The city's Human Resource Administration's Job Center on 14th Street in Manhattan. Over the past 15 years, welfare rolls in New York have plummeted. But much remains unknown about how those not receiving welfare are getting by.

Photo by: Marc Fader

The city’s Human Resource Administration’s Job Center on 14th Street in Manhattan. Over the past 15 years, welfare rolls in New York have plummeted. But much remains unknown about how those not receiving welfare are getting by.

It’s a simple enough question on the face of it: How many people living in New York City are poor? The answer, it turns out, depends on how you count.

For decades, the milepost was the federal poverty line, a measure developed in 1963 by government statistician Mollie Orshansky to try to quantify how many Americans were in need. Noting that a federal survey had estimated the average American family’s food spending as one-third of its income, Orshansky took the cost of a subsistence “food basket,” tripled it and deemed families earning below that amount officially poor. According to this measure—which, except for adjustments for inflation, remains essentially unchanged—more than 1.5 million New Yorkers, almost 1 in 5 city residents, live in poverty.

In the intervening half-century, however, numerous critics have pointed out problems with the poverty line. Households’ average spending has changed since the 1960s: Largely as a result of rising housing costs, food costs now make up only an eighth of the average family’s expenses, rendering the “food basket times three” calculation obsolete. And by not counting government programs like food stamps and housing subsidies as income or adjusting for regional cost-of-living differences, the official measure has given a skewed picture of actual deprivation. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as part of the anti-poverty initiative he launched in 2007, called for the development of a new measure that incorporates these factors.

By this accounting, 22 percent of New Yorkers—more than 1.8 million people—are poor.

Then, too, other critics have argued that the “near poor,” those earning up to 200 percent of the official poverty line, should be included in any official poverty count, since they often have similar, if less frequent, problems ensuring that food is on the table and the rent is paid. In New York City, 3 million people—nearly 2 out of 5—qualify as either poor or near poor.

Those are the raw numbers, and you can pick whichever ones you like. But none of them do much to answer the real questions we generally want to ask about poverty: What is life like in New York City when you’re poor? How do people end up in these circumstances? Do the policy changes of the past 15 years—from welfare reform to new housing programs to battles over increasing access to education—make a real difference in people’s lives? And what, if anything, can be done to make things better?

Answering those questions requires more than statistics or theories. It demands drilling down deep into the lives of individual poor people, a few of whose stories are presented in this issue of City Limits. The individuals pro¬filed here are not a scientific sample, by any means—of the ¬five, three are African American (versus 29 percent of New York City’s poor overall), four are women (versus 57 percent overall), and so on—but they are a fairly random one. They are New Yorkers who were interviewed at food pantries, at welfare fair-hearing sites, at their low-wage jobs, in class at city universities—all the places where New York’s low-income workers, students and parents can be found.

This is a key moment to examine poverty in New York City for several reasons. First, Aug. 22 will mark 15 years since Once welfare reform passed, poor people largely disappeared from the public conversation. This despite two subsequent recessions that have caused the poverty rate to soar. President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as welfare reform. The new law—which set lifetime five-year limits and imposed strict requirements for receiving benefits— would, Clinton hoped, “break the cycle of dependency” and give “structure, meaning and dignity to our lives.”

The passage of the welfare reform law was the culmination of an intense two-year period of national debate about poverty, from Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America to Clinton’s campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it” to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s vow to end welfare entirely by 2000. And yet once the moment had passed, poor people largely disappeared from the public conversation. This despite two subsequent recessions that have caused the poverty rate to soar from a low of 11.3 percent in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2009—a rise that amounts to an additional 12 million people living in poverty nationwide.

A 2007 study of TV news by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting found that on average, nightly network newscasts reported on poverty or the poor only once every 15 weeks, less often than they did about Michael Jackson.

Though more Americans are poor now than ever before, President Obama didn’t once say the word poverty in his 2011 State of the Union address. And Bloomberg, despite pledging in 2006 to achieve a major reduction in poverty for those “starting their way up the economic ladder,” has used the P-word only once in his past four annual addresses.

According to many low-income New Yorkers themselves, they’re less starting to climb the economic ladder than struggling through hard times that arrived unexpectedly— via a death in the family, the loss of a job or the scarcity of work since the economic downturn. And while they welcome the government programs that help them pay their bills, they note that these come with costs as well—not just in dignity but also in time, as they are forced to navigate what is unanimously described as a welfare bureaucracy by turns hostile and maddeningly inconsistent.

If there is one constant in these stories, it is that life in poverty is much like life for most other New Yorkers—getting to work on time, ¬finding someone to watch your kids, dealing with the endless paperwork of modern life—only even more stressful, because the consequence of failure could be losing your income, your home or your chance to have a steady meal. “I feel like I’m always running, and I’m out of breath, and I never catch up,” says one student by day, grandmother by night as she describes juggling homework, child care and housing court. Indeed, being poor can be a full-time job.

This article is the first chapter in our July magazine exploring the complexity of low-income life as it is lived by individual New Yorkers. To read the second chapter, click here.