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Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Helping Foster Children Become Better Parents


Amy Cooper sits in a circle with seven pregnant women and one new mother demonstrating the techniques of infant massage. Massage, she explains, can be a valuable tool to help a newborn deal with tension and stress, sleep more and cry less, and connect with a mother in a physical way.

One woman seems surprised and slightly nervous about the idea that babies liked to be touched.

"Some of us have negative experiences with touch, like if it was used to punish us," Cooper says. "For moms who haven't had good experiences, baby massage can be a positive way to respond to your baby when he or she is upset. Rather than neglecting or hurting your baby, you can massage.”

The women in the group understand: They are all teenagers, all live in foster care, and most have experienced abuse and neglect themselves.

Cooper’s class at Inwood House, a group home for pregnant and teenage mothers, is one of a handful of initiatives in New York City that aim to stop generational cycles of abuse by working with young moms. Like the massage class, many of these programs focus on educating mothers living in foster care.

HELPING CHILDREN WITH CHILDREN

Although teenage pregnancy has decreased significantly in the last 10 years, it remains common for girls in foster care. By age 19, nearly half of all girls in foster care have been pregnant, and 31 percent have had a child. (Nationwide, 12.2 percent of girls have had a child by age 19.)

The national Nurse-Family Partnership has long helped low-income, first-time mothers learn to parent. In October, it started a special project in New York City to recruit girls who are in foster care, homeless, or coming out of jail from Rikers Island. The program works with the youth development programs at the Administration for Children’s Services and at foster care agencies to reach the teen parents.

“We’re targeting them because these moms are more vulnerable,” says Julia Carter, a supervisor of the program. “They have all the questions any new mother would have, but less support.”

Each expectant mom in the Nurse-Family Partnership is assigned a nurse, who visits with the mother while she's still pregnant. The nurse helps the mom get prenatal care and tries to help her cut down on unhealthy habits like smoking. Later, the nurse teaches the mother how to care for her baby, helps her to who her child is, and how they can form a relationship.

A SAFE PLACE TO BE A MOM

But the partnership does not reach every young mother who needs help. When a young mom named Melanie (not her real name), started feeling like her two-year-old son was too much to handle, she thought she would have to give him up. As a single mother living in a homeless shelter, she didn't believe that she was able to take care of her toddler.

So Melanie was relieved when her shelter sent her to the New York Foundling’s Crisis Nursery, an organization dedicated to “saving, preserving, and building families” that dates back to 1869.

The lower Manhattan nursery -- which offers up to three weeks of free childcare to parents facing a crisis, emergency cash and goods, and counseling -- found out that Melanie was a victim of domestic violence and feared she couldn't keep her son safe.

The Crisis Nursery helped Melanie obtain an order of protection against her abuser. They also gave her counseling on domestic violence, and connected her to a support program in her own community. Melanie is now living with her child and continues to stay in contact with the organization.

"She feels more capable of meeting her son's needs," said Victoria Peña, the director of the Crisis Nursery. "And she knows she can always count on us for support."

Peña says that facing a crisis without support can be more than even the most well-meaning parent can handle. And too often, such events send some children into foster care. By caring for the parent as well as the child, the Crisis Nursery hopes to make the family safer now and in the future – and enable the children to remain with their parent.

"If we had programs like this in the outer boroughs abuse rates would drop and neglect would drop,” says New York Foundling Director Bill Baccaglini.

But not all young moms agree. Some worry that accepting services will make their kids more likely – not less -- to get caught up in the city’s children’s services system. Young moms who have been in care themselves or have had negative experiences with city agencies can also find it hard to trust outsiders offering them services, especially ones connected to foster care. Because the Crises Nursery gets funding from the Administration for Children’s Services and must report evidence of physical abuse, for instance, some mothers fear that their children may be taken away from them.

But the program’s organizes say they work to win the trust of the young mothers with histories of foster care. Then, the organizers say, the real work begins. One of the main challenges is teaching a young mother who had been abused or neglected how to communicate and bond with her baby in healthy ways.

“The hardest thing for any new parent is realizing that this little baby is a person with its own personality,” says Carter of the Nurse-Family Partnership Program. “As new parents, you have to learn to work with that personality so that you can communicate and understand what your baby needs from you. I think when things go wrong is when there's no communication.”

THE POWER OF COMMUNICATION

When Cooper teaches infant massage to the soon-to-be-mothers at Inwood House -- demonstrating on a seven-month-old named Madison -- she explains that babies communicate with their mothers and the environment through body language.

"Some of us get disappointed when we're looking at our baby and he or she looks away,” Cooper says. “It's not that they're rejecting you, but they're saying 'that was a lot to take in, give me a moment.’”

Toward the end of her massage, Madison gets restless and begins giggling. She squirms while her mom tries to massage her face, and her mom has to stop.

"That's OK," Cooper says, explaining that massage is simply a way of connecting and relaxing, and every baby has her own limits. "She's showing you she's had enough."

This article by Natasha Santos and La Quesha Barner both writers at Represent, a magazine written by and for teens in foster care, is adapted from the pages of our partner Youth Communication. Additional reporting by Sasha Chavkin. 

Helping Young Mothers Help Their Babies and Themselves


When Sheena Persaud became pregnant at 17, the Queens resident did not know much about taking care of a child. She did not have a high school diploma or many other resources.

Such difficult circumstances can often threaten the well being of both mother and child. But Persaud decided to try to improve her odds. She enrolled in the Nurse-Family Partnership, a free city program, and began getting weekly visits from visiting nurse Carol Coleman. Together, they discussed parenting techniques, healthy nutrition and communicating with infants.

"The program taught me what to expect when being a mom," Persaud said. "If I didn't join it I wouldn't know half of what I know when it comes to taking care of a baby."

Now a graduate of the program, Persaud has earned her GED high school equivalency certificate. She is working in a bakery and but hopes to train for a career in nursing. Her daughter Serena is two.

THE HIGH RISKS OF POVERTY

Children such as Serena face daunting challenges. More than half - 54 percent - of children of single mothers in New York City are poor. And, according to the Children's Defense Fund, poor children are more likely to die before their first birthday than more affluent children. Once they start school, they are twice as likely as to have to repeat a grade and three and half times as likely to drop out.

A lack of parenting skills can take a more immediate toll. New York City government recorded more than 65,000 reports of child abuse and neglect in 2006. In the first 11 months of that year, 40 of the children suspected of being abused died -- though not necessarily because of that abuse.

A SIMPLE REMEMDY

The Nurse Family Partnership takes a simple approach to such overwhelming problems. Under the program, a registered nurse visits a low-income, first time mother, starting during the woman's pregnancy and ending after the child turns 2. The goal is to help mothers have healthier pregnancies, to improve the child's health and development, and to assist the mothers in becoming more self-sufficient. During the visits, which take place every week or so, the mothers learn how to breastfeed, create a healthy environment for the child and plan their future pregnancies. The nurses also listen to the mothers' concerns.

The visitors "give young mothers the sort of cajoling and practical wisdom that in other times would have been delivered by grandmothers or elders," David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column.

"A first-time mom isn't sure of what's going to happen, you don't know what life is going to offer you and at least this is giving you a head start on it," visiting nurse Eulanda Greene, who works in Jamaica, Queens, said.

The program is the brainchild of psychologist David Olds. Working in a day-care center in Baltimore, Olds thought the care and he and his coworkers were providing there was "too little, too late" and that children would be better served if their parents received some assistance earlier. In 1977, Olds and some colleagues came up with the idea to have a registered nurse visit low-income, first-time mothers.

This concept, Katherine Boo wrote in a 2006 New Yorker article on the program, "is rooted in a pessimistic view of the future that awaits an American child born poor -- a sense that the schools, day-care centers, and other institutions available to him may do little to nurture his talents. Shrewder, then, to insulate him by an exercise of uncommon intrusion: building for him, inside his home, a better parent."

GETTING RESULTS

Pessimistic or not, it seems to work. A study conducted in Memphis, one of the first cities where the partnership was implemented, found children whose mothers were in the program spent 80 percent fewer days in the hospital for injuries or swallowing something hazardous than other similar children. Three studies of participants in the program found an array of other benefits. For example, both parent and child were far less likely to spend time in jail than they might have been had they not taken advantage of the program. The RAND Corporation has figured that every dollar invested in the program produces a return of $5.70, coming saving society about $34,148 per child.

"When it comes to improving the odds for poor mothers and infants, it's hard to beat the Nurse-Family Partnership," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in this year's State of the city speech. "Through one-on-one nurturing and guidance, NFP helps first-time mothers build stronger futures for themselves and their children."

NEW YORK'S PROGRAM

Over the years, the program has expanded and today serves about 20,000 families in 300 communities across the country. It was first introduced in New York City in 2003 with an office in Jamaica. A year later the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene expanded it expanded to Harlem. The program is aimed at the parts of the city with the highest infant mortality and teen pregnancy rates: South Bronx, East and Central Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and Jamaica East. It also tries to reach young mothers in foster care, homeless shelters and at Rikers Island.

Now, Bloomberg has pledged to expand the Nurse-Family Partnership by 50 percent in New York City by the end of the year. That would raise the budget to $3 million, enough to serve 1,300 families. Currently, the program can visit 845 families, but only 420 take advantage of this free resource. Many others simply do not know the program exists.

One other obstacle to the program's further expansion, according to a report in New York magazine, is the city's shortage of nurses.

Though the program costs about $5,500 per family a year, Lisa Landau, director of the Nurse-Family

Partnership for the health department, said it will reduces costs for New York City taxpayers in the long term. "There are savings in health care costs, child neglect costs, juvenile justice and there are also lower arrest rates for children and their parents," Landau said.

A 2004 report by the health department anticipated, based on previous evidence, that in New York City, the program would reduce child abuse and neglect among participants by 50 percent, and increase the amount of time that mothers in the program wait before having their second child, a change that cuts the risk of the premature births.

Having worked in the Jamaica, Queens office for almost four years, Greene said she has already seen the effects. The young mother, she said, make real progress.

"We teach them how to understand the baby's cues," Greene said. "They find out that it's normal for babies to cry and always put things in their mouth. I even have them observe other mothers on the streets and they realize so many of the mothers are not really paying attention to their children. A simple thing one client told me is that she saw a toddler walking with his mom and the mom was practically dragging the baby. She has to know he has short legs and he can't walk as fast as she can walk."

After graduating from the program, Persaud said she learned how to take care of her daughter, but she also learned something she wasn't expecting: how to take care of herself. "The nurse always motivated me to do something with myself," Persaud said. "She would push me to do things all the time. She even picked me up and took me to get a library card one day so I could study. Because of her I have everything. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be so active, I would just stay at home and take care of the baby."

 

After Prison


GOTHAM GAZETTE:

We're here with Jennifer Gonnerman, formerly of the Village Voice, who will talk to us about Life on the Outside: the Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. The book uses the story of one woman to talk about some issues facing the city, and the nation as well – but our focus is the city. These issues are the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and ex-prisoners' reintegration into society.

Ms.. Gonnerman, when you met Elaine Bartlett, you were working as a reporter for the Village Voice, meeting with various inmates. What struck you about her, that you would spend the next several years writing a book that rests on her story?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I met Elaine Bartlett in 1998 when she was in Bedford Hills prison doing 20 to life, and she was in year 14. At that time I was at the Voice, and it was the 25th anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which no one was even writing about because by news standards there was no real news reason to write about it – they had been on the books for so long and nothing had changed. I used the anniversary as an excuse to interview five people [in New York prisons] who were doing at least 15 to life for a first drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

That day at Bedford I interviewed three women; she was the last. The first two women who came in got all dolled up for the interview. Elaine came in last, and she looked like she hadn't gotten out of bed in a month. She purposely wore her whole uniform; she certainly hadn't brushed her hair or anything. I didn't want to ask any questions because she looked so deeply depressed. I was afraid that if I asked her about her life, or her sentence, or her prison circumstances, that she might just break down and cry. But of course I was there, and that was my job. So I started asking questions, and she started answering them. She was so both blunt and honest about her life, and perceptive, that I was just very struck by her.

I found her to be such a good interview – and of course her story is so unbelievably compelling: she was doing 20 to life, went in when she was 26, when she was locked up she had four kids under the age of 10, it was a first offense –

GOTHAM GAZETTE: -- And she was set up.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yes, and she was set up. I didn't even know half the stuff that's in the book at that time. In fact, I didn't know there was going to be a book. But I did quote her in the piece extensively, and ended up writing another piece about her a year later before she got clemency. When she got out of prison, I was there. The book grew out of those articles from the Voice, but the relationship really started with that very first meeting.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you remember anything specific that she said in that first meeting that stuck with you?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The meeting was April 1998, and her mother passed away in either February or March. She described going to say goodbye to her mother. This meant leaving Bedford Prison in a van, shackled, going to a hospital in East Harlem, and walking through the hospital in shackles to say goodbye to her mother, who she hadn't seen outside a prison setting in 14 years. Her mother is in bed, a day or two before her death, and she basically just climbed into the bed next to her wearing the shackles. It had happened just a few weeks before, and she was crying when she told the story. It's just the kind of thing you never forget.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You write that in many ways she is not typical of the people who are in prison, and the people who are in prison for the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So two questions: how so? And then, the obvious question: Why write a book about her in particular?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It's probably impossible to pick any prisoner and say, "this prisoner is completely typical." Because prison is just like society – who is the typical American? She's unusual because she's female – that puts her very much in the minority.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: About 15 percent of prisoners are female?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I think it's less than that.

Elaine was also unusual because she was at Bedford Hills, which is the only maximum security prison for women in New York State, and it also had a college program. Many prisons used to have college programs, but they eliminated virtually all of them in the mid-1990s when Congress voted to take Pell Grants away from prisoners. But Bedford raised money privately, so Elaine was able to continue an education, get an associates degree, and move towards a bachelors. So by the time she came out she was much better educated than most other people coming out of prison.

She also did a tremendous amount of time – 16 years. That's an extraordinary amount of time, especially for a non-violent offense. You see a lot of people going in and out, but for someone to do such a long stretch at one time is pretty unusual.

ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How do the Rockefeller Drug Laws work? And you can say they don't really, but what is the mechanism of it?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The Rockefeller Drug Laws were created in 1973 under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. They were the first mandatory minimum drug laws in the country, so in a lot of ways they kicked off the nation's War on Drugs.

Mandatory minimum sentences mean that your prison term is mandatory. The power has shifted from the judges to the prosecutors in a sense in determining what the severity of your punishment will be. The judge's hands were essentially tied; once you were convicted of a certain crime he or she had to give a certain punishment, a mandatory punishment. And the way that the punishment was determined was by the weight of the drugs involved, not, for example, by whether you were a drug kingpin or a drug mule.

In Elaine's case she was arrested for a drug sale to an undercover cop for more than two ounces, the highest level, an A1 felony, in New York State. So the judge was required to give her at least 15 to life. She had the bad luck of having a judge up in Albany county, "Maximum" John Clyne, who gave her twenty to life.

This way of fighting the War on Drugs was copied across the country, and also by the federal government. These laws are still on the books, even though many states have softened them.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: They also don't place all drugs on an equal footing.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, the Rockefeller Drug Laws apply to cocaine and heroin. Meanwhile, New York State has a very lenient policy on marijuana. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is technically a violation, not a crime. Way back when, in the 1970s, a lot of middle college kids started getting a lot of state prison time for marijuana, and parents went ballistic. You had a lot of parents up in Albany lobbying, and that's when they started to really decriminalize marijuana in New York State. I always felt if you had the same kids getting locked up under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, maybe we wouldn't have the situation we have now, which is that roughly 94 percent of inmates in the state prison system who are there under the drug laws are African American or Latino.

BOB ZANE: It seems like before Governor Rockefeller signed these laws he had a liberal reputation. Then he made these drug laws. Do you think one of the reasons he did this is because he wanted to run for president or vice president of the United States?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: A lot of people who were around him at the time basically said as much. There was such a marked difference from the past; they felt he had gone from playing for a New York audience to a national audience. He had to shore up his conservative credentials, and what way to do that faster and easier than appearing tough on crime?

REJOINING SOCIETY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You write that when you interviewed Elaine after she got of prison, you imagined this as the happy ending to her prison story. But your book continues for years, following her difficult effort to rejoin society. What trials that she faced surprised you the most?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, everything surprised me. The day she walks out of prison, she describes it as the happiest day of her life, of course. I had been going up to visit her in the weeks before, as the excitement was building. After fighting for a couple of years, she had received clemency from Governor Pataki. He had only given it to three or four people out of 70,000; it's like winning the lottery. So she got four years shaved off her sentence.

Elaine imagined that this was a happy ending to a very traumatic and tragic story. I thought it was the beginning of better days. It turned out we were both very, very naĂŻve and overly optimistic.

I thought that when you get out of prison, you'd find a place to live, you'd get a job, and in six months you'd be up and running. After she got out of prison, I wrote a piece for the Voice about the release. I continued to stay in touch with her. Sometimes she would call me at the Voice and explain the scene in her apartment, and her relationships with the kids, which were increasingly frayed. She used to say things on the phone to me like, "I left one prison to come home to another." That phrase is almost like a mantra that runs through the book. I realized in a lot of ways that the story was just starting, the struggle was just beginning. It was another whole journey she was about to undertake.

I ended up following her for the first year for a piece that ran in the Village Voice in 2000. It was 18 pages in the Voice, very long. After the piece came out, she had a job. She didn't really have a place to live yet – she was still living with her children at the Lilian Wald houses on Avenue D. And we stayed in touch and would hang out sometimes. She would say, "Hey, how about you write a book." And I would say, "A book? 18 pages in the Village Voice isn't enough? How much more is there to say? Is there really anything else going to happen here?" I didn't know. She promised me that the story hadn't ended, and of course it had not.

It got to this question of how long it takes someone to re-enter society, and to get back up on their feet. The book ends up following her over four years, and I would say the process continues even to this day. Especially someone who did as much time as she did. She went in at 26, and when she got out in some ways she was still 26 and in other ways she was 42. So there was this incredible learning curve. That's a lot of what the book deals with. People use the term reentry. For a lot of people coming out of prison it's much more complex than that. In a lot of ways I think it's a lifelong process.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: In general, is the difficulty in getting out of prison because of actual legal barriers, or because prisoners have been damaged socially by being in prison?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, both.

The list is so long about what the problems people face coming home from prison. It's become an increasingly popular subject in the last three or four years. There's a long list of things prisoners can't do: in New York State you can't get a barber's license. If you're on parole you can't stay out after nine, can't vote, can't legally live in a housing project, even though the housing projects are full of people that have been through the prison system.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: No matter what the crime was that you were convicted of?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The laws vary state to state. In New York you can't vote if you are on parole -- it doesn't matter what the crime is. Most people coming out are on parole. There are basic parole rules and then sometimes they add on special ones.

The barber's license you can't get if you're a convicted felon unless they make a special exception for you.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: In the Drum Major Institute blog there was the story of a guy who was in prison –

JENNIFER GONNERMAN; -- Marc LaCloche. He was a barber on the inside, he was trained by the prison system and became very good. He came out and wanted to be a barber and why not? He couldn't get a license, and he fought and it was a court battle, and he won, and then it was appealed. It was endless. One day I was sitting at the Village Voice and someone called me and told me Marc LaCloche had passed away. And in a very small world, he was a little bit of a celebrity, because he was the one person who actually tried to fight for his rights. He was en route to Potters Field, and we ended up writing a piece on him in the Voice. All these people came forward and donated money and he ended up being buried in New Jersey in a cemetery.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How had he died?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He ended up dying of AIDS.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What I don’t understand is why they trained him as a barber in prison in the first place if he wasn't allowed to practice when he was released.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It makes no sense, but it's not really unusual. What people spend their time doing in prison often times has virtually no relationship to what work they may be able to do on the outside.

This speaks to a larger ambivalence on the part of society about what are we putting people in prison to do. Are we trying to punish them or are we trying to rehabilitate them? There was a time when prisons were thought to be correctional facilities and rehabilitation was the goal. But over the last thirty years or so there has been a shift to pure punishment. This is why you have virtually no college programs anymore, why you have people not trained for jobs that they could actually do, or trained for jobs that don't exist.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: These are things that are obviously barriers. What about the psychological issues? Would these exist no matter what?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: When I was thinking about Elaine getting out of prison, what her year would be like, and what I would be reporting on, I had been thinking that as long as she gets an apartment and a job that she'd be okay. But she had four kids, and for her the biggest struggle coming out was not finding an apartment or a job -– although those struggles were enormous –- it was trying to be a mother to her children and repair these deeply damaged relationships, and make up for all of this lost time.

She has four kids. When she got out of prison, one was at Rikers Island on a drug case of his own, which was something she had to deal with. And though obviously her kids were thrilled to have her home, her two youngest daughters were very upset because their mother had been gone virtually their entire lives. Trying to help these kids who had basically grown up without parents was her full time job in a sense. That speaks a little bit to the psychological ramifications that someone faces when they come home. I think that in some ways they are a little more pronounced for women if they are the primary caretaker.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a most common way that former felons end up in jail?

Bedford Hills, the prison for women.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, there are many ways, but one of the main ways is through parole violations. This can mean any of a host of things – that you give your parole officer dirty urine, failing your drug test; maybe you've stopped going to your parole officer altogether because you don’t want to give him dirty urine, or you're tired of parole. Drugs, in many ways, are the things that take a lot of people back. Either possession or sale, or some crime related to it, or using drugs and disappearing and not reporting to your parole officer anymore.

But also, and this isn't dealt with so much in the book, there are a tremendous amount of people in prison who have some sort of mental illness. And you think the problems were hard for Elaine. When mentally ill people come out of prison, they have very few resources, and often there are periods of time when they can't get their medication. They may behave in ways that are not criminal but just so bizarre that their parole officer thinks that it's better to lock them up before they do something. Mental illness is often what brings people back into the system.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a happy ending to the Elaine Bartlett story? The book ends in 2003. We don't even know if Nathan, her boyfriend who was arrested with her when she was 26, gets out of jail.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He did get out of prison, shortly after the book was published in 2004. This was not specifically related to the book's publication, but the legislature had changed the way that merit time was calculated in part because of the activism of people like Elaine Bartlett.

All of the problems that are detailed in the book don't stop existing after it comes out. Life goes on. The damage done to her entire family by her absence over such a long period of time runs so deep that [it can't be erased] no matter what she does over the next twenty years. She says this herself in a very memorable way: "After being away for 16 years you come home and you're a complete stranger to your family. They love you but they're angry with you at the same time because of everything they went through in those 16 years and you weren't there. You can't get the birthdays back, you can't get the graduations back, you can't get the nights they laid up crying wanting mommy and she was nowhere to be found. You can't get those years back. No matter what you do in life you can never go back." I can't say it any better.

MARTHA SOFFER: What's she doing now?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: She is living in the same place she is at the end of the book, in Washington Heights. She is still trying to rebuild her life. She puts tremendous amount of energy into her granddaughter Tanae. From the passage I just read you can see that the pain of not raising her children is never going to go away. So it's almost like she's trying to be a mother to the grandchild. She had her kids quite young, so if you saw her on the street with her grandchild you might think that was her kid.

MARTHA SOFFER: Is she working?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: She was working, but she just lost her job and I don't think she has a new one yet. The struggles go up and down. There have been good streaks and bad.

MARTHA SOFFER: What kind of work was she doing?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Her last job, I believe, was answering telephones at a community center on the Lower East Side.

EASING THE TRANSITION FROM PRISON

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do city, state, and federal government have responsibilities or incentives to create programs for ex-prisoners? Are such programs politically feasible in New York?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: In the last three or four years there's been a tremendous focus on prisoner reentry, which means there's also been a lot of federal money going into a lot of programs across the country. There's been a tremendous sea change. It used to be that people just talked about, "lock 'em up, lock 'em up", and there was very little thought about what happened on the back end. Now there's been a real focus on that though it's hard to generalize nationally.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What about in New York?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: There are a number of different places people can go for services. The biggest thing is housing. It's a problem for everybody, but the shelters are full of ex-prisoners with nowhere to go.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Are there specific programs for ex-prisoners in terms of housing?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Not so much. There is a little bit of housing specifically for ex-prisoners, but a lot of people in New York City need housing who never committed a crime. That's just a huge problem citywide.

MARTHA SOFFER: What about organizations that can help you get a job?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yeah, there are a lot of organizations. New York City actually has a much higher number than most places, so in some ways Elaine was fortunate that she came home here. There are places like the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society. There's a lot of different places that if you go in there after you've gotten out of prison they will help you get a job. What do you do in an interview? How do you make a resume? What do you say? What do you not say? How do you deal with the inevitable question, "Do you have a felony on your record?" It is possible to get a job for a lot of people when they come out of prison.

This is dealt with a lot in the book. This guy named George Lino helps Elaine to get a job. He plays a very important role by giving her very straight-up advice on how to get a job. He told me once that getting people into jobs is not the hard part; it's making sure they keep their job. This might seem counterintuitive, but these people are coming from a highly structured environment where every decision is made for them. Suddenly they're on the outside and responsible for themselves. They may not have used an alarm clock in ten years. They never wear a watch. There are a lot of things that people may have never dealt with that they must learn before they can be a reliable employee.

FORMER PRISONERS AND ACTIVISM

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Are there specific programs that are known to be most effective, and are they focused here in New York? You said New York is known for its programs. Is it because they're more effective, or just because there are more of them?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: There are a lot of programs here in New York. I mentioned a couple of them; there are many more I can mention. There's a program called Exodus that started in the last five years in East Harlem. It was started by Julio Medina, who was a drug gang leader from, I believe, the Bronx. He did a lot of time, he came out, and said he wanted to start his own organization for people coming out of prison. I met a lot of people who after coming out of prison said they wanted to start their own organization where they gave back and did something positive. He's one of the only people I saw who pulled it off. All the skills he had used in the past to commit crimes he put to good use. He was actually with George Bush at the State of the Union a couple of years ago as a model program. It was very much about people who have come out of prison helping other people who are coming out of prison – a peer model. I think it is a very powerful model, people saying, “I know what you're going though because I've been down that path before.”

One of the things about coming out of prison for Elaine and a lot of people that's so difficult is that you don't have role models. You may know people who have been locked up again, but it's hard to find people who have broken out in the ways you were suggesting. Elaine was very hungry to find those people, to try to follow their lead. Programs that hire a lot of ex-offenders, like Fortune Society, play a crucial role in helping people figure out how to overcome all the legal and psychological hurdles.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a group of people who have devoted themselves to fighting the Rockefeller Drug Laws? Has that given them a purpose in life?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: One of the themes that runs throughout the book is the role that Elaine's activism plays, politically and statewide, but also in her own personal life. After she gets out of prison she does become an activist, hanging out with Tony Papa and other prisoners-turned-activists who did time under the drug laws. For her becoming an activist, speaking at rallies, telling her story again and again, it was therapy, and it was also a way to rewrite her history. I don't mean rewrite by changing the facts of what happened, but by recasting prison as less about a tragedy that decimated her family, but more about, "I went through this and now I'm going to help people avoid the same fate, and change the laws so they don't have to do as much time as I did."

But one of the things about coming out of prison, as I mentioned, is that most people are on parole. And when you're on parole you can't associate with other people who are on parole – other felons. Now that makes sense on the one hand, because you don't want someone who you're trying to steer in the right direction to be hanging out on the corner with people who are selling drugs. But it does make this question of peer counseling or looking for new role models a little more complicated.

CALVIN JOHNSON: I have a question carrying on the theme of activism. To what extent were you motivated by activism as well? Certainly the Village Voice has a reputation of that journalistic style. Can you comment on where you saw an activism agenda or political implications of the book? Beyond telling a story, what are the effects that reach out into the larger situation?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I felt like my personal goal, mission, or purpose was to tell the story as clearly and frankly as possible. What happened after that, politically or otherwise, was out of my hands. I also thought that it wasn't my concern in a sense. One thing that happens with journalists who are well meaning or trying to make a difference, is that there's an impulse to sugarcoat the story. And I think that doesn't make for good journalism.

As an example, when Elaine gets out of prison she is very frustrated and angry, like most people. Her youngest daughters are home, and she starts bossing them around, acting like she thinks a mom should. There's obvious tension, and a couple of times she becomes physical with them. I felt that was a very important thing to put in the book. This speaks to how deep the problems run, how deep the frustrations and anger truly are. Controlling her temper is going to be one of the challenges through the rest of her journey. Of course, this might not be something that an activist would want to read.

TARA McISAAC: I wanted you to comment more if you could about low-income housing. The state funds for low-income housing were re-routed into building prisons. I was appalled at that, and I was wondering if you could educate me any further?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don't know much more than what's in the book, but it talks about state money being earmarked for low-income housing and then being diverted, and I talk about how it was used to build prison cells in upstate New York. One of the saddest parts of Mario Cuomo's legacy is that he built more prisons than any governor before him.

In a lot of ways his hands were tied. You can say, "Well, that's a horrible thing. He shouldn't have done that." But the state legislature had passed these incredibly punitive Rockefeller Drug laws, so he's required, once they are given these very hefty sentences, to put them someplace. For the laws to be changed, the legislature had to change them. And no one was willing to go out on a limb – or what was perceived to be a limb – and change them. That only happened within the last year or two.

It is one of the little known tragedies. We have now 66,000 people locked up, most of whom are in upstate New York. You go to these little towns near the Canadian border and it seems like every other person is a prison guard, because that's the number one employer. All that money that's going up there is money that's not being spent for low-income housing here, or other things. It's extraordinarily expensive – about $32,000 a year – to keep somebody locked up. I think I estimated it cost about half a million dollars to keep Elaine locked up for all that time.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: There are two other aspects of what you were talking about. One were the electoral politics of that – how prisoners are counted as residents upstate.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: This is something that has been getting a lot of attention thanks to the work of one or two people. I'm guessing on the numbers here, but between two-thirds and three-quarters of prisoners in New York State prisons are from New York City. Once they leave the five boroughs their numbers are counted in the Census wherever they are placed. Since virtually all the prisons are upstate, those districts look larger. Obviously they are allocated funds accordingly. There has been a push to count prisoners in their home zip codes, which would benefit New York City.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: The idea is not just that the money is allocated upstate, but that there are more representatives upstate than would be otherwise because there are more districts there because of the populations who are imprisoned, even though they are not allowed to vote for candidates. Some people have compared this to the 18th century where slaves were counted for purposes of apportionment but could not vote.

TERRI GOLDBERG: One thing that was very striking to me in the book was parole violations. I was amazed that they were as strict as they were: the voting, what kind of dog you could own. Do you have any idea of how and why they come up with these? It almost seems like they're still in prison.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you know you can't have a rottweiler or pit bull if you are on parole. Officers don't want to get bitten when they do a house visit. They don't make these rules up for no reason. You have to be home by 9 pm and can't leave before 6 am. That's because officers do house visits to check that you're actually living there. They want to be able to show up at 9:15 and know you'll be there.

But there is a sense that you're still in prison after you leave. Just as I was saying with the prison system that there has been a shift from rehabilitation being the focus to straight-up punishment, the same thing is true with parole. So while there are a lot of parole officers trying to help people when they get out of prison, the pressure is on them to just play the role of law enforcement, just be a cop in a sense. There is very little incentive to not lock someone up, and the fear is that if you don't lock someone up they're going to commit another crime and you're going to be called into your boss's office.

CHANGES IN THE DRUG LAWS

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Let's go back a little to the drug policy, which was changed in 2004. What did these changes mean to people who had been convicted of drug offenses, or for those who are being convicted now?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don't recall all the numbers off the top of my head, but people that were convicted under the A1 statute, the most extreme statute, received less time than they would have previously, a few years less. It was retroactive. But most people who are in the system under the drug laws are so-called B-level felonies, a lower level. They were not affected by these laws.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think the change in administration in Albany will bring more substantial change to the Rockefeller Drug Laws?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It might. But nobody wants to appear to be not tough on crime. It's political suicide. So it's very hard for even the most well-meaning lawmakers to make changes like this. There were some small reforms a few years back, but the laws had basically been unchanged for 31 years. So I don't think you're going to see overnight some dramatic difference. It's a very complicated issue, and very difficult for lawmakers to sort out.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You mentioned that 48 other states have similar rules based on the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Have any of them rolled back since then?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Most of them have softened or changed their drug laws over the years. New York was one of the last. A few years back State Senator David Paterson put a report out saying that our drug laws were still the harshest in the nation, and that's because so many other states that had followed our lead had either seen the light in a sense or could not afford to have so many people locked up for so long, and had consequently reduced the length of some of those sentences.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: The ones who have softened up, their reforms were more thorough than New York's in 2004?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It's hard to generalize, but yes. The perception was that New York State laws were changed, but it wasn't a huge reform. One of the sticking points in these debates about New York drug laws is the idea of mandatory minimums: who should have the power to decide how much time somebody is doing? Should it be in the hands of the judges or should it be in the hands of the district attorneys? A lot of activists want to undo that so that judges have more discretion. Of course the district attorneys association doesn't want to give up power and has been fighting that. So the structure has remained in place. There has been some tinkering around the edges, but it's a battle that is going to continue to be fought.

 

New Help For the Working Poor?


After years of Republican policies in Albany and in Washington, Democrats are assuming power in both capitals. What difference will this make for the working poor and others struggling to make ends meet?

And what changes do New Yorkers, particularly low-income New Yorkers, want from their new officials? In the Community Service Society’s 2006 annual survey, “The Unheard Third,” both low-income and more affluent New Yorkers put two issues at the top of the list of their priorities for their newly elected officials:

*improving city public schools and decreasing the dropout rate,
*keeping rents down and building more affordable housing.

At the same time, The Unheard Third survey dispels two common myths. Though many things divide the poor and the affluent, at least this year they share a common political agenda. Improving the city’s public schools and creating more affordable housing are the top priorities across all income groups.

The second myth is that voters are uniformly allergic to taxes. While New Yorkers oppose higher state income taxes in the abstract, more than seven out of ten say they would be willing to pay more taxes to increase state aid to city public schools or to provide health care coverage for uninsured New Yorkers. Across the board, New Yorkers want real solutions to problems, and they are willing to pay in order to get results.

During the campaign neither Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer nor many of the congressional Democrats said much about what they would do to help the working poor. But Spitzer did say he would provide more money for New York City schools to comply with the court’s ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit on school funding. When the new governor assumes office, he could immediately make good on his pledge to provide the billions of dollars more to deliver a better education to our public school students.

There are many things that the city could do with this money. Everyone understands that it makes sense to invest in the early grades. But problems exist for older students, as well. And the money from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit could give the city some of the resources it needs to address these issues.

According to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 138,000 New York City public school students are over-age and lack the required number of class credits). An estimated 170,000 disconnected youth 16 to 24 have left school but are not in the labor market. An overwhelming majority of these young people come from economically struggling black and Hispanic families.

To help teenagers still in school, the city could offer more programs and incentives to keep the students in classes and to help them gain the skills they need to graduate. Not every student is college bound. Would upgraded career and technical education give them a reason to finish school? We also need to send students, parents, teachers and school leaders a clear message that every student should earn a diploma. To reinforce that message, the state could raise the legal age for leaving school from 16 to 18.

Young people who have already dropped out of school and are struggling in the labor market need skills, credentials and stipends. Some successful models exist – the Job Corps, transitional jobs, GED programs with mentoring and support services, and apprenticeships. But these programs assist only a few thousand people. And the Campaign for Fiscal Equity money will come too late to help tens of thousands more who were failed by the schools system while the state fought against providing more money to city schools. The state could create a special fund to provide money to create the needed programs to assist these young people now.

Housing is the other problem New Yorkers most want their newly elected leaders to fix. While Mayor Bloomberg is trying to expand and preserve affordable housing, the state and federal governments have been largely inactive. The Spitzer administration could work to preserve the affordability of the state’s Mitchell-Lama rental housing and Congress could adequately fund existing public housing and other rent subsidies. Beyond that, there could be a new commitment of capital for affordable housing from both the state and federal levels. Federal and state tax breaks overwhelmingly favor higher income homeowners and seniors, offering little or nothing to low-income tenants who face the highest rent burdens. The new Democratic majority could address that imbalance with relief for low-income renters, who may not pay property taxes directly, but pay them indirectly as part of their rising rents.

Nancy Rankin is director of research at the Community Service Society and creator of The Unheard Third survey, which is based on telephone interviews with 1,230 lower-income New Yorkers and a sample of 500 moderate and higher income New York City residents.  

The Poverty Commission: Measuring Up?


New York City officials have declared an ambitious campaign against poverty, but they must also put together a fuller picture of the effects of poverty in the city, according to Lawrence Aber, a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Commission for Economic Opportunity, which last month released its report, Increasing Opportunity And Reducing Poverty In New York City. Aber, a professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, co-chaired the commission's “work group on data evaluation.” He chatted recently about the shortcomings in the current methods used to measure poverty, and about how to determine whether the city’s new anti-poverty efforts are succeeding:

THE SHAPE OF POVERTY IN NEW YORK CITY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: In its report, the Commission for Economic Opportunity says it wants to work towards developing a "more nuanced picture of poverty and well-being as experienced by New Yorkers." What don't the statistics we currently use tell us about poverty in New York City?

LAWRENCE ABER: The main statistic that the city and the nation use is the percentage of people in households with incomes below the federal poverty line, which is now $19,800 for a family of four. That official poverty measure has a lot of flaws. The main one is that it doesn't take into account differences in what it takes to live compared to what it took in the 1960s...

A second problem is that it doesn't account at all for regional differences in the cost of living. It's the same federal poverty line in Biloxi, Mississippi as it is in the Bronx. It doesn't stand to reason that a dollar goes as far in New York as it does in Biloxi.

The third big problem is that it is a measure purely of income poverty, and it doesn't include measures of families' wealth, assets, or debt. Imagine you're making $19,800 and you own your own house, car, and vegetable patch, and you don't have credit card bills. Then imagine you're making $19,800 and you don't own your own house, car or vegetable patch, and you've got extensive debt. The poverty line can't distinguish between those two families, and the second family is much more economically stressed than the first family.

The final problem is that [we] measure the percentage of people below a cutoff instead of some kind of continuous score. It doesn't stand to reason that someone who makes $10 above the cutoff is wealthier than a family that makes $10 below the cutoff.

1.5 Million Live In Poverty? Maybe Double That

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So do you think that the commonly cited figure that 1.5 million New Yorkers live in poverty is an understatement?

LAWRENCE ABER: Yes I do. That is technically the number of people who live in households with incomes below $19,800. Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs disagrees with me somewhat, because she says that if you take into account the benefits that families get, then the number of people living in households with economic resources below that level is lower.

That's technically true.

But the official line would be much higher today if the original methodology [were reapplied]. That was based on studies that showed that it cost about a third of a low or moderate family's income to feed four people adequately back then. Now food costs less than 15 percent of a family's income. There are other expenses that are much, much higher: transportation costs for going to work, health care costs, childcare costs to be able to work. If you total up in price what on average it costs to provide minimally adequate food, shelter, clothing, basic expenses, for a family of three in New York City, Wider Opportunities for Women estimates that it costs over $40,000 to reach what it calls family economic self sufficiency.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: About how many New Yorkers would be below that line?

LAWRENCE ABER: I haven't run those numbers, but nationally it about doubles or triples the number of people who live in families that cannot meet their basic needs.

Economic Opportunity Index

GOTHAM GAZETTE: One of the recommendations in the commission's report to measure poverty more accurately is to create an Economic Opportunity Index. What is that?

LAWRENCE ABER: An Economic Opportunity Index wouldn't just measure poverty; it would measure a number of dimensions that might go into the economic security of New Yorkers. This would include the percentage of New Yorkers who are covered by health insurance, and the percentage of New Yorkers who are employed. The idea behind an economic opportunity index is to create something like the Dow Jones Industrial Average -- a composite score of many dimensions of the economic and social life of New Yorkers that represents their economic wellbeing.

A single score like that would have several advantages. First, if one dimension of economic wellbeing went up and another went down, you might say things got better or worse if you're only tracking one when, trading off, they stayed the same. A multi-factor system like that is going to create a more reliable gauge.

Second, it's an effective communications tool. One of the things the commission recommended is to demystify this process and help citizens of New York understand the economic health of their fellow citizens and the city as a whole. We think an economic opportunity index could be a big contribution both scientifically and from a communications standpoint.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is the city already collecting the data needed to do this?

LAWRENCE ABER: No. The city has a lot of the data, but a few things would have to be collected anew. Right now city data mostly comes from people who are seeking services. Well, if poor people aren't seeking services, they're not getting into the numbers. The only way you can get some of the numbers for the population of poor people as a whole is to survey them directly.

LOOKING FOR WHAT WORKS

GOTHAM GAZETTE: The report's recommended focus on the working poor, young adults, and children under five has been criticized as too narrow, but the overall report has also been described as too vague. What is your perspective on these critiques?

LAWRENCE ABER: First, on the issue of those three target groups: [the commission has] said very clearly that there is no intention to roll back any of the current investments in low-income families, the aged, welfare recipients, and a number of other subgroups of the poor for whom the city is already doing a fair amount.

The commission identified these three groups who, as the report said, we believe can benefit most directly, immediately, and dramatically from well-focused and coordinated interventions. I endorse that, and when you think of it, in a way they are groups that society as a whole invests the least in right now. Are these the only three subgroups to address? Absolutely not. Are they ones that represent over half the poor, and where we think we can identify strategies that could make a difference in the short-run and really significantly change things? Yes.

There will be a stage two of the initiative. If the city is successful in stage one, it should cast its eyes on the next challenge.

In terms of overly vague, there were 30 commissioners working on a five-month time line with a very active, ambitious, and savvy city administration. The main way we could reach consensus was to articulate recommendations at a general enough level to be of helpful guidance, but not to micromanage.

The people in the commission are not people in government, and they don't have all the technical resources necessary to turn general recommendations into a specific action plan. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the initiative, he also charged Deputy Mayor Gibbs to come up with an action plan and implementation plan in 60 days.

Things will get more concrete with the next phase of the action plan, and they'll get more concrete after that. It takes awhile for government to turn recommendations into specific actions.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Were you able to identify any specific programs or strategies for confronting poverty in New York City that you can definitely say, "this is something worth expanding", or, "this program is absolutely not working"?

LAWRENCE ABER: The city posed the challenge to itself that said, "How can we do this without more state and federal help"? I think that there was the perception that good quality childcare for our youngest kids both worked as a school-readiness strategy and worked as a work-support strategy. The childcare tax credit is an indication of the city taking responsibility to expand resources on a strategy that works.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Were there any strategies or specific programs that you didn't think were worth the investment?

LAWRENCE ABER: The commission did look at some strategies that did come under question, but I think there wasn't a lot of general conversation at the commission about things that weren't working. As a commissioner, I personally believe we should be ready to identify and eliminate expenditures that aren't having an impact on families' real economic security and investment, and then use that money to invest in more effective strategies.

We will undoubtedly find things where we want to shift the investment. That's hard to do in a commission where people pour their life's blood into different components of that. That job is going to end up falling on government. Personally, I think, appropriately so.

HOW WILL WE KNOW WE'RE WINNING?

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What tangible ways are there to measure the success of the city's effort?

LAWRENCE ABER: The first is that there are going to be action steps. In order to implement the childcare tax credit, for example, there are going to have to be several concrete steps taken. Some city and state legislative changes will have to be made, and a new governor will have to adopt these changes. Then the word has to get to families in ways that they actually take up the tax credits. Each of those steps is measurable; you can set up benchmarks.

The goal is to take each of the action items and create such measurable benchmarks, then track the city's progress against those benchmarks.

But even if city government does all of the things the problem can be getting worse if the nation goes into a profound recession. We would know that the problem is getting worse by having an alternative measure of poverty and an economic opportunity index; those would show a worsening economic condition for New York City residents caused by the national recession.

But these measures can't be used in a simple-minded way to say whether a city initiative is working, because other things affect the poverty status of New Yorkers.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How will city agencies be held accountable for their performances?

LAWRENCE ABER: The commission recommended that New York City continue to build on its beginning tradition of accountability in a couple of other areas in city life, [such as] crime control, and homelessness reduction. There, internal benchmarks are tracked, and commissioners are held accountable by the mayor, politically and directly.

We also encourage the city government to look at approaches in other places. The United Kingdom under Tony Blair developed a major anti-poverty initiative in the late 1990s. They have developed an approach where the budgets of national agencies are affected by whether they meet benchmarks or not. This is a process called joined-up government.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How long will it be before we can expect to see results?

LAWRENCE ABER: I think we can expect changes in government action in a year, changes in patterns of investment in two years, and changes in outcome in three years. That's enormously ambitious, but you see the logical sequence there.

One of the things that was emphasized to us a lot by Deputy Mayor Gibbs is how important the mayor felt it was to hold his administration accountable to measurable change. That's the kind of guy he is. I think he would fail by his own standards if there wasn't measurable change in three years. And I don't think he expects to fail.

 

The Many Faces of Poverty


Tenement House

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s poverty commission (officially called the Commission for Economic Opportunity) released its long awaited report on September 18, with a slew of statistics and recommendations about confronting poverty. Below, a dozen responses, which offer a glimpse at some of the many kinds of New Yorkers who are poor:

Disconnected Youth

David Jason Fischer of the Center for an Urban Future approves of the commission's focus on young adults, arguing that moving these young adults into steady jobs will not only help them stabilize their lives, but fill a major economic need as well. (Read More)

 

A Blueprint for Children

With 50 percent of all children in New York being born into poverty, the mayor’s plan provides a good blueprint for addressing the problem, writes Donna Lawrence of the Children’s Defense Fund. The key, though, is how he fills in the details on health insurance, childcare and other important issues. (Read More)

The Working Poor

Urban anthropologist Katherine Newman discusses how many fast food workers – one of the archetypical jobs for the working poor – were able to work their way from poverty to the middle class – and why those who couldn't do so failed. (Read More)

The Government's Role

Heather MacDonald of Manhattan Institute's City Journal urges the government to concentrate on the few things it can do -- creating rigorous, demanding schools and safe streets --, and stay away from things beyond its capacity, such as forcing people to be responsible parents. (Read More)

New Yorkers on Welfare

Public assistance recipient Ketny Jean-Francois argues that any response to poverty must explicitly deal with getting New Yorkers on welfare into stable jobs. (Read More)




Helping People Get Good Jobs

As more jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits, the number of poor people increases. Bich Ha Pham of Hunger Action Network says any strategy to reduce poverty must help people get better jobs.(Read More)

Keeping People Out of College

Higher education can help people get out of poverty but, writes Lynne Weikart of Baruch College, a number of barriers, from high tuition to welfare rules, keep New Yorkers out of college. (Read More)

Poverty Among the Elderly

Seniors in New York City are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as the elderly across the country, writes Bobbie Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City. She explains why and proposes some steps that could be taken to address the problem. (Read More)

From Foster Care To Poverty

"Aging out" of foster care often leads to a life of poverty. For that to change, argue Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff of Youth Advocacy Center, the foster care system must change. (Read More)

Immigrants and the Language Barrier

Over half of the city's immigrants at either impoverished or near poor. The major issue that needs to be addressed, writes Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition, is the language barrier. (Read More)

 


The High Cost of Credit

High-interest loans and a shortage of decent financial services in low-income neighborhoods make New York's poor even poorer, says Sarah Ludwig of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. (Read More)

Implementing the Plan

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum praises the mayor for confronting poverty, but says the issue of funding must be addressed, and public benefits and programs for single mothers should be added as the commission's strategy is implemented. (Read More)

 

Fighting Poverty


Disconnected Youth

David Jason Fischer

In recent years, public and government attention has begun to focus on New York City's "disconnected youth"—young residents between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working. A January 2005 report by the Community Service Society of New York estimated that nearly 170,000 city residents met this description; other measures that include unemployed young people who are actively looking for work peg the number above 200,000.

As is true in general for those in poverty, disconnected youth are not a uniform group. Some became disconnected when they dropped out of high school; others might be struggling to raise their own children; still others contend with physical or mental health problems or other barriers to education or employment. Roughly half have at least completed high school or a GED.

Given the differences in life circumstances, educational attainment and work readiness among the disconnected, there is no single-bullet strategy for reconnecting them to school or work. For many, high school or GED completion is the goal; others, particularly those with high school degrees and family responsibilities, are more likely to be tracked toward job readiness and employment. Unfortunately, the combination of severely limited public resources and bureaucratic confusion among numerous city agencies and programs has led to very small numbers receiving services: a 2005 report from the Young Adult Task Force estimated that fewer than 10,000 disconnected young New Yorkers were reached by city programs.

The Mayor’s Commission for Economic Opportunity identified “young adults,” including disconnected youth, as one of three groups to target for poverty alleviation. Its recommendations include expanding the alternative-education programs and settings now offered by the Department of Education, such as the Learning to Work program and Young Adult Borough Centers; increasing and strengthening “school-community collaborations” that combine education and community service to help keep youth connected; making available more programs that help young adults transition from GED attainment to college; and focusing on the most vulnerable groups -- ex-offenders and young people aging out of foster care -- with a range of services.

My organization, the Center for an Urban Future, noted in a May 2006 report that the problem of disconnected youth also creates a tremendous opportunity for New York City. As pending Baby Boomer retirements create a new and urgent need for workers in key New York City industries like health care and construction, we can work with stakeholders in these and other industries to create training curricula and career tracks that can reconnect young New Yorkers to jobs that will benefit all city residents.

David Jason Fischer is the project director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on issue of economic development in New York City.


Lifting Children Out of Poverty

Donna Lawrence

Fifty percent of the children who are born in New York City today are born into poverty. That is a really frightening statistic. Once children are born into poverty it’s very hard to lift them out.

So, we need to ring the alarm on that alarming number. This report, this commission, is a good first step.

As a blueprint, it’s great. It sets out a framework and covers the critical areas for children and families. The fact that the mayor has done this and is taking leadership is a good signal. But the specific recommendations are going to be key.

For example, the report talks about providing health insurance to children who are uninsured. In New York City, there are about 300,000 children who do not have health insurance, and about 75 percent of those 300,000 are currently eligible for it. So it is good that the mayor recognizes that that children should get health insurance, but the plan does not go into any detail about how he will do that.

We need to know how he is going to reach those kids, what kinds of mechanisms will be put in place to insure that those kids don’t lose coverage and how to simplify the system so that families can get coverage and maintain that coverage.

The Children’s Defense Fund is trying to bring together the food stamp application with the health insurance application. Any child receiving food stamps should be eligible for health insurance, but there are a huge number of kids who get food stamps who don’t get health insurance and vice versa. This is very technical. A lot of federal regulations would need to be waived to bring those application processes together. The mayor talked in broad strokes about trying to bring the systems together. What we would want to see in six months is how far he has gone.

We need to look at things like enrolling children in health insurance at the time they’re born and enrolling parents. Now, when a mother who is uninsured comes to the hospital to give birth, there is no mechanism to enroll her or her children into health insurance.

The childcare issue is critical as well, and it’s good that the mayor is addressing it. To get mothers to go out in the workforce, we need to insure they have quality childcare. The challenge is going to be finding physical facilities. Where do we build these childcare centers, how do we get more programs up and running?

This report is a good first step. There is nothing like a mayor taking leadership on an issue like this, but he has got to keep the momentum going and make sure that the details that are filled in meet the overall recommendations.

Donna Lawrence is executive Director of the Children's Defense Fund-New York.

What Government Should – And Should Not – Do

Heather Macdonald

The government should focus on doing the things it can do and recognize what it cannot do. The dismal legacy of the War on Poverty, which destroyed the black family to the misery of generations of children, suggests that government has very little capacity to engage in what sociologist Nathan Glazer has called “social uplift.”

Government can, however, create the backdrop for individual success. New York should become the opportunity city by creating the most efficient public services in the country — the best roads, rails, communications services and parks — that allow all individuals to seize opportunity and to better themselves.

New York can become much more economically vibrant by cutting taxes and ineffective social programs that only enrich social workers. The tax burden in New York prevents many entrepreneurs from opening businesses here and creating more and better paying jobs. As Mayor Bloomberg himself says, the best antipoverty program is a job. But as long as the middle class is priced out of the city, our job growth will continue to lag far behind the rest of the country.

New York schools should be unfailingly rigorous and demanding; students should be drilled in spelling, writing, and their multiplication tables. Children should graduate not just with academic skills but also having learned to control their impulses and to show respect for legitimate authority. So far, our schools are far from achieving those goals, in large part because the educational bureaucracy remains in thrall to the knowledge-crushing nostrums of progressive education.

Government is responsible for public safety, and here, New York leads the entire country. Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Police Department come closer everyday to ensuring that residents of every neighborhood enjoy the right to safe streets.

What government cannot do is create personal responsibility and drive in individuals. Yet that is what Mayor Bloomberg is attempting to do by paying people to send their children to school or to keep medical appointments. This payment system creates a very odd situation for the long term, as well as the short term. Will the recipients ever be weaned off their payments? The entitlement mentality will inevitably suck in a larger and larger range of paid-for activities. Not just attending classes, but refraining from hitting your teacher, not bringing a gun to school, showing up for an exam, bathing your kids and feeding them -- all will be candidates for a bribe. How will the city choose which individuals to pay and explain to those it is not paying why they should act in their self-interest for free?

Finally, the single most effective way to reduce child poverty would be to restore the norm of marriage to the inner city. Children growing up in single parent homes are five times as likely to be poor as those raised by married parents. They are also many times more likely to fail in school, become juvenile delinquents, suffer mental problems, and, for girls, become teen mothers. Restoring marriage as the norm for raising children does not lie within the power of government. But the mayor can call on private groups to campaign for such a change, and put his own considerable rhetorical stamp on marriage. If successful, such an initiative would be the most important social change in a century.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

Don't Forget Those Who Aren't Working

Ketny Jean-Francois

I am one of the 400,000 New Yorkers on public assistance. I am also one of the 13,000 people in the city's Work Experience Program (WEP), administered by the Human Resource Administration. For over a year, I have been stuck doing dead-end and unpaid work. Each day I have to pull weeds from the streets and clean toilets. I do not receive a wage, benefits or a title in exchange for my labor. Instead I receive a public assistance grant. I am forced to do work that does not give me any experience to further my employment prospects. I am interested in entering the health care sector but am currently assigned to the Sanitation Department. Even if I wanted a full time job in the Sanitation Department, there is no pathway from WEP into a paid job at the Sanitation Department. This is the same for most city agencies with WEP workers.

The idea of the Commission for Economic Opportunity is a good and necessary one. But so far it is not clear how the commission’s new report will actually change the lives of people like me. It does not target the unemployed or public assistance recipients, overlooking some of the worst off in New York City.

To her credit, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who oversees 11 city agencies including the Human Resources Administration, seems interested in discussing the challenges faced by public assistance recipients. Here are a few things I think the agency should do:

First, caseworkers must be re-trained in screening clients for employment and training. This screening should consider past employment experience and current interests, and should be used to place public assistance recipients in employment and training programs that will help them develop skills and access jobs that they want.

Second, the city should expand the paid transitional job programs, such as the Parks Opportunity Program, to all city agencies. This program should include different job types and positions to meet the varied interests and career aspiration of participants.

Third, as is being proposed by the commission for other populations, the Human Resources Administration should create career ladder training programs for public assistance recipients. This would enable us to get onto the first rung of the ladder and out of the revolving door of the public assistance system.

Fourth, the Human Resources Administration should work with other city agencies so that public assistance recipients can benefit from workforce development resources and programs targeted at the working poor.

Overall, while cost-efficiency tells the commission to focus on programs and populations where success is most likely, social justice requires it to not forget those of us most in need.

Ketny Jean-Francois is a member of Community Voices Heard, an advocacy organization composed of low-income New Yorkers. She lives in the Bronx with her three year-old son.

Strategies to Create Jobs

Bich Ha Pham

The establishment of the New York City Commission for Economic Opportunity and the issuance of its recent report are promising developments. The recommendations of the economic opportunity report that were particularly encouraging in regards to the adult working poor include improving and expanding benefits that support work along with ACCESS NYC (a web-based pre-screening tool for over 20 city, state and federal benefit programs), and increasing access to training for those who are working.

As the city looks to implement the strategies in the report, officials can look to a number of promising and model programs from around the country that have raised earnings and family income. These include wage supplement programs that provide cash payments on top of earnings from wages in order to raise an individual’s income to a certain level. That level can be a targeted percentage above the poverty level or a living wage level.

The transitional jobs program for one-time offenders contained in the report can be expanded to include all job seekers, including welfare participants, who along with people who have recently left welfare comprise a segment of the city's working poor. As it implements the report's strategies, the Human Resources Administration should try to provide opportunities to increase access to education and job training, including vocational job training and vocational and educational programs at community colleges.

Lastly, though it may seem like a minor part of the report, the city should not promote policies that imply that working poor people and the poor have behavioral problems. Low-wage, part-time jobs with little or no benefits are proliferating in our city and country. Consequently, so are the working poor. People are poor, not because of poor behavior, but because of a lack of jobs adequate to sustain families and of the vocational training and college education needed to get those jobs.

Bich Ha Pham is executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State

Barriers to College

Lynne Weikart

Though the Bloomberg report recognizes that college is an important way out of poverty, it does not address many of the obstacles that keep New Yorkers from getting a college education.

Because of structural, cultural, financial, and political barriers, millions of young people do not even contemplate college, are unprepared to attend the college of their choice or struggle to complete their studies. And those who do finish college often find themselves overburdened with debt. A new “report card on higher education,” by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that, for many American families, college is becoming less affordable. Whereas Pell grants for low-income students covered 70 percent of a year’s cost in higher education in the 1990s, they now cover less than half.

The report gave New York a failing grade for affordability. In 2003, City University Chancellor Matthew Goldstein stated that almost half of CUNY students came from families in which neither parent had attended college and that 40 percent had adjusted gross incomes of less than $15,000. The cost of attending public universities and community colleges in New York represents nearly half of a low or middle-income students’ annual family income. New York does have tuition assistance but that alone does not solve the problem since New York State is investing less and less in higher education and depending more and more on tuition for revenue.

Other New Yorkers are legally precluded from attending college, since most people receiving public assistance are required to work and have no time to attend a four-year college program and do what they need to do to continue to receive their benefits. Race, ethnicity and citizenship status often affects a student’s ability to even contemplate higher education.

Moreover, recent studies suggest that policies adopted by federal and state agencies as well as institutions of higher education have discouraged low-income and minority students from attending or completing college. These practices include admitting low-income students but denying them meaningful financial assistance or conversely, encouraging wealthier, higher achieving students to attend a particular college by offering tuition discounts.

In New York and throughout the nation, the transition between high school and college is totally inadequate. Many high school students have an alarming ignorance of what academic and career avenues will be open to them after graduation. A few schools have adopted strategies to address this issue. We need to study these college readiness strategies and pay more attention to the issues of access to and funding for higher education.

Lynne A. Weikart is a professor at Baruch College School of Public Affairs

Tough Times for Seniors

Bobbie Sackman

Twenty percent of New Yorkers over 65 live in poverty, more than twice the national average. The typical elderly New Yorker living in poverty is a woman, minority, over the age of 75, living alone. Social security provides 80 to 90 percent of her income.

Unfortunately, the number of elderly people living in poverty looks like it will continue to increase dramatically. Growing numbers of minorities are reaching retirement age already poor – or near to it. Middle class seniors are moving out of the city, while the number of poorer elderly immigrants is increasing.

For the first time in history, the fastest growing segment of the city's population is people over 85. Old age brings with it declining income and wealth. Nearly 25 percent of all households headed by the elderly in NYC have incomes below $10,000, according to the census. Thousands more are near poor, which in New York City means having about $3 a day left for expenses after rent and food. A significant number of elderly New Yorkers spend over half of their income on rent. The Food Bank reports that 25 percent of people utilizing soup kitchens and emergency food banks are seniors, and that proportion is increasing.

If the city is going to address poverty in a comprehensive way, here are some things it should do to help poor seniors.

• Strengthen community-based services helping seniors to "age in place" in their homes and communities. These include senior centers that provide nutritious meals and social services, accessible transportation, affordable housing, case management to assist homebound elderly, home care, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, adult day services for people with Alzheimer’s, and caregiver support services.
• Help seniors access existing public benefits such as food stamps and the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program, which protects seniors living in rent controlled or regulated apartments from increases. Currently such programs are significantly underutilized.
• Advocate for increased Supplemental Security Income benefits from the state and federal governments.
• Create jobs and incentives for seniors who are able to work.

Bobbie Sackman is the director of public policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City.

Getting Foster Teens Beyond the System

Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff

Most young people who “age out” of the foster care system at 18 can expect to live in poverty. Too many are not prepared for college and too many end up homeless, jobless, and incarcerated. They lack the financial and educational resources they need to become successful adults.

Young people from foster care have the aspirations and potential to become fully participating citizens -- to work in accounting, design, health care, web design, the entertainment industry. The main challenge is convincing adults around them that these youth can – and must-- take on more responsibility while they are still in foster care to prepare for a future of economic opportunity. The culture of low expectations for teens in foster care and the lack of accountability for their success or failure must change.

The foster care system has been given the responsibility of raising thousands of teens to adulthood, but its primary purpose is to protect children from imminent harm, not bring teens to adulthood. As a result, the services provided by the foster care system for teens are typically inadequate, and do not focus enough on future planning as a way for the young people to rise above poverty.

The city has to set high expectations for foster care teens and give them the tools, skills, and education to make the contributions that they can for our society.

The teens themselves can speak most passionately and articulately about what they want for their lives--not just today but for the future. If given responsibility, education and opportunities, they are the best advocates for themselves. And thousands of dedicated and experienced professionals in the foster care system can help lift teens out of poverty if they are given the support and tools to treat each teen as an individual with potential.

But, if we are to be successful in helping foster teens avoid poverty, the broader community must be involved. Leaders from the private sector, experts on higher education, national service, the arts, etc. must get involved -- whether it means giving advice to individual teens, providing scholarships and internships, or participating in policy discussions about preparing teens for adulthood. We all should share in the challenge and responsibility for helping young people in our custody escape poverty and achieve economic opportunity.

Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff, co-founders and directors of Youth Advocacy Center, are authors of Beyond the Foster Care System: The Future for Teens, a book about the development of a program that brings teens, the system, and the outside community into active collaboration to increase opportunities for teens in foster care.

To End Poverty Among Immigrants, Address Language Barriers

Chung-Wha Hong

It is almost unimaginable to talk about any aspect of city life without talking about immigrants. Immigrants and their children make up two-thirds of the city’s population, and over half of births in the city now occur in immigrant families.

Immigrants have contributed enormously to our great city by stopping significant population declines, revitalizing our neighborhoods, and fueling our economy with their hard work and entrepreneurial initiative. Yet over half of all New York City immigrants live at less than twice the poverty level.

We think a comprehensive approach to poverty should include several key policies and programs specifically addressing immigrants.

1) Greatly Increase Adult English Classes and Workforce Training Opportunities

While English may not be required for many low-skilled jobs, there is clearly a link between English proficiency and earning power. Over a third of limited-English-proficient immigrant adults live in poverty, far more than the 14 percent of the English-proficient immigrant adult population. Helping immigrants learn English, and providing English instruction through contextualized workforce training programs is perhaps the most important investment the city can make to reduce poverty in New York’s immigrant communities.

2) Eliminate Language Barriers at City Agencies

Language barriers can prevent the immigrant working poor and their families from navigating vital government programs and gaining access to needed income supports to which they are entitled. For example, many immigrants and limited English proficiency tenants are living in unhealthy and unsafe living conditions, and yet over 60 percent do not know that there is a city agency, the Housing and Preservation Department, designed to help them address their housing needs. There is a need for a comprehensive city translation and interpretation system across all city agencies – similar to recent improvements in city schools, hospitals and welfare offices.

3) End the English Language Learner Dropout Crisis

Over half of the city’s school children come from homes where English is not the primary language. Almost one-in-seven of all city students are classified as English language learners, and therefore in need of quality bilingual education, English-as-a-second language, or dual language instruction. These students face the same tough conditions that all students encounter – a lack of quality teachers, overcrowded classes, and insufficient instruction time – but with the added burden of learning English on top of meeting all other State Regents standards.

Over half of public school students classified as English Language Learners drop out, the highest dropout rate of any subgroup of city students. Additional investments must be made in recruiting and retaining qualified ESL and bilingual teachers, increasing extended day and weekend instructional programs, and fully aligning the English language learners language arts curriculum with the mainstream curriculum.

Chung-Wha Hong is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. This piece was adapted from a letter sent in response to the report published by the Commission for Economic Opportunity.

Banking and Poverty

Sarah Ludwig

If you live in a poor neighborhood in New York City, it’s not the pick-pocket or loan shark you need to watch out for. It’s financial services companies – check-cashers, payday lenders, rent-to-own stores, money transmitters, and unscrupulous tax preparers – looking to strip all the assets they can from you and your community.

Graffiti in Harlem

Some estimate that low income New Yorkers pay as much as 10 percent of their income for financial services. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that many low income neighborhoods of color still have no bank branches, immigrants wiring money to other countries pay as much as 15 percent of the amount sent, and conventional bank mortgage or small business loans are few and far between.

Unequal access to credit and financial services in NYC corresponds crudely to neighborhood demographics Lacking access to fair and affordable financial services, low income neighborhoods are flooded with solicitations for fast cash, predatory mortgage loans, foreclosure rescue scams, and a growing array high cost credit offerings (“Bad credit? No problem!”). This unequal provision of capital access:

• Reinforces residential segregation, limiting people’s mobility and fair housing choice;
• Thwarts local economic development, affecting the viability of small businesses;
• Diminishes homeowners’ equity and appraisal values, and impedes one’s ability to borrow against assets to pay for higher education or needed repairs, or pass along wealth to one’s family;
• Hampers community revitalization, including schools, crime prevention, and health care improvements;
• Impedes immigrants’ ability to gain an economic toehold in this country; and
• Adversely affects one’s ability to build savings and gain economic security.

The pervasiveness of destabilizing, high-cost credit in New York’s low income neighborhoods is reflected back in people’s credit reports, further perpetuating poverty for millions of New Yorkers.

If you’re among the millions of low-income immigrants in New York City, the situation is grossly magnified, since most of the banking world appears at a loss for how to serve you given the morass of anti-terrorist and money-laundering regulations, which have chilled many banks from even opening accounts for many new immigrants.

What can we as New Yorkers do about all this? The reality is that most banking policy matters fall within state and federal level jurisdiction, not the city’s. That said, the city can, and should, be part of the solution. For starters, the city can:

• Ensure a living wage;
• Refuse to do business, invest pension funds, or otherwise enter into contracts with companies that are known to engage in predatory financial practices, or that fail to serve communities equitably;
• Stop partnering with companies like H&R Block to do Earned Income Tax Credit outreach to low income New Yorkers, when H&R Block is a major purveyor of usurious tax refund anticipation loans that target low income neighborhoods of color in our city; and
• Press mainstream financial institutions to accept a broader array of identification for people to open accounts and adopt a policy of not asking people about their immigration status when they seek to open an account.

Sarah Ludwig is the co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project.

 

Implementing the Commission's Recommendations

Betsy Gotbaum

Government has a responsibility to help lift working families out of poverty so they have the opportunity to join the middle class, and I commend the mayor for convening the Commission for Economic Opportunity. But I would also like to raise a few issues and questions.

Will Private Funding Be Enough?

It is to this administration's credit that it is willing to set ambitious goals for the reduction of poverty, but we cannot expect city agencies to do more without additional resources. I applaud the mayor's pledge to raise at least $24 million in private funds to underwrite the commission's recommendations. An influx of private donations will certainly give this new anti-poverty initiative a shot in the arm. But private donations are not necessarily reliable or sustainable over the long term, and it is crucial that the funding to carry out the commission's recommendations be institutionalized so that it outlives the present administration.

Expanding Benefits

The commission's report calls for "improving and expanding benefits that support work." I urge the administration to interpret this as a mandate to adopt tools like the Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents waiver and remove obstacles such as the finger-imaging requirement for food stamp applicants, steps that would help more New Yorkers put food on their tables and bring more federal dollars into the city economy.

Don't Forget Single Mothers

The report also recommends that the city "expand programs that help prepare fathers for job opportunities, skills-building and legal, financial, and emotional responsibilities of parenthood." I, of course, strongly support this recommendation. But in a city where the poverty rate among single mothers is 41 percent and the labor force participation rate for single mothers with no more than a high school education has risen to nearly 58 percent, I would hope that the commission's recommendation could be broadened to include single mothers as well.

Betsy Gotbaum is the public advocate of the City of New York. This piece was adapted from comments she made at a City Council hearing on September 21, 2006.

 

Fast Track From Poverty?


A mayoral commission published its strategy for confronting poverty in New York City on September 18, putting particular focus on the working poor, young adults 16 to 24, and children under 6. Earlier this summer, Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club met with urban anthropologist Katherine Newman to talk about her work with young, poor fast food workers in Harlem. Such jobs are frequently dismissed as meaningless after-school jobs for teenagers looking for pocket money, or dead end jobs for adults who can do no better. Newman found a much more complicated picture. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Our guest this month is Katherine Newman, who is an urban anthropologist who now teaches at Princeton; she has also taught at Columbia and Harvard. The book for this month is No Shame In My Game, a sort of an ethnography of fast food workers in Harlem, with the intention of examining the experiences of the working poor in urban areas.

One thing that you mention in the introduction to the book, Professor Newman, is that at the time you were writing, policy makers and academics were talking about welfare policy, but the people who were working and still stuck in poverty weren't being discussed.

In the last presidential election John Edwards ran a campaign that was largely based on policies addressing the working poor, and in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also announced that he wants to look at poverty in New York City.

So have things changed? Are people now paying attention to the experience of the working poor?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I think that people are paying a lot more attention than they once did. In the early 90s when I first got started doing this work, poverty was really synonymous in the public mind and in the world of journalism with people who were out of the labor force, especially those who were persistently attached to the welfare rolls, for whom there was no sympathy, no understanding, and no affection. The working poor were completely invisible in this discussion at the time.

I do think that that has changed, because welfare reform really shredded the safety net that once was represented by welfare, and thrust many people who were high on everybody’s list of the despised into the labor market, into exactly the same kinds of jobs that I focused on.

So it has changed, but there isn’t nearly as much sympathy and understanding as I would have hoped for.

I think that we remain persistently skeptical about people who are out of the mainstream. Where once that meant not working, now we say, "why are those people working at such crappy jobs? What is the matter with them that they are at the bottom of the working heap?"

FAST FOOD WORKERS IN HARLEM

GOTHAM GAZETTE: There are poor people working throughout the country. Why did you decide to focus on Harlem, and why did you decide to pick the fast food industry?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I was a neighbor in Harlem, and all field researchers want to do their research close to where they live because you spend a great deal of time with the people.

I thought it would be worthwhile for a then-Columbia faculty member to invest some time to study the city that we worked in. And also because Harlem is a historic capital of black America, and black America is what I set out to study in looking at the working poor.

I chose the fast food industry first because I thought that I was going to be studying young people in the labor market; I actually set out to study teenage workers. I discovered subsequently that the labor market was so bad at the time I began the study that teenagers actually couldn’t get these jobs very easily. These jobs were being held down by prime working age adults with families to raise. And that was a shock to me.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is it your impression that those jobs are still being filled by adults with families to raise, or do you think that the market is better now for teenagers?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, I think that the market fluctuated in the period between the time when I began working on No Shame in My Game and the present. So I followed the people in this book and discussed what I learned about them in a book coming out in October called Chutes and Ladders. In that eight-year period the market became much better. Those opportunities began to open up again, and adults moved on to better jobs, moved up the ladder and into better sources of employment. Then after 9/11, the economy began to run down again, but not nearly to the level it was when I began the project.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think that the experience of the working poor in New York City is different from elsewhere in the country?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Not enormously different from other big cities. Of course the dynamics change and the population changes depending on the composition of the city. In New York at the time of No Shame in My Game, if you went a few miles outside of the city to Long Island you would sort of see a totally different population in that type of jobs – and a much more favorable wage structure, by the way. It just reflects supply and demand. The teenagers were too affluent there and weren’t interested in these jobs.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: The major groups of workers in your book are African-Americans, Latino immigrants, and Puerto Ricans. Recently, there has been a lot of talk as part of the immigration debate about illegal immigrants taking low-income jobs taking from native-born Americans. Did you find that to be the case?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I did. In central Harlem, which at the time was entirely African-American, you did see a steady movement of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans into this labor force. This was partly because employers were persuaded that immigrant workers – especially immigrant workers socialized abroad – would be grateful to have these jobs, wouldn’t complain very much, and be more compliant, docile workers.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Did that create tension between the two groups?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: It created tension and friendship both. There was friction, mainly when it came to hiring new workers. So when the African-American workers tried to foster their friends and family members into new job openings, and found that their recommendations weren’t taken as seriously as Latino workers' recommendations, that created friction and caused anger.

But the thing that I found most striking was that people created a community of friends out of the people they worked with. Workers had friendships or relationships with each other; they went to the movies together. The workplace is a great generator of cross-racial contact and friendship.

This was important because lots of young people in the workforce would take tremendous hazing or teasing for taking jobs that required them to wear uniforms and to show a lot of deference to customers. The more hazing that they experienced with their friends on the street or in the neighborhood, the more they drew close to the people they shared this stigma with: their fellow workers. They developed a sense of pride in being a worker, not so much in this job, but in being an employed person. That distinguished them from the people they knew on the street who didn’t have jobs.

THE PEOPLE WHO WORKED THEIR WAY OUT OF POVERTY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So for the research in this book also for Chutes and Ladders, you followed people for about eight years. Are there any stories that stick out?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: There are many stories that stick out in my mind.

Jamal was an African-American young man, and was about 22 years old when I first met him. [The names Newman uses are all pseudonyms]. He had a common law wife and a young baby. This is a troubled situation; they lost the baby to foster care because of a violent incident that he never really wanted to talk about much. And Jamal looked for better jobs, but at the point I first encountered him only once in his life had he held a job that had paid a living wage: he had in his younger years found a job at an auto factory, that was the best job that he had.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: That was out-of-town?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Yeah it was where his grandmother lived. This kid came from a pretty tough background, his mother was a heroin addict. And he had to fend for himself at a very young age, from about thirteen onwards. He had to work part-time and earn his own way, as his mother’s addiction got worse, his life got worse and he would run away to his grandmother’s house and she would put up with him for awhile until she got tired of having him. It was a very unstable life.

At the point that I finished No Shame in My Game. I lost contact with him. I looked for him everywhere and then eight years later for the final follow-up that appears in Chutes and Ladders we found him, way out West. And I almost didn’t pursue this lead, because I was so unsure that it could be him. I just couldn’t imagine how Jamal could have ever found himself to where he was. But, there he was, in a small community in Northern California, where he now earns about $30,000 a year. He is married -- not to the person that he was with when I knew him first – has three kids, a good steady unionized job.

Jamal works at a skilled job in a laminating wood factory. So through a long circuitous train of events he found his way to a place where his lack of education really didn’t matter very much. They don’t care whether you have a college degree in a wood factory.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Should we take anything from the fact that he is not in New York City, that he left the city and ended up in a completely different region in the country?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, one strategy for upward mobility is to move where there are better jobs for people who have the characteristics that he had. But, other examples stayed here in New York. Kyesha worked the drive-thru window at Burger Barn. [Burger Barn is a pseudonym for the national fast food chain where the subjects of Newman's book worked]. She was earning 25 cents more per hour than the minimum wage after four years on the job.

Kyesha also had held a job cleaning up around the housing project where she lived in the summer time. She established a good reputation for herself as a good worker and then eventually got hired full-time as a civil servant. Eight years later she is earning about $30,000 a year running the janitorial staff and repair staff in one of the large public housing projects in Harlem.

Kyesha earns a lot of money for someone of her background, and is very motivated to study for advancement in the ranks of the New York City Housing Authority – or may shift over to the New York Sanitation department. If you had told me, when I first met her, that she would have a job that would have any of those benefits, I would have fallen over. But that’s a New York City story, of someone who found her way into unionized employment in the civil service, which has always been an avenue of mobility and security for minorities.

The ability to pursue that kind of chance in life is a function of how large or restricted we make the civil service. Every day we shrink public sector jobs is a day we reduce opportunities for people like Kyesha.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: In Chutes and Ladders you write that a large proportion of people worked their way out of poverty. Do you have a percentage?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: About 25 percent really did work their way out of poverty. About the same number remained more or less where they were. And everybody in between kept ahead of inflation and did migrate to better jobs, but just not enough to make a huge difference in their lives. For that middle group, the fate of their families depends a great deal on their personal relations with other people. If they have partners that are contributing as earners, their families look a lot better. If they don’t, they are still struggling.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How much do you think these two factors make a difference in the changes: the changes in the economy, and just the fact that they are older and have more experience. What should we make from these changes?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Some ability of upward mobility would accompany getting older and having more experience. But in a very slack labor market it won’t pay off very much. If there aren’t better jobs to go to – or the better jobs are being held by people with much better credentials – then you’ll still get this population at the bottom bumping up against a ceiling. It’s not a glass ceiling; it's more like a brick wall. But what happened in the late 90s and the early part of 2000 and 2001 is that we had record tight labor markets, better than we’ve seen for forty years. It was just about the best economy we’ve seen in generations, and might be the best that we are going to see in some time to come. That did open up opportunities for people.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Were there any things that the people who succeeded had in common?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: They had ways of taking care of their children that were stable, either because they had good day care, or because they had relatives who could share the burdens. This meant that they had stable track records in the labor force. It is very harmful for women in particular to have unstable ties to the labor force.

They did gain experience and gain references by virtue of having the jobs that they had before.

They had contacts or people who could give them advice about where to find better jobs. And sometimes those contacts were as simple as running into someone who had a job as a porter in one of the high-rise buildings and he said 'hey there is an opening here'.

There is nothing like a union card to give you a higher wage, even for a job that does not require a vastly higher skill set.

The union story is very important too. Not just civil service, but private unions also, which have traditionally not been that open to minorities. When they are, there is nothing like a union card to give you a higher wage, even for a job that does not require a vastly higher skill set.

One of the characters in the book, Reynaldo, this was his experience. When we first met him he was working at Burger Barn and doing a lot of other things on the side. His father had this kind of business as an unlicensed contractor. Reynaldo’s dad had taught him how to do wiring and plastering. He could renovate an apartment on his own, even though he never had any credentials in a union. Eventually he found a job as a unionized porter in an East side building. His wages jumped threefold, and he had the benefits that often come with union jobs.

DIFFERENT PATHS FOR MEN AND WOMEN

MARTHA SOFFER: Was there a statistical difference of how successful men and women were rising out of poverty?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Their pathways for mobility were different. The men were more likely to get blue-collar, unionized jobs. Women did better in the service industry, in part because women tend to get more education.

So we see men and women not necessarily rising up in unequal numbers, but in different routes. Women are the ones who are likely to be burdened with childcare obligations, and if someone is going to stumble for family reasons, it almost always is going to be a woman. But that said, I was struck by the consistent contribution that men made to their children even if they didn’t live with them.

In general, women are outpacing men in their enrollment in higher education across the country in all racial groups. The numbers are much more skewed in the African-American community. But this is a serious problem across racial lines, because the kinds of jobs that permit you to earn a good living because you're strong are disappearing in large numbers, or are being exported overseas. This is a big policy issue that we need to address, because we are losing a lot of young men.

POVERTY AND PUBLIC POLICY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What are some of the other policy issues that should be addressed?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, I don’t think of myself as a policy expert. But here are some things that matter:

First; I think access to higher education is absolutely critical. That’s an issue where I think we are marching backwards very quickly, including here in New York City. The City University of New York has always been a gateway for low-income families and immigrants into higher education, but every time that we raise tuition by $1,000 there are 40,000 people who drop out of the university. It's really penny wise and pound foolish to do this.

Tragically, many people in No Shame in My Game were very well aware that they needed more education. They just didn’t have the money. They were constantly enrolling in school, and then dropping out. Some of them took ten or fifteen years to complete their bachelor’s degree. To their credit they stuck with it. But they would have been able to have access to much better employment, if they could have done that faster. But our financial aid policies are not set up to accommodate adult workers. We don’t provide childcare to make it possible for adults to continue school.

Second, funding training is very important as well. One of the things that I wrote about in the book, which subsequently got picked up by some mayor's offices around the country, was trying to provide better linkages between employers. An employer who has a crew of fast food workers cannot do that much for them. There are only a certain number of people that you can push up into management. But someone who has proven themselves in a job like that – which is a tough job that requires a lot of stamina and a lot of sticking power – should be able to connect to a better job. If employers were able to do this through what I call an employers consortium, a kind of a trading link between employers who only have minimum wage jobs to offer and employers who have more skilled better jobs to offer, I think there would be benefits for both. For the low wage employer, it gives him something to hold out to a potential worker as a reward for sticking with the job, which is typically quite high turnover.

For the employer that has the better jobs to offer, there are benefits as well. It is amazing to me how difficult it is for employers to judge the people who come before them as job applicants. What do they know about them? Actually, surprisingly little, one of the reasons why prejudice runs as rampant as it does.

Third, we certainly need to do better in our public schools. I give a lot of credit to Mayor Bloomberg for this. There was no serious effort going on before and nothing to look forward to improvement.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think that raising the minimum wage makes any difference?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, everyone is in favor of raising the minimum wage, myself included. But, the minimum wage would go to my seventeen year old son, who doesn’t need an increase in the same way that Kyesha needs one. We call this a blunt instrument. The value of the blunt instrument is that it is politically popular. It is politically more sustainable, and this is one reason why Republicans actually vote for increases in minimum wage.

A more targeted and efficient way to deliver money to poor workers is the Earned Income Tax Credit. This credit is not given to everyone; my son would not get it, because the Earned Income Tax Credit is only available to families with children who are on the very bottom of the labor market. It is targeted at working poor families. Now that means that it is more efficient, in the sense that it is delivering resources to the very people that we think need them the most. But, very efficient, very targeted benefits are politically less sustainable. The Earned Income Tax Credit has actually been pretty popular – it was a Nixon administration idea. Periodically though, conservatives attack the EITC and argue that there's fraud involved, and try to start to dismantle it if they see the uptake rate in EITC growing.

TOM MCFALL: When it comes to people from inner cities that have a difficult time getting employment, many, especially males, have been incarcerated. Then there are the mothers who are losing the welfare benefits. Do you find that there are bridges to these groups as a route to get to mainstream jobs?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I was not focused on the incarceration question, but that is a crucial policy problem, and we are shooting ourselves in the foot with respect to this issue.

The employers that I studied were more positively disposed towards people who had prison records than most employers, and they were willing to make use of wage subsidy programs that others have rejected entirely. But I can’t really advocate that as a major policy because I know that in general it hasn't been very successful.

Honestly, we are building a time bomb there and it's not just a problem for men who have been incarcerated; it’s a problem for the neighborhoods in which they are being released. Something like 600,000 men a year are released from prison, and they are settling in very poor neighborhoods where the options for employment aren’t very rosy, and where we can probably expect high rates of recidivism. We have cut training budgets, and we have made it more difficult for them to pursue higher education, while incarcerated. All of this is just stupid beyond belief.

We cannot afford continuing to expand the prison system as we have been. It's actually economically unsustainable, and that is probably the only thing that is going to help reverse this. The states that pay attention and invest in this problem are going to eventually be shining beacons that the rest hopefully will turn to.

Time-limited welfare was something that I was worried about when I came to the conclusion of this book, because I thought that this would lead into a huge influx of people into the labor market who had much of the same characteristics as the people that I was studying. I was starting out in Harlem neighborhoods with high unemployment, I thought this is just going to get worse. But, what Chutes and Ladders shows is that this was not the case, because the economy roared in the late 90s. It was able to absorb not only people coming off of welfare, but young entrants into the labor market. We have seen a massive number of women going into the labor force, especially women with young children. If that was what we were trying to accomplish, then welfare reform worked very well. What we didn’t accomplish was a great decline in poverty. What we did was exchange welfare dependent poverty for working poverty.

Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? At the risk of alienating all of my politically correct friends, I actually think it's a good thing for people to be working. People who work for a living feel better about themselves. You cannot be a non-working able-bodied adult in this society and have a shred of honor. It just doesn’t matter whether you are an uptight right-winger or a woman on welfare. The women on welfare had exactly the same point of view. And once they took jobs – even if they were workfare jobs – they felt better about themselves.

While I am convinced that work is beneficial for the adults, I am not convinced that it is beneficial for their children. The consequence of going to work for long hours is to leave your kids often in substandard childcare settings or just unsupervised after school. We may see the next generation repeat the problems of the parent generation, even if the parents look better.

So one of the questions that I am concerned about is that when we formulate policies we tend to think about them in these little silos: the adult woman on welfare, the young man who is incarcerated. We don’t think about what policies moving in one direction will do to the other people in the households who are affected by the consequences.

EXPLOITATION OR OPPORTUNITY?

JOHN GUZMAN: I told a friend about the book, and I told him the title, and he said "well, there's no shame for the worker, but there's shame for the owner." But I think the owners fared well in this book.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I have an interesting story to tell about that. When I first began this research, I had the cooperation of the franchise owners whose businesses I was studying. When the corporate level eventually found out, it was alarmed. I found myself in corporate headquarters, because they actually wanted to put a break in this study. It turned out that they couldn’t, because franchise owners are actually independent business owners and they could do whatever that they want. But I found myself in this fancy big operation with these corporate big shots. I told them that at the end they would be really sorry [that I didn't use the] real name of this firm. My observations suggested that this was a far more positive work experience, and that the employers themselves were more honorable people than most readers would ever think.

Doing business in the center of a very poor, high crime community is very risky. It requires a certain kind of almost missionary zeal. You could be on Long Island with the same business and make more money and have an easier time. You wouldn’t need all of the security guards and you wouldn't have all the problems that you face on the shop floor. These employers had elected to be in Harlem because they were committed to Harlem.

Now, I don’t want to say that they were saints. They were business people, and they were looking to make a profit. But they were much more invested in the lives of their workers then most people realize. They helped people get eyeglasses; they helped people get ID; they cosigned leases; they were offering young people money if they got good grades; they paid for their schoolbooks. A lot of the people think that they are totally exploitative and that the owners are despicable people. I went into this with many of the same forms of skepticism, and I came out thinking it's too bad we don’t have a lot more people like this.

Very often these employers were the only ones who were paying a good deal of interest in the school performance of these kids. So one of the things that I argue in the book is that really contrary to common wisdom school and work are not antithetical to one another. These young people were doing better in school than the young people who weren’t working, because the discipline that they learned on the job and the oversight the business owners and mangers exercised over them was having a positive effect on their school performance.

I think it would enormously helpful if public officials approached employers and encourage them to do these things. Probably many more employers would be willing to do the kinds of things these men and women were doing if they knew they were worthwhile. You get a better labor force if you connect with people beyond the wage you're paying them – which isn't a very good wage – offer them incentives, and show an interest.

MARTHA SOFFER: You have to keep in mind that the non-franchise business owners in poor neighborhoods tend to hire illegal aliens. It's only the franchises with the corporations behind them that have to hire documented people. So you have two distinctive business communities.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I did not study undocumented workers. I am sure that there is less scrutiny over them and that is maybe a more shadowy labor market. Without studying those employers I wouldn't want to hazard a guess how they conduct their businesses. I must say that I was surprised at what I found in the businesses that I did study. And that has taught me as a social scientist that you shouldn’t prejudge anything. It's all open for investigation.

 

Single Mothers: Working, But Still Poor


Barbara Brooks, a single working mother, instantly regretted the raise she got on her job. Her hourly wage went up from $8.25 to $11 per hour – and made her ineligible for most of the government benefits she was receiving.

“Each small raise I get, they take away my Medicaid; they took my food stamps; they took my kids off day care,” she said. “I’m hustling backwards!” Her $450 monthly increase in wages resulted in a $600 decrease in benefits.

Brooks is one of the single working mothers in a forthcoming PBS television documentary entitled “Waging A Living” to premiere on New York City’s Channel 13 at the end of this month.

The show will be broadcast before the Mayor’s Commission on Economic Opportunity, of which I am a member, is to release its first set of recommendations, scheduled for sometime after Labor Day. The commission has been conducting an in-depth assessment of the policy solutions to poverty, including issues of low-wage workers. And among those workers suffering the highest rates of poverty are single mothers who work.

Will Any And All Jobs Lift A Family Out Of Poverty?

Since the overhaul of laws governing the nation’s welfare system in 1996, low-skilled workers have poured into the labor market, including many single mothers moving from the welfare rolls to employment. This was the group most likely to receive public assistance and, consequently, the group most likely to be affected by welfare reform. In New York City, these women tend to be young, with little formal education. They are overwhelmingly women of color.

Any job, they are told, is better than welfare. But does just any job lift a family out of poverty? Even at the peak of the 1990s’ economic expansion, one-quarter of New York City families headed by a working single mother lived below the poverty line. “The real issue is whether the people who come off the rolls and go to work can support their families,” says Beth Shulman, author of “Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.

A 2005 report that examined the employment status of single mothers in New York City found more single mothers working than before, but at low wages and with less support.

Among the disturbing facts revealed in recent research about New York City’s low-income working mothers:

• Lack of health insurance: Among low-income working mothers, 80 percent did not receive employee-paid health benefits for themselves or their children; of those with employee coverage, 38 percent received no benefits from Medicaid, Child Health plus or Family Health Plus.

• Lack of needed medical care: More than a third of low-wage working mothers reported they were unable to obtain needed medical care in the past year because they could not afford it.

• Lack of days off for sick leave, or to care for a sick child or dependent: 53 percent did not have a single day of paid sick leave, and 61 percent had no paid vacation.

• Inability to access social supports: As the poor move from welfare to work, incomes remain low and unstable, yet coverage for food stamps or family Medicaid is dropped.

Hovering in Poverty

The employment rate for single mothers in New York City was 58.7 percent in 2005; their median hourly wage was $11.25. That’s appreciably above the minimum wage, which was raised in New York State earlier this year to $6.75 an hour. But that computes to just $23,400 a year for a 40-hour week. And wage rates are far lower for workers without at least a high school education. In New York City, half of welfare recipients lack a diploma, so people leaving welfare for employment face daunting challenges.

With the federal poverty level for a family of three at $16,600 a year – and that figure doesn’t take into account the cost of living in one of America’s most expensive cities -- full-time employment in New York City does not guarantee a livable wage, particularly for workers with dependents.

Many single mothers are employed in the city’s service sector -- employment characterized by high turnover, low pay, and few on-the-job benefits. But these meager positions can at least be viewed as stepping-stones to better opportunities, as long as these women receive the training, experience and social supports to help them advance.

Labor market experts point out that single mothers ought to have more opportunities to obtain the skills necessary to earn higher wages. In general, they say that low-income families need a more robust system of income supplementation to fill the gap between their modest earnings and their basic material needs.

Transitional benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid are designed to provide temporary support for people moving from welfare to work. Yet the New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that more than 700,000 New Yorkers eligible for food stamps do not get them. Another stumbling block is child care: most single mothers coming off welfare need child care in order to hold a job, yet the supply of subsidized child care has not kept pace with the rise in single-parent employment. In New York City, just 19 percent of low-income parents are currently getting child care subsidies.

Lack of benefits makes it tougher for single mothers to get and hold jobs, and forces them to make tough choices. A single mother, working in a job without paid sick leave or vacation days, may have to decide between failing to care properly for a sick child, and losing a day’s pay, or possibly losing her job, if she takes time off from work.

Some Steps Beyond Welfare Reform

One of the most politically controversial policy issues is raising the federal minimum wage; for the past nine years the Republican-controlled Congress has squelched efforts to raise it from $5.15. A recent bill to increase it to $7.25 over the next three years was tied to cuts in the estate tax, a move that killed chances for passage when the Senate rejected the bill. (Another provision in the same bill would have cut the minimum wage by $3 for waiters and others who work for tips.) But many advocates believe that raising the federal minimum wage is a key policy step towards helping many low-income workers, whether or not they are single mothers.

Along with a higher federal minimum wage, another option that many economists and advocates favor is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). EITC is a refundable federal tax credit to low income workers. It is a strong way to increase income particularly for low-wage workers with children. It offsets a portion of their tax liability and reduces the regressive effects of flat taxes such as the Social Security payroll tax, sales tax, and property tax.

It also serves to make employment more attractive to welfare recipients by increasing the financial rewards of work; for example, a worker with a low income who is raising a child could qualify for several thousands dollars of credit.

EITC can complement welfare reform efforts by enabling working families to maintain a higher standard of living than welfare offers, strengthening the incentive for them to leave the rolls. Since the additional income the credit provides does not count in determining eligibility for such benefits as Medicaid, public housing, food stamps, and child care, families are not forced to choose between use of the credit and access to these family-supporting benefits.

Single mothers in low-income households in New York City are eligible not only for the Federal earned income tax credit but also for the State’s earned income tax credit. The federal credit serves as a supplement, worth 40 cents for every dollar earned, with the State of New York kicking in an additional 12 cents There are currently studies being done to test results of increasing earned income tax credit benefits further.

“This is the way to ‘make work pay’ that makes sense as a temporary patch until low-skilled workers get enough job experience to earn higher wages, and to work full-time hours so that they don't require such work subsidies.” said Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University.

If the goal of welfare reform were simply to push people off the rolls and into any form of employment, no matter how low the wages, then current programs could be declared a success. But the Mayor’s Commission on Economic Opportunity is aiming higher: to promote economic opportunity and encourage self-sufficiency. As Beth Shulman notes, there’s no reason why low-wage jobs can’t become good jobs in the same way that formerly “dirty” jobs for auto and steel workers became good jobs.

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York and a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Economic Opportunity.

 

The Aging City


The recent blackout in Queens didn't just cause Astoria to go dark, said lifelong resident George Stelios; it sent it back in time.

"I felt like a caveman!" said Stelios, the owner of Teddy's Florist on 31st Street. "I couldn't get on the phone ... and I couldn't get online."

Even when Stelios and his neighbors can use their state-of-the-art phones and computers, however, those machines have to rely on electricity provided by a system stuck in the past. Some of the equipment is over 70 years old; experts say that any equipment over 50 years old is prone to breakdown. The failure to maintain and improve the aging infrastructure is being cited as a cause of the recent blackout -- and reason to fear that there may be more in the future.

And the electrical grid isn't the only part of the city's infrastructure whose age has become an issue.

Much of the city's infrastructure "was designed 100 years ago, when the city was a fraction of what it is now," said Kate Asher, author of The Works: Anatomy of a City. "It really seemed to have lived up to the task of expanding to accommodate twice the number of people, three times the number of people."

But how long can it be expected to do that?

--New York City relies on two tunnels from upstate, one dating from 1917, the other from 1936, for all of its drinking water. A third tunnel is under construction, slated for completion in 2020. Until then, "a disaster could happen at any moment, a disaster of epic proportions, or they will get the tunnel built in time. Nobody knows," Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates has said.

--Many of the city's road and bridges are outmoded or in poor repair. A report card on city infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that third of the city's bridges were "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete."

--And it's not just the older technologies that suffer. New York lags far behind many other cities in providing wireless Internet access, and in poor neighborhoods the cost of DSL or high-speed service can be prohibitive.

Dealing with such problems can be extremely costly. In 1998, the city comptroller released a report finding that bringing the city's infrastructure to "a systematic state of good repair" would cost at least $90 billion. This figure included improving parks and schools but not electricity, which is owned by a private utility. Nonetheless it gives some sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Until a crisis occurs, however, buying new equipment and fixing old one machinery lacks the political allure of launching innovative programs, constructing new buildings or slashing taxes. Infrastructure improvement rarely inspires a sense of public urgency. And so many experts fear that officials will not be able to find either the money or the political will to confront what most consider a serious problem.

ELECTRICITY

Power in Northwestern Queens and Westchester failed on July 17, the blackout coming in the midst of the summer's first heat wave. Demand for power was soaring because of the heat but officials are saying demand was not the cause of the blackout. Consolidated Edison, the private company that operates the city's electrical system, said it had enough energy to power the city, even on sweltering weekdays.

In fact, the mayor's Energy Policy Task Force had released a report just weeks before saying that the city would not need to increase its energy supply until 2012 (previous estimates had predicted a need for more power in 2008).

It's not a supply problem," a Con Ed spokesperson told the Daily News. "It's an isolated equipment problem."

The trouble in Queens seemed to stem from the electrical distribution system. Consisting of 91,000 miles of underground electric cables, it is the largest electrical distribution system in the world. Con Ed operates it, although the state sets customers rates, requires certain reliability standards, and dictates public disclosure rules.

This is not the first time that shortcomings in the distribution system have caused problems. In 1999, as many as 200,000 people in the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood lost power for more than 19 hours. The Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities, put much of the blame on aging or inadequate equipment.

"Six years later, an estimated 100,000 residents in Queens were plunged into darkness for nearly identical reasons -- inadequately maintained feeder cables that were vulnerable to heat and power overloads, an inability to identify equipment that was likely to fail, a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem, inadequate communication with the public, and a failure to restore power promptly," said Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in a recent statement. He asked why such problems were not fixed when they were identified before.

Much of the equipment that Con Ed uses is far older than industry standards deem reliable. In Brooklyn one paper-insulated cable is 78 years old. "Anything over 50 years becomes highly susceptible to breakdowns," said Pat Impollonia, an energy conservation engineer at Cornell University.

Con Edison has acknowledged that it uses outmoded equipment in a recent report to the state. It has invested billions over the last ten years to upgrade the system, and recently committed to putting $5.3 billion more into cables, substations, transformers, and other such equipment in the next three years.

"We have to make sure that the company's energy infrastructure is sufficiently strong and flexible so that it can supply future energy needs, " Con Ed chairman Kevin Burke, said in May.

But accomplishing that will be neither quick nor cheap. The Independent Review Board that Con Ed set up to investigate the 1999 power outage said, "Given Con Ed's size it will take years to realize a significant benefit system-wide from changing equipment."

And what will compel the utility to make such an investment? As a utility Con Ed is regulated by the state. If the state agrees, it can spend money on improvements and pass some of that along to its customers in the form of higher rates.

Some critics think the state needs to be more vigilant. The New York Times reported that William Flynn, chairman of the Public Service Commission admitted that "he did not know how closely his agency had scrutinized Consolidated Edison reports that listed numerous breakdowns in the utility's electrical network in western Queens in recent years."

''These reports seem to be crying out for an overhaul of the network, and yet it wasn't being done,'' Gerald A. Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project , a nonprofit group in Albany that represents low-income energy users, told the newspaper. ''One has to ask why.''

Some think the city must play a more active role as well. "Because Con Ed doesn't face competitive pressures to do what's best for New York City, it's the mayor who must ensure that the company does so, or New York's growth suffers," wrote Nicole Gelinas in City Journal.

Others insist that, despite the summer's conventional wisdom, the problem is not only that the equipment is old but that we do indeed need more power plants. "We need a lot more electric capacity and transmission network upgrades," Matthew C. Cordaro, a former utility chief executive, and a member of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance wrote in Newsday. "We need an aggressive energy plan that will maintain the operations of current plants, and we need to build new plants and transmission lines throughout the region so we can maintain our status as a first-class location with growth potential.."

In the coming months, the City Council and others will investigate what caused the problem in Queens, and will no doubt come up with suggestions on how to fix it.

It is far too early to know what they will discover. But one thing is virtually certain: As Gerry Cauley, vice president of the North American Electric Reliability Council told USA Today, "There is a need to spend more."

SEWERS AND WATER POLLUTION

The last time the city suffered a major blackout - in August 2003 - the backup generators at several sewage plants didn't work, and some 30 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the East River.

It doesn't take a blackout for this to happen, however; untreated sewage ends up in the city's waterways almost every time it rains. This is the result of an overburdened network of pipes that handle both rainwater and sewage. In dry weather, the mixture flowing through the city sewage system is treated and released. But rain can quickly fill the pipes beyond capacity; in some areas it takes as little as 0.1 inches to do so. When this happens, sewage is dumped without being treated.

A total of 27 billion gallons of rainwater mixed with sewage enters the city's waterways each year through these so-called combined sewage overflows. Overflows contribute to the notorious smells of the Flushing River, Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, and regularly result in city beach closings. In 2003, the swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon was called off because there was too much sewage in the Hudson after a night of rain.

Some cities have two separate systems for rainwater and sewage, but everyone agrees that completely replacing New York's system would be prohibitively expensive. There is disagreement, however, about how best to reduce the impact sewage overflows have on the local environment.

New York City is now working to get a permit from the state that will allow it to continue operating its sewer system. The city's Department of Environmental Protection is spending $2.1 billion on various improvements to the system, centered around the construction of two huge storage tanks -- one in Flushing and one in Jamaica Bay -- that will hold excess rainwater until storms end and the excess can be run back through the treatment system.

The city says this will reduce sewage overflows, but critics are skeptical. They say that the city must be more aggressive and broaden its thinking beyond the sewer system itself.

Alternatives to More Sewers

The estimated costs of building enough new tanks and pipes to eliminate the overflow problem is tens of billions of dollars, but environmental advocates say there is a cheaper way.

"There's never been an attempt [by the city] to capture the incredible amount of storm water that runs into the system," said Basil Seggos of Riverkeeper, an environmental group.

Because most of New York's surface area is covered in concrete or other impervious materials, almost all of the rain that falls on the city runs off and ends up in its sewers. Environmentalists suggest ways to ensure that more of it would be absorbed directly into the ground. Such ideas include

  • installing so-called permeable pavement or green roofs
  • encouraging private property owners to disconnect downspouts that flow into gutters
  • simply planting more trees

The effect, say proponents of such strategies, will be less rainwater in the city's sewers, and less sewage in its rivers.

Such techniques seem to save money, said Franco Montalto of eDesign Dynamics, an environmental consulting firm.

Montalto, whose clients include governments, private developers, and non-profit groups, is studying the economic feasibility of these techniques as a way to reduce combined sewage overflows. His initial results indicate that cities can reduce the need for new infrastructure -- or eliminate it altogether -- by using strategies that cost much less.

The Department of Environmental Protection hired Montalto to study the economic feasibility of using such strategies to keep combined sewage overflows out of the Gowanus Canal, but then cancelled the contract, saying it was pursuing other projects instead.

Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, another environmental group, say they are considering legal action if the city doesn't do far beyond what is currently planned. They agree with Montalto that alternative strategies could be the answer. But all feel as though the city is reluctant to change its thinking.

"It's easier to build large static infrastructure, even if it costs more," said Montalto. "Engineers can design big pipes and big tanks. It's much more complex to think about changing behavior or construction practices."

SUBWAYS

When the lights went out in Queens during July's heat wave, subway service in some of the borough sputtered to a halt as well. As Con Ed grappled with service problems, it asked the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reduce its electricity use. Overall the electricity problems created service disruptions on the V,W, R, E and F lines.

The subway system is the city's largest user of electricity, relying on power to run the trains, operate signals, and light stations and tunnels. According to one estimate, the subway system uses as much power every year as the entire city of Buffalo. So any problems created by Con Edison's aging equipment pose challenges for the subway system as well.

But the subway system also has its own aging problems. This became glaringly apparent on January 23, 2005 when a fire blazed in a signal relay room at the Chambers Street station in lower Manhattan. At first, transit officials said the A and C lines would be affected for up to five years. In fact, service was fully restored after about nine days. But the incident underscored the subway system's vulnerability because of its age. While many control rooms had been modernized in the past two decades to improve their resistance to fires, the one at Chambers Street had not, allowing the fire to cause extensive damage.

The system showed the most acute signs of wear and tear in the 1970s and 1980s when track fires, delays and other breakdowns seemed a daily occurrence. No one denies that things have improved since then. After all, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent some $26 billion to repair and improve the system. But problems remain. Fixing them can prove difficult.

Some cars on the system date back to the 1970s. Although the MTA has ordered 660 new cars, Alstom, the French company producing 400 of them, has run into repeated problems that have delayed delivery.

In September 2004, heavy rains poured into the subway system, canceling 1,156 trains during the morning commute and generally creating chaos. The MTA blamed "an act of God," but a report issued by the agency's inspector general this year said the deity had a lot of help. The report said the authority had failed to maintain valves and drains and needed more pumps to remove water from stations and tracks.

The MTA relies on a technology developed in 1872 to tell it where trains are at any given time. By being more precise about a train's location, newer technologies, such as those used in San Francisco and Washington D.C., allow trains to run closer together. This could go a long way toward making New York's most crowded lines more tolerable.

Stations may be the least up-to-date part of the system as any passenger knows who has stood on a sweltering platform. In some ways, delaying modernization to stations makes sense, as a form of triage, said Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association stations do not affect operations. But he noted that stations are among the most visible parts of the system.

To help bring the subways up to date the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has adopted an $11.3 billion capital program for New York City Transit. This includes about $1.8 billion for signals and communications, $1.8 billion for subway cars, and $1.7 billion for stations.

To help improve the subways (and New York's roads), state voters approved a transportation bond act last year. And the MTA announced recently that it was expecting a $711 million surplus this year. But, on the down side, the authority has said it faces a deficit of $905 million in 2008.

And a recent report (in pdf format) by the Citizens Budget Commission said the system is already in a precarious state, having run deficits in 13 of the last 14 years. To cope, the report says, the agency has shifted routine maintenance to its capital budget. This means that debt costs will rise, the watchdog group says, and that capital funds are not being spent to modernize, improve and maintain the subways.

At the same time, the city and state have shifted an increasing share of operating costs to passengers and away from government subsidies. If this trend continues, further fare hikes -- always politically unpopular -- could be needed to keep the system in good order

"The solution is more money," Zupan said, and politicians caught up in anti-tax rhetoric have been reluctant to provide what is needed.

Money is not the only obstacle. Efforts to automate trains on the L line -- having them stop automatically and so eliminating conductors -- have stumbled due partly to union opposition and reluctance among some transit authority managers. Politics also plays a role. Some have charged that Alstom, the company that has repeatedly missed deadlines for new subway cars, got the contract partly because it hired former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato to press its case.

But most of all, many believe, having a modern subway system depends on political will. Experts agree that the MTA began spending money in the 1980s because the problems in the subway had gotten too bad for politicians to ignore. Even a crisis far short of that, advocates say, can threaten the subway's reliability and, with it, the economic health of the city.

But spending taxpayer dollars to upgrade a system - to replace aging equipment invisible to most riders - can be a hard political sell. "The problem is that the least sexy stuff you do in this business is state-of-good-repair stuff," David Gunn, a former MTA executive told New York magazine. "No politician wants to cut a ribbon on a rebuilt toilet."

Gail Robinson contributed to this article.  

Recreation Centers: For Members Only


This month some of the city's poorest residents have lost access to public services that they, in particular, need.

On July 1, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation began charging fees at six previously free recreation centers located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This means that all of the city's 28 recreation centers -- public facilities, financed through taxes -- now charge.

In 2003, the Parks Department began charging membership fees at 22 recreation centers to bring in additional revenue. It also raised fees for tennis permits at the city's courts. But the six centers supported by federal Community Development Block Grants were exempted from the charge. The city has now brought those centers in line with other centers by charging for annual memberships.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said the fees are being instituted "so that all the membership fees will be consistent with all our rec centers." (The city's parks, playgrounds and outdoor pools will remain free.) The city also says the fees will reduce overcrowding at the six centers.

The primary purpose of the change is to raise revenue -- the city projects that an additional $2 million will be raised through the enlistment of 40,000 paying members. But a March 2006 Independent Budget office reportdisputed that claim, estimating that the "city will receive no more than half that amount."

Three recreation centers that had been free -- Hunts Point in the Bronx, and Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton Fish in Manhattan -- will now charge adults $50 annually; three other centers with indoor pools (St. Mary's in the Bronx, and Brownsville and St. John's in Brooklyn) will charge $75. Seniors 55 and older will have reduced membership fees, and children under 18 will continue to be admitted free.

At hearings on the plan held in April, critics said the fees would drive away people who depend upon the centers but will be unable to afford the new charges. The IBO report found that attendance dropped 13 percent at centers that began charging fees in 2003 but rose 23 percent at centers that remained free.

While the fees may sound modest, they can loom large for low-income New Yorkers. Nancy Rankin, director of policy research at the Community Service Society, points out that more than a third of the city's population lives near or below the federal poverty line, making a $50 or $75 fee difficult. "More than 70 percent of all low-income New Yorkers have less than $100 in savings," she said, "and 65 percent of poor households spend more than half their income on rent."

Until they began charging, the centers' gyms, pools, basketball and volleyball courts, boxing rooms, and other features may have been the only health facilities that the poorest of New Yorkers could afford. The neighborhoods where the centers are located suffer from high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health issues. For example, in Hunts Point and Mott Haven (where St. Mary's is located), the rate of diabetes is twice that of the city on average.

"By making it more difficult to access recreation and exercise precisely in those neighborhoods that most need an increase in access, the administration is directly contradicting Mayor Bloomberg's commitment to promote public health in his second term," said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

"A city like New York that suffers from obesity and high asthma rates needs to provide affordable recreation opportunities in all neighborhoods," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for the Parks. "With the implementation of the charge we will be watching closely to see if the increase deters people from using the recreation centers."

And it's not just exercise facilities that are affected. Adults will also need to become paid members to use the centers' computer resources that were built to help "bridge the digital divide" by providing computer access and instruction to the community.

But Robert Matthews, chair of Community Board 8in Crown Heights, does not think the new fees will be a problem at St. John's, particularly since young people will still be able to take advantage of the center's facilities, including its after-school programs, for free. "Generally in our community people find ways to pay for what they want," he said. "We have to remind ourselves that the day of the free lunch is over. In this city there are certain things that need to be taken care of, and people have to learn they have to pay their way."

In fact Matthews sees the charges as an opportunity for residents: "If they're paying into their membership it opens up more doors for them because they can go into other centers and utilize those facilities as well as St. John's to which they are restricted now."

Several proposals have been made to eliminate the need for fees at the centers or at least minimize their effect on residents. Gotbaum, who once served as parks commissioner, has suggested an "Adopt-a-Rec-Center" program to try to try to get corporate and community sponsorships for recreation centers. She points out that, while money raised from memberships fees enters the city's general funds and can be spent anywhere, money from sponsorships of specific centers would have to stay at those centers.

New Yorkers for Parks suggested a sliding scale of fees based on the income level of the member.

It is unclear whether such alternatives might still be possible, now that the fees have gone into effect. The next step may simply be watching to see if the poorest users of these centers decide they have no choice but to stay home.

David R. Jones is president of Community Service Society. 



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