More Americans are poor than ever before, and the national poverty rate is at its highest level since 1994. Meanwhile, one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. But poverty is absent from our civic discourse. Everyone is tired of talking about poverty, it seems, except poor people. Perhaps that’s because the rhetoric around the topic has rarely resembled reality. The latest issue of City Limits explores that lives of four low-income New Yorkers, including Sharon Jones.
In a meeting room high atop Hunter College’s East Building, a group of undergraduates are discussing the trials and tribulations of life as a college student. With the shades drawn to block out the midday sun, the five women sit around and swap stories. They talk about commuting, about juggling time commitments, about the long hours of schoolwork that are a college student’s lot.
“I literally live in Hunter,” says Wankairys Decena, a senior from Queens. “And then at night I get home at 12, 1 sometimes. Sometimes even 3, depending on how long the library’s open and how long it takes for me to do all my assignments. I cannot concentrate at my house.”
“Yeah, mine too,” replies her classmate Sharon Jones. “It’s just constant. But where do you go? And kids need to be taken care of.”
The conversation turns to other topics: How to study on the train in order to make it from class to your job without being late, dreaming of being able to afford to move into an apartment or even the dorms. Someone mentions the latest round of CUNY tuition hikes that came with state budget cuts: an extra $150 per class.
“It’s a hole,” says third-year student Jannelly Lahoz. “It’s like you’re digging yourself deeper into the hole.”
Jones nods in agreement. “I feel like I’m in it, and the dirt just keeps coming.”
The students are of various ages and from different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: They have been brought together this semester for the Community Leadership Program, a two-semester credit-bearing Hunter seminar taught by members of the Welfare Rights Initiative, a student group started in 1995 to support low-income CUNY students. They’ve just spent their last class role-playing how to lobby a state senator; now they’ve turned to discussing the methods they resort to in order to make it to class in the first place. Two decades ago, 30,000 students attended CUNY while receiving welfare benefits, but that number plummeted to about 6,000 after the city, citing the 1996 welfare reform law that limited welfare recipients to one year of postsecondary education, began cutting benefits for students unless they spent 35 hours a week on “work activities.”
The exodus sparked bitter complaints from welfare advocates, particularly WRI, that the new policy was closing the most proven road out of poverty for individuals receiving welfare: higher education. HRA officials respond that they believe the most effective way to avoid being on PA long term is employment, though agency spokesperson Carmen Boon allows that “once employment is obtained, a person might decide to supplement it with training and education.”
Though no one in the meeting room receives public assistance, almost everyone gets by with the help of low-income benefits of one kind or another. Decena lives with her parents, who receive food stamps and Medicaid. Stephanie Benjamin, a senior sociology major, gets food stamps to supplement her part-time job; she tried to apply for PA but changed her mind when she learned her husband would need to attend HRA’s Back to Work program because his part-time job at a day care center didn’t meet the 30-hour-a-week threshold. Jones lives on about $24,000 a year in Social Security income. “I don’t get food stamps,” she says. “I don’t get book money. I don’t get transportation money. I have no computer.”
With that money, Jones is the primary support for herself, four children ranging in age from 16 to 27 (a fifth has moved into his own apartment), two grandkids and two dogs in a four-bedroom rent-subsidized apartment on Roosevelt Island. (“I feel like I live in a zoo sometimes,” she says.) A wiry 51-year-old with short hair dyed black, she is three semesters away from finishing her B.A. after getting her associate degree at LaGuardia College. “I have no family—they’re all dead,” she says. “So it’s not like you can call Mom. If I don’t have it, I don’t have it. It’s not like I can say, ‘Do you have some bread? Do you have some toilet paper?’ “
A working life
Jones grew up on East 38th Street in Manhattan, the oldest of six children; her aunt, who lived next door, had 11 of her own—”and my grandmother lived with me as well—one big happy Irish family!” Her father worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield, while her mother stayed home and took care of the kids. Both died young from cancer when Jones was in her 20s, as did her grandmother and aunt. “It goes back to the health insurance—they really didn’t have access to it at the time,” she says. “And also, with that stigma of not going to the doctor for whatever reason, you just waited. So by the time they went, it was too late. So yeah: city life!”
With five siblings, Jones says, she felt lucky that her parents had been able to pay for Catholic school for her, and she never thought about college. Instead, she spent several years working as an administrative assistant and legal secretary, eventually landing a job as a social-work case manager for homebound seniors for Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a social service agency on the Upper East Side. On weekends, she moonlighted placing home care attendants for the same agency.
For most of that time, Jones was the primary breadwinner in her household. Her husband, formerly employed by Blue Cross Blue Shield, was told he needed a heart transplant at age 36 and had to go on disability. After eight years, though, she says, “I got tired of training social workers out of school with degrees—and me with my experience teaching them, I was getting less than them.” She briefly tried nursing school—if she paid her tuition out of pocket, she could get reimbursed by her union, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union—but soon realized she didn’t have the money to front the tuition costs. “Unfortunately, college doesn’t call for one class here and one class there,” she says. “Especially when you have to do the core classes, it just doesn’t work. But I didn’t have the money, and I wasn’t eligible for