David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: 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.

And let’s not forget the state’s aggressive push to expand public and private health care coverage. New York’s statewide uninsured rate fell to 6.1 percent in 2016, down from 10.7 percent three years before that, with 992,000 residents gaining coverage. Critical to the dramatic reduction was the launch of the New York State of Health marketplace and introduction of a Basic Health Program, which provides coverage for less than $20 per month to 700,000 low-income New Yorkers.

However, the progress made under these measures is at serious risk. That’s because we have a President who has signaled a preference for snatching gains away from working families and doing all that he can to overturn initiatives by his predecessor meant to help marginalized groups. His budget, which Congress will begin debating in the coming weeks, would do real damage to children and families and the elderly. Trump is hell-bent to slash $910 million in federal aid for everything from housing subsidies and homeless services to food stamps and community block grants, which are used by many New York City agencies to fund basic services.

Some of Trump’s proposed cuts to social safety net systems ignore and in fact appear to encourage the misery that would come from eliminating programs that help poor families afford the basics. They are so extreme, in fact, that some rank in file Republicans have declared some of the cuts dead on arrival.

That said, this is no time to be complacent. We must continue to press Congress to maintain current levels of federal funding for these programs, and continue to advocate for state and city policies that will boost incomes and alleviate hardships of low-income New Yorkers.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.