The latest Census Bureau figures show that the poverty rate in New York City fell from 20.0 percent in 2015 to 18.9 in 2016. According to the American Community Survey, 1.59 million New Yorkers lived at or below the official federal poverty level ($24,339 for a family of four) in 2016. That’s about 95,000 fewer people in poverty from the year before. This is a continuation of the gradual decline in the poverty rate but remains above the pre-recession low of 18.5 percent.
Some groups are still disproportionately impacted by high poverty rates. Poverty rates continue to be the highest for single mothers (down from 40.6 percent in 2015 to 38.3 percent in 2016). Half the single mothers we polled in 2016 as part of Community Service Society’s annual Unheard Third survey said they worry all or most of the time about having enough income to meet their family’s expenses and 70 percent said they had less than $500 in savings to fall back on in tough times. And among the city’s ethnic groups, Latinos had the highest poverty rate (at 26.6 percent in 2016, down from 28.4 percent in 2015).
The shrinking number of New Yorkers living in poverty reflects solid gains in employment and wages at both the national and local levels since the end of the Recession eight years ago. In 2016, the city experienced strong job growth, adding roughly 75,000 jobs between January 2016 and December 2016. As of July 2017, there were 727,000 more jobs in New York City than there were at the same point in 2010, and 172,000 fewer unemployed New Yorkers, a 47-percent drop from 2010. The citywide seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate now stands at 4.7 percent, down from 9.4 percent in 2010.
The economic recovery only explains part of the picture. As our Policies Matter report shows, progressive government policies benefiting low-wage workers such as minimum wage increases, as well as the expansion of paid sick days, helped raise incomes and protect workers from job loss or reduced earnings. Of the low-income workers under the age of 65 we polled in 2016, 21 percent said that they saw a reduction in their hours or wages in the previous year, down from the 2010 peak of 36 percent.
The positive impact of other progressive policies such as two consecutive freezes on one-year leases for the city’s rent-regulated apartments and the State’s highly successful, aggressive efforts to enroll New Yorkers in affordable public and private health coverage do not figure in the calculation of the official census poverty measure. But these policies alleviate hardships by reducing the amount of money that the poor spend on housing and health care, two categories that comprise a substantial share of household expenditures. The uninsurance rate in New York State fell from 10.7 percent in 2013 (prior to the Affordable Care Act implementation) to 6.1 percent in 2016, with an additional 992,000 residents gaining coverage between 2013 and 2016. Critical to the dramatic reduction of the uninsurance rate in New York has been the establishment of a fully integrated health plan marketplace (known as the New York State of Health) and the launch of a Basic Health Program that provides quality coverage to 700,000 New Yorkers for less than $20 per month. Our survey found that the share of the city’s poor households experiencing 3 or more serious hardships fell from 50 percent in 2014 to 34 percent in 2016, the year covered in the census statistics released today.
These gains are now under threat. President Trump’s 2018 budget has proposed deep cuts in federal funding for critical programs and services benefiting low-income New Yorkers such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), Medicaid, rental housing assistance, and workforce development programs for disconnected youth and other disadvantaged workers. We must continue to press Congress to maintain current levels of federal funding for these programs and continue to advocate for state and city policies that will boost incomes and alleviate hardships of low-income New Yorkers.
The good news is that some of these policies are already in the pipeline, including the gradual phase-up of the general minimum wage to $15 in New York City by the start of 2020. By the end of this year, the minimum wage will rise to $12 for workers at small firms with 10 or fewer employees and $13 for those at large firms with 11 or more employees in New York City. Starting in January 2018, one of the country’s strongest and most comprehensive paid family leave laws will also be implemented in New York State, protecting employees from loss of earnings and jobs when they need to care for a new child or seriously ill family member.
But more remains to be done. Over the past five years (between May 2012 and 2017), average subway and bus fares have increased more than three times as fast as inflation. The city’s own poverty measure, which is more comprehensive than the federal poverty rate, found that commuting costs can strain family resources and have a bigger impact on increasing poverty rates than even payroll taxes or childcare expenses. Half-price MetroCards for New York City residents living below poverty, widely known as “Fair Fares,” is another policy that would provide significant savings in daily expenses for the 28 percent of poor, working-age New Yorkers who said that they often cannot afford subway and bus fares. Fair Fares would help to better connect them to the jobs, higher education and training programs, and social supports across the city that can help them and their families move up the economic ladder. As part of his “Fair Fix for NYC Subways” plan announced last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for funding Fair Fares along with a modest increase in the current “millionaires’ tax.”