U.S. Census & struggling New Yorkers: light at the end of the tunnel?

Stephon Johnson | 10/3/2019, 4:08 p.m.
The latest American Community Survey report revealed that income inequality in America has increased and New York’s no different.

The latest American Community Survey report revealed that income inequality in America has increased and New York’s no different.

According to this data, from the U.S. Census Bureau, the gap between rich and poor U.S. households is the largest it’s been in the past half-century despite the median U.S. income hitting a record high ($62,000).

In New York City, the ACS claims that poverty fell to a historic low in 2018 (17.3%­—a 3.6% drop since 2013). According to the mayor’s office, the five boroughs have also experienced a 13% growth in median household income, an 8% increase in median earnings and an increase of 500,000 jobs.

“I was elected on a promise to end the Tale of Two Cities and that’s exactly what we’ve spent every day of the last five years working to do,” stated New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Poverty in New York City is at historic lows. From fighting for a $15 minimum wage to guaranteeing pre-K for every child to Paid Safe and Sick Leave, we are putting more money in the hands of working families and creating a fairer city for all.”

The de Blasio administration, in an email, touted the dip in the child poverty rate (29.8% in 2013 to 23.8% in 2018) and an increase in median household income (from $56,298 in 2013 to $63,799).

A rising national economy, low unemployment rates and continued growth of the gross domestic product could fool some into thinking that things are fine. But some people believe things aren’t fine.

Jennifer Jones Austin, chief executive officer and executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, told the AmNews that the U.S. Census’ report doesn’t match up to the perceptions of your average New Yorker.

“The average low-income and middle-income New Yorkers would look at this and say it doesn’t really seem to align with my personal experience,” said Austin. “And that’s because the measures used to determine poverty...there’s a low threshold. So for an individual, poverty level is $12, 490 per year. So their income increases because of minimum wage and the cost of living increases significantly and the income gap keep getting wider, the federal poverty measure isn’t accounting for that.”

Despite the improvements on paper, Black and Latinx New Yorkers are still impacted by poverty more than any other demographic. The poverty rate is highest among Latinx New Yorkers at 24.2%, Black New Yorkers at 20%, Asians at 15.4% and white New Yorkers at 11%.

“The significant thing is that regardless of your race or ethnicity, the cost of living is the issue,” said Austin. “The cost of living has increased. Minimum wage alone cannot make the difference. We need to preserve affordable housing and expand tax credits to help create opportunities. If not, the bottom line is that the wage and income disparity in a city like New York will continue. If we reduce the income disparity, you’re going to see more Black and Latinx people be able to be self-sufficient.”

But some community leaders believe that the key to getting help comes from actually filling out the U.S. Census. Nora Moran, director of policy & advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, a policy and social change organization, touted the group’s recent grant from the New York City Council to help mobilize communities for the census.

“Our job is to meet with them, listen and understand what issues affect them on a community level,” said Moran. “Then we take those issues and create a policy platform. We got involved in speaking about the census because our members [saw it] as a challenge on their horizon.”

But due to President Donald Trump’s administration’s attempt to include a question about citizenship in the census (and not succeeding), there’s fear among the undocumented to let the government know of their presence. Moran understood this and said UNH will work on combating those fears.

“The citizenship question created the fear,” said Moran. “Because of that, UNH really decided that it was important to get involved in this. The damage has already been done in a lot of ways. We have to let them know how important it is to make themselves known and the political power they have participating in the census.”

UNH is also involved with New York Counts 2020, a statewide census coalition, looking to preserve funding and seats on Capitol Hill.

“We work with non-government groups embedded in neighborhoods that locals know and trust and work with on a regular basis,” said Moran. “They should be positioned to do outreach. We also know there’s a lot at stake. One or two congressional seats could be lost if there’s a severe undercount and a loss in federal funding to things like SNAP and Medicaid.”

But regardless of the problems behind the numbers, City Hall prefers to celebrate the positive and take credit for the changes.

“The bold actions that New York City is taking—on housing, wages, early childhood, health care and more—are producing meaningful and important progress in reducing poverty,” said Matthew Klein, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, in a statement. “The positive trends reflected in this most recent federal Official Poverty rate for New York City are consistent with the findings of our office’s own more precise poverty measure released each spring. We are clearly moving in the right direction, and committed to pushing hard for even more.”