cases being experienced by working New Yorkers. 

For many, current wage levels are not enough to keep them from experiencing significant hardships, a problem that seems to especially prevalent in the black community. Indeed, 48 percent of poor and 45 percent of near poor blacks reported experiencing three or more hardships, compared to 39 percent of poor and 22 percent of near poor whites.

Raising Minimum Wage and Making College Affordable

When asked about strategies that could aid struggling New Yorkers get ahead, New Yorkers of all incomes voiced strong support for an upward mobility agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable, passing statewide paid family leave, making mass transit more affordable, and reining in the practice of unpredictable scheduling of work hours.

By a wide margin, New Yorkers said raising the minimum wage and making college more affordable would have the greatest impact on improving economic conditions for low-income residents. Nearly half of low-income New Yorkers surveyed selected raising the minimum wage and 36 percent said making college more affordable. The order was reversed when the question was asked of moderate- and higher-income New Yorkers – 40 percent said making college more affordable and 36 percent named raising the minimum wage.

Gov. Cuomo used his State of the State/Executive Budget address this month to make a compelling case for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Last year, the governor used his executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for fast-food workers as well as for state employees.

Low-income Blacks Experience Greater Rates of Hardships

According to our survey, low-income blacks were the most likely group to select increasing minimum wage as one of two things that would most help them get ahead – 57 percent compared to 47 percent of low-income respondents overall.  And when asked specifically about the proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, 88 percent of blacks were in favor, including more than three-quarters strongly in favor, the strongest support of any group. 

When asked whether they had experienced any of a battery of hardships related to food, housing, health and economic security, the survey found that low-income blacks experienced significantly greater rates of hardship compared to low-income whites.

Low-income blacks experience housing related hardships at especially high rates:  36 percent of low-income blacks reported falling behind on their rent or mortgage, compared to 24 percent of low-income respondents overall, and 24 percent of low-income blacks reported having their gas, electricity, or telephone cut off compared to 14 percent of low-income respondents overall. 

As an advocate for the poor, I commend the governor for presenting a budget and a vision that in tangible ways seeks to reverse the trend of income inequality that has become all too familiar. Acknowledging that seven years after the Great Recession too many New Yorkers are still struggling to make ends meet, the governor appears to be on a mission to reclaim his progressive street cred.

Besides advocating for a $15 an hour minimum wage, the governor invoked the name of his late father, Mario Cuomo, who died last year on New Year’s Day to make a poignant appeal for passage of paid family leave. Additionally, he called for spending $100 million on transforming failing schools in high needs communities and investing $55 million on an urban job-training effort that is credited with giving blacks and Latinos in the Bronx a viable alternative to the streets. The $20 billion commitment over the next five years to address the state’s affordable housing needs, including $10 billion for supportive housing to combat homelessness, which has reached a crisis point in the city, was very welcome.  

But it heightened the disappointment that not a cent of new state funds was allocated to preserve New York City’s troubled public housing. We can only hope that during the course of the current legislative session, preservation of public housing is added to the list of budget commitments.  

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