An intersection in East Harlem, one of the city's poorest Census tracts. As debt and deficits dominate the political conversation, the discussion of poverty might be at a crossroads.

Photo by: Marc Fader

An intersection in East Harlem, one of the city’s poorest Census tracts. As debt and deficits dominate the political conversation, the discussion of poverty might be at a crossroads.

For more than a century—starting with Jacob Riis and his fellow progressive reformers, through Michael Harrington’s The Other America and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, to Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving “welfare queens”—the U.S. has struggled to come up with a fix for poverty, or even to agree on what exactly it is that needs fixing. For Mayor Bloomberg’s HRA, as with Mayor Giuliani’s before him, the prescription has been “work first.” As HRA commissioner Robert Doar told City Limits in 2009, “Our view is that the best way out of difficult times is employment, even low-wage employment”—and then supplementing work with what the city considers “work support” programs: food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit for low-wage earners.

Some of the individuals led here already work, though— and others say they have no time to work because they need to take classes (or start businesses) to steer a more reliable path out of poverty. For them, poverty is not a mere function of not enough jobs or too much dependency on the system but a complex interplay of life events: jobs that disappear, family members who die, the search for affordable rents and schooling, the nation’s often incoherent immigration policy, the endless scramble for time that is the lot of any parent of young children. Poverty is a patchwork problem and, they indicate, it requires a multitude of solutions.

For Walter Greene, it’s the size of the welfare grant: “For two people, they need to give us more money,” he says.

Francia Alejo would like to see an increase in the minimum wage: “Because $8 an hour, and the cost of the life comes up. Everything comes up, and the minimum wage is still there.”

Beverly Davis says if the Work Advantage program is eliminated, there needs to be something to help people get out of shelters when they can’t amass the savings—or build the credit—to get an apartment on their own: “So they’re gonna need a co-signer. And the co-signer can’t have no kind of felonies. They have to have a job. They have to show proof of their income. And not everyone can -find a person with good credit that could co-sign for them.”

There is unanimous agreement, meanwhile, that the city could alleviate innumerable headaches by simply improving its welfare bureaucracy’s customer service. “You call them, and people don’t want to pick up their phone to ask them no questions,” says Greene.

“They want you to go get a job, but they don’t give you the time, and they don’t hear no excuses,” says Davis, “It’s ‘Either you show me in black-and-white, or it doesn’t exist to me.’ ” Jones recalls a time when she worried aloud to an HRA worker that a benefits appointment had been scheduled at the same time as one of her classes. The worker replied sarcastically: ” ‘Well, I don’t know what your schedule calls for, but you have to be here.’ It’s almost like they dismiss school completely. Like you’re nothing.”

HRA staffers stress that they continually work to improve customer service; in particular, they cite new initiatives that should allow applicants to access documents online and to let clients obtain replacement benefit cards by visiting only two neighboring offices instead of three scattered ones. In addition, all new staff members receive a full-day training in “respect, timeliness and quality,” according to agency spokesperson Carmen Boon, who adds: “Any allegation of rude or hostile behavior at an HRA facility should be reported to 311.”

Fields says she has sympathy for HRA workers—if she were in their shoes she’d say to herself, “I’m overworked, I’m underpaid, I’m stressed out, and you come up here with attitude telling me what I need to do? Psh!”—but only up to a point. “It seems like the status is ‘Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.’ That’s the way they look at it. They don’t want to hear about the fact that you’re taking kids to school.” City officials, in response, like to stress that the goal of welfare policy, from work-¬first through Next Step on down, is to demand of those seeking public benefits some basic standard of behavior: the “personal responsibility” that gave the 1996 welfare reform act its name.

And, indeed, many low-income New Yorkers make their share of questionable decisions. They miss appointments. They get involved in relationships that don’t last. They fail to make copies of important paperwork. Of course, many—if not most—New Yorkers with adequate incomes do those things as well; the difference is that for them, the potential consequences of a misstep are far less dire.

Asked what she would do if she were put in charge of running the system of support and public benefits for New Yorkers with low incomes, Fields thinks for a long, long time.

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be the mayor running this system—I can say that. It’s tough.” But, as befits a woman who is trying to reinvent low-income economic development while simultaneously keeping her welfare benefits active and raising four kids, she has some ideas: “I think the first thing you need to do is to understand that poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not that people are just poor because they made bad decisions. It’s not that people are just poor because they were born into poverty. It’s not that people are just poor because there’s structural racism and institutional racism and gender-biased policies. It’s all of those things.”

Mostly, though, Fields stresses that the system needs to recognize that the clients it serves—New York’s 1.5 million poor people—come in all shapes and sizes and with different reasons for being where they are. “One of the things that annoy the hell out of me is that folks act like people who are on public assistance are one monolithic group of folks. I mean, we know about the welfare queen stereotype. And I’m going to be real with you: Some of it’s legitimate.” She says she’s met fellow clients at the HRA office who simply don’t want to work.

Fields knows, though, how frustrating it can be to lose a job and then have to fight over and over for help you are embarrassed to ask for in the first place. “I’ve certainly sat next to the woman at the PA office who was like, ‘I ain’t working for no-fucking-body,’ ” she says. “But even that comes from a place that I can understand.”

This is the sixth and final chapter in our July issue exploring the complexity of low-income life as it is lived by individual New Yorkers. To read the rest of the feature, begin here. To read a sidebar on new, federal efforts to attack poverty, click here.