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The Income Chasm in New York City


Census data from the 2010 Census about poverty in New York City came as no surprise. In “New York City Poverty Rate Rises As Gap Between Rich And Poor Widens,” (The Huffington Post, September 20, 2012) reports that poverty in the city rose for a third straight year with about 74,000 people falling below the poverty line of $11,500 for a single person ($23,210 for a family of four). The Post cited a New York Times report that 21 percent of New Yorkers were considered poor, while the top fifth income bracket in the city had income of $223,285, up $1,919 from 2010. The median income of the lowest fifth, however, was $8,844, a decrease of $463 from 2010. Manhattan recorded a jump of 1.9 percent in poverty in 2011, with the Bronx having the highest poverty rate of the five boroughs at 30.4 percent. The article quotes a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, stating that the Times report “mirrored a national trend.”

I recently spoke with Sarah, a worker at a homeless shelter in Manhattan, to talk about the issues of poverty and race. Sarah began our discussion with a comment about the cost of housing in the city. She stated that the average cost of a one room apartment in the city is $3,300 a month. With the high cost of housing and the increasing rate of poverty in the city, Sarah asked, “At that cost, where are poor people supposed to live?”

According to Sarah, there are no new Section 8 (federal housing subsidies) to be had, and the city got rid of the Work Advantage program three years ago. “They got rid of this rental subsidy program for people who came out of drug treatment programs, which left this homeless class of people paying rent at the going market value.”

New York’s Human Resource Administration and the Department of Homeless Services require that homeless people “work full time and save 60 percent of their income for an apartment. Most people are being pushed into $8, $9, or $10 per hour jobs that can’t nearly reach the 60 percent income threshold for housing costs. The homeless also can’t be expected to pay for other necessities with the hourly wages that are currently paid.”

Sarah spoke about the state of job training programs in the city. “Job training programs are not encouraged because they’re not work programs. School is completely out. So there are no paths for people to follow to improve their income earning potential.”

Back to the subject of housing, Sarah observed, “Do the math: people end up back in single room occupancy units (SROs) at $500, $600, or $700 per month. And the SROs are depressing. Living in a single room long term is both sad and impossible with children.”

Sarah sees the process of gentrification, which has been going on for decades in New York City as one of the causes of the perfect storm of homelessness that she sees daily. “Gentrification is the result of a political and an economic system that caters to the rich. The city is so gentrified that even the original gentrifiers can’t afford to live here anymore. Housing in the borough of Manhattan is not even affordable to college graduates any longer.”

The homeless shelter that Sarah works in provides services for men. Most men who use the shelter have no family, have developmental disabilities, are illiterate, and have behavioral problems.  Sarah says that the system “tells them to get a job.” Almost all of the men in the shelter are black or Hispanic. The system is “punitive” according to Sarah. “If the men don’t go into the city’s work programs, then they try to filter them into $8 per hour jobs. Back to work programs are places where men wait until they’re offered dead-end jobs. Most of the men of color in the program have petty criminal offenses in their records that make it even harder for them to even get $8 per hour jobs.  And rooming programs require credit checks that the men’s petty offenses may turn up on.”

Sarah sees several forces working against black men who use the shelter. They have to deal with criminal records for petty offenses, they’re displaced by gentrification, and the result is that there is an ongoing destruction of existing black communities. They don’t have the kind of education to succeed in this economy and they can’t subsist on $9 per hour jobs. She views the city’s stop and frisk policy as a purposeful effort to give people criminal records. Since 2002 the city has conducted five million stop and frisks, a policy of both the Bloomberg administration and the New York Police Department that has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal district judge. “Judge Rules NYPS ‘Stop and Frisk’ Unconstitutional, Cites ‘Indirect Racial Profiling’” (Democracy Now, August 13. 2013).

Sarah’s experiences as a worker at a homeless shelter are reflected in Census data and the continuing and widening gap between the haves and the have nots. Her account of what is happening to a segment of the population in New York City is a telling indictment of the system of Jim Crow and the war on the working class that lives on in this nation today.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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