Mourning the Choices That Might Have Been

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I founded Connecting to Advantages to help increase the number of low-income New Yorkers eligible for public and private assistance who actually receive that financial help. I work with poor clients, and I work with volunteers – most often peers of the low-income clients – who become community leaders by dint of their service. Although I’ve assisted these populations for years through jobs with other social service agencies, my involvement with them of late has made me angry. It seems clearer that the powers that be are not truly driven to alleviate poverty (or they would have done so already), and so much human potential goes unused because of it. A connection between the local scene and the national stage demonstrates my point.

Sonia Sotomayor is now one of our Supreme Court justices. We have learned that she grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx and was raised by her mother, who had emigrated from Puerto Rico and was widowed when Sonia was little. The family was not well-to-do. Articles have described her mother, an energetic individual concerned with the welfare of her two children, arranging for private high school, saving to purchase an encyclopedia, and enabling Sonia to do well in this private high school. Then came a full scholarship to Princeton University, Yale Law School, several lofty legal positions, and the rest is history.

Without this singularly energetic mother, Jackie Sotomayor is a volunteer for Connecting to Advantages (CtA). She was raised on the Lower East Side by low-income parents, one of whom had emigrated from Puerto Rico. Jackie lived a more typical life for less-affluent residents of New York City. She attended her neighborhood public schools, leaving after eighth grade. She is less than perfectly literate. She compensates for her lack of skill at reading by memorizing client forms that we do repetitively, such as the Verizon Lifeline application for residential phone discounts. Jackie attends each CtA volunteer training session twice, so as to better learn the material, and keeps at home her own personal resource book, containing the information sheets we give to clients, so she can better learn about the variety of benefits and excel as a community leader. Jackie loves her work with CtA. She is responsible and caring, empathetic in her community outreach. She, too, is a “wise Latina” – who never had the slightest chance of holding professional jobs like Sonia.

How do we facilitate more Sotomayors – and Kandahars and Browns and Diazes – to become high-powered professionals, if they so choose? This is, in essence, the goal of CtA. Our activities – composing information sheets on various kinds of government and private-sector aid and subsidies, then spreading the information to low-income NYC residents who may be eligible – are designed to make financial and quality-of-life benefits accessible. We describe paths to receiving more food, money and health care, free tutoring, free summer camp, voter registration, ways to influence legislators, and more. We want our clients and our volunteers, who are peers of the low-income public assistance, food stamp, Supplemental Security Income recipients whom they serve, to have opportunities like Sonia Sotomayor had.

So, we steer people to $200 per person in food stamps every month, reduction of their monthly Verizon phone bill from $30 to $2, and help with their Con Edison bill in the form of a HEAP benefit of $50 or more each winter. These are bits of comfort for which we pat ourselves on the back.

But huge inequities continue, like poor people’s higher obesity rate, lower health status, and obstacles to good housing and education. The Bloomberg administration implies that lower-income New Yorkers disproportionately ignore doctors’ appointments and, as parents, attend to their children’s schooling less than they should. Students from poor neighborhoods don’t do as well as those in wealthier ones, and have a higher truancy rate. Is this solvable by paying families to behave differently – to dole out cash for low-income parents to attend parent-teacher conferences, as Mayor Bloomberg’s Opportunity NYC program is doing? The idea of luring people to behave differently by paying them suggests that they might be enjoying these less constructive behaviors or continuing them for some other undecipherable purpose.

A better focus of the government’s resources and effort would be to fix the lousy schools that Jackie Sotomayor attended. With the endless debates over DOE structure and who reports to whom, whether to pay teachers based on the “toughness” of their schools, how much student testing to do – it just looks like we want to perpetuate this situation by looking busy meanwhile. Graduating young people who know how to read, write, and do arithmetic would provide a great deal more than the bits of comfort CtA facilitates.

Consider a Connecting to Advantages workshop on the NYC School Tax Credit: $145 that residents working in the city get when they file taxes, even if they take in too little to owe income tax. Non-tax-filers can fill out the simple NYC-210 form and get that $145 refund just for having lived here all year. We run large workshops for clients to fill out the forms. Denise and Angel, two CtA volunteers, ran such a session at Trinity Church’s food pantry the winter before last. We put out flyers advertising the workshop, and expected 15 or so clients. Eighty came. $145 is a big deal, and being a regular American citizen who files taxes is alluring.

Denise and Angel took the 80 eager applicants in stride. They ushered the group in to the soup kitchen’s seats. They remembered how things were done in third grade, and led everyone through the form at once. They ran around the room checking them. They had the clients pass completed forms across the row for ease of collection. They urged them out of the room and took on the next batch – then recruited two or three adept filers to help. When the room cleared, they re-checked each form before they gave it to me to mail in bulk, as the state tax department said we could.

So why is Denise on public assistance herself? Why did New York City’s school system leave her without a diploma? Why wasn’t her eagerness and her responsibility harnessed in high school? Why wasn’t she pushed into college? Why didn’t she have a choice of high paying, interesting professions? Why can’t the city connect her with a job to use that managerial talent?

Why, when Angel found he had diabetes 10 years ago, did the city’s poor people’s health care system not teach him how to manage it so he could continue working, rather than become disabled and subsist on disability payments?

What’s bad about poverty as I see it in the food pantries and the housing developments in which CtA works is not just that you have little food to eat or cheap clothes to wear. It’s that you have fewer choices. What job to take? Work right out of school, or first do advanced study in a graduate program? Read Harlequin romances or Shakespeare? Listen to Michael Jackson or Mozart, watch “Dancing with the Stars” or the Harlem Ballet Theatre? None is better than the other, but choice – choice is better.

Just as unfair as having no choice, is competing with middle- and upper-class people who have so much more. Teachers prefer to teach that latter group. Hospitals prefer to serve them. So do the police and the sanitation departments. Feelings get hurt, poor people feel hopeless, they continue to skip their doctors’ appointments and parent-teacher conferences. They continue to get blamed for that behavior, and the cycle continues.

I love the organization I founded three years ago, and I think our work training community leaders is powerful. The downside is watching their effective leadership and aching for the choices that might have been theirs, had they not been raised poor.

– Judith Rubenstein

Judith Rubenstein has a master’s degree in community psychology and is project director of Connecting to Advantages. She can be contacted at