Some Hopeful Signs in NYC Census, But It’s Not All Good

David R. Jones | 9/21/2017, midnight
On the face of it, life improved for the poor in New York City in 2016.
David R. Jones Contributed

On the face of it, life improved for the poor in New York City in 2016. Incomes rose while poverty decreased, meaning approximately 95,000 fewer people were living in poverty in 2016 than in 2015. Census data, which mirrors trends nationally, reflected solid gains in job growth and wages.

This sounds like meaningful change, right? Wrong. Make no mistake, while any decline in poverty is reason to celebrate, let’s not be blinded by optimism or selective in what we choose to see. Poverty in New York City is still sky high at 18.9 percent compared to 12.7 percent for the nation as a whole; a tragedy considering the riches enjoyed by many living in our city. Many New Yorkers, though, are nowhere close. And what they have may be on the chopping block if Donald Trump has his way.

The Census Bureau, which earlier this month released its latest data, estimates that 1.59 million New Yorkers lived at or below the official federal poverty level ($24,339 for a family of four) in 2016. Women and children fared the worst. Single mothers had the highest poverty rate, a staggering 38.3 percent. Among ethnic groups Latinos had the highest poverty rate, at 26.6 percent, followed by blacks at 20.8 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 11.7 percent.

Needless to say, there is much to be done. Among the fastest, most impactful ways to ease poverty is half-priced MetroCards for New York City residents living below poverty, widely known as “Fair Fares.” An estimated 800,000 low-income, working-age New Yorkers -- many of whom said in Community Service Society surveys that they often cannot afford subway and bus fares -- would qualify for this program. It would help the city’s most vulnerable residents to better access jobs, educational opportunities and amenities that make New York City livable. It is a simple way to make a huge difference in peoples’ lives.

And it now has a glimmer of support from our Mayor. As part of his “Fair Fix for NYC Subways” plan announced last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for funding Fair Fares and regular upgrades to the subways via a modest increase in the current “millionaires’ tax.” This is a great start. We need to ensure that the Mayor continues to press the issue.

Progressive Policies Matter

While we are nowhere close to ending poverty in New York, there were in fact some positive signals this past year. During 2016, the city added roughly 75,000 jobs. As of July of this year, there were 727,000 more jobs in New York City than there were at the same point in 2010, and 172,000 fewer unemployed New Yorkers, a 47-percent drop from 2010. A national economic recovery partly fueled this trend, but is only part of the story.

Progressive economic policies at the city and state level also deserve credit. They include minimum wage increases, expansion of paid sick days and two consecutive freezes on one-year leases in city rent-regulated apartments. More positive changes are afoot. By the end of this year, the minimum wage will rise to $12 for workers at small firms with 10 or fewer employees and $13 for those at large firms with 11 or more employees in New York City. Starting in January, New York State will implement one of the country’s strongest and most comprehensive paid family leave laws, protecting employees from loss of earnings and jobs when they need to care for a new child or seriously ill family member.