Gotham Gazette

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Taking On Poverty

I was greatly heartened and excited to hear Mayor Michael Bloomberg announce in his inaugural address that he planned to form a poverty task force for New York City. For much too long, poverty has devastated the lives of millions of New Yorkers and vast areas of this city.

The mayor stated: “Today I am committing to a major reduction in the number of children, women and men who live in poverty in this city over the next four years. To that end, this year, we'll launch a public-private task force -- modeled on our task force to end chronic homelessness -- that will attack chronic unemployment and poverty in the homes and neighborhoods where the need is greatest.”

The mayor has asked me to participate in the task force, the New York City Commission for Economic Opportunity. I am hopeful that its formation signals the beginning of an effort that will culminate in a coordinated plan to identify the causes of poverty in New York City and to marshal the energy and resources to eradicate it. Does that sound grandiose? Naïve? Do you think that poverty will always be with us? Why, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world – with all of our intellectual and material resources - should we tolerate the fact that millions of our fellow citizens live in poverty?


Urban efforts to combat poverty are on the march. Just last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced that it is forming a Taskforce on Poverty and Opportunity in America.

Yet it has taken a storm of unprecedented magnitude – Hurricane Katrina - to bring the poor to the surface of the nation’s consciousness. Of course, the poor of New Orleans – like all poor people in this country - have known of their precarious situation all along. It is the rest of us who cannot imagine what it is like to live on the edge all the time.

Poverty In NYC Increases

In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report revealing that the nation’s poverty rate had increased for the fourth consecutive year. New York was the only city with more than a million residents to exhibit a significant rise in poverty in the previous year. The city’s poverty rate went from 19 percent to 20.3 percent. That’s more than 1.6 million New Yorkers living in poverty.

Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in America. And for most of those 40 years, we’ve been losing that war. At first poverty declined. But as each successive administration cut back on funding and commitment, optimism faded and poverty receded from the national consciousness.

The Poor Are Mostly Employed

What’s it like to live in poverty in New York City? My organization, the Community Service Society, has an annual survey conducted of low-income New Yorkers. As far as we can tell, this is the only regular polling of a low-income population in the nation. We ask poor New Yorkers – our constituency - about their views on issues of concern to them. Along the way we have learned quite a bit.

First, let’s dispel a stereotype. The great majority of poor New Yorkers live in working families. Our survey found that 62 percent of poor households include a full-time worker; 86 percent include either a full-time or part-time worker in the family.

If an emergency struck, what would these families do? Among poor households with a full-time worker, 65 percent have less than $100 in savings to fall back on; 81 percent have less than $500. Any crisis – a sick family member, the loss of a job – would mean catastrophe for most of these New Yorkers.

It’s no wonder that these families routinely suffer the kinds of hardships that rarely touch the rest of us. Our survey revealed that, last year, among poor households with a full-time worker, 48 percent were unable to fill prescriptions, 48 percent could not get or postponed medical care, 45 percent fell behind in rent payments, 35 percent had to get food from friends or relatives due to lack of money, 18 percent even went hungry.

Under $30 A Week For The Basics

Here are a few examples of life on the edge in New York City:

Real estate values may be skyrocketing but poor families face staggering rent burdens: 65 percent of the poor pay more than half their household income for rent. As a result, these households have on average less than $30 a week per person to pay for all other basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine.

Few Poor Workers Have Job Benefits

The city has added thousands of jobs in the last year. But for low-income workers, job benefits – which most New Yorkers take for granted – are practically nonexistent. Of all low-income New Yorkers employed, only 22 percent get health benefits on the job; 16 percent have family health coverage; only 9 percent have prescription drug coverage; just 13 percent have a retirement plan; less than half get paid sick leave.

Most NYC School Children Are Poor

The city’s school children overwhelmingly come from families living in poverty. More than 70 percent qualify for the free or subsidized school lunch program. Nearly half of all students entering high school drop out before graduation and less than 10 percent of black and Latino students graduate with a Regents diploma.


A report CSS released last year revealed that black and Latino youth – ages 16 to 24 - were more than twice as likely to be out of school and out of work than white youth - disengaged from any framework that would provide them with a future. In total, 170,000 of New York City’s young people find themselves in this situation. This is the next generation of poor New Yorkers.

Our most common response to poverty has been to try to create more jobs. A CSS labor market report revealed that nearly 40 percent of adult black men in New York City were jobless in 2004. But relying on job growth alone will not alleviate poverty. Without proper training and adequate education, advancement to well-paying jobs is almost impossible.


Commitment and Creativity From Non-Profits

In New York City, we have many assets that could be brought to bear on the problems of urban poverty – enormous financial and intellectual resources. The city is brimming with creativity and innovation. It is home to hundreds of nonprofit and corporate foundations that benefit from tax relief expressly designed for them. Yet they hang back when it comes to a commitment that would benefit the city where they do business.

Most foundations and nonprofit research groups manifest a lack of investment – even a lack of interest – in poor communities. The philanthropic sector, in particular, should be providing resources as a bulwark against the right wing that has made disregarding urban poverty a cornerstone of its policies. But they haven’t anted up.

Leadership From Public Officials...And Everybody Else

We must look to our public officials for leadership, responsibility, and accountability. If nothing else, the disaster of Katrina has reminded Americans of the unique role of government as the only institution charged with the responsibility - and capable of commanding the resources - for the protection and economic security of its citizens.

The mayor has thrown down the gauntlet to the private sector, labor unions, nonprofits, and community leaders. For the future of our city, we cannot continue policies that undermine its strength and vitality by acquiescing to a situation that condemns so many of our fellow citizens to a life of poverty.

Income and class – often in conjunction with race – too often determine the fate of millions of Americans. Poverty of the scale and duration we see in New York harms individuals, destroys families, and is corrosive to the city itself.

Mayor Bloomberg has shown that he does not flinch from taking on big problems. In his first term he dealt with long-standing issues of the school system. Now, by confronting poverty, he is tackling the major scourge of urban America. I am honored to be part of this initiative that we all hope will devise strategies that successfully attack poverty in New York City.

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York, a social services organization that deals with the problems of poverty.  

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