New York City houses two starkly different populations: one with substantial and growing wealth and one that subsists on or below the poverty line. In a Dickensian sense, the city continues to represent the best of times and the worst of times. As the city’s insatiable appetite for creative urban planning thrives and as it reimagines its industrial waterfronts, streets, and parks with innovative new public spaces, so grows its segregated character and its homeless population.
But improving our urban centers cannot automatically be at the expense and exclusion of our core. Low-income working-class families are the heart of our city: they work hard, they provide essential services that all New Yorkers depend upon, and yet they struggle on a daily basis to secure basic necessities such as stable housing, food and medical care.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with a very simple yet fundamental reminder: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world[.]” This inconvenient truth is often ignored and displaced with irresponsible rhetoric that puts the onus on low-income families to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Yet, the staggering mismatch in wages and housing costs undeniably demonstrates that we face a human dignity crisis in our urban centers that stems not from the lack of individual self-motivation but from spiraling market misalignments that require prompt and comprehensive socio-economic reforms and legislative solutions.
For almost ten years, the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 an hour. At 40 hours per week, this adds up to an annual salary of $15,080, which automatically places most full-time federal minimum wage workers below the federal poverty line. As a result, the economy is pushing more and more working-class families into homelessness. Based on a germane report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the hourly wage that a full-time worker must earn in the United States to afford modest and safe rental housing without having to sacrifice other basic needs is approximately $21 per hour (nearly three times the minimum wage) for a two bedroom rental home.
The problem is amplified in New York City, where the minimum wage is admirably set to increase to $15 by 2019, but the estimated hourly wage to afford a two bedroom apartment at the fair market rent is currently $31.48. This means that extremely low-income households cannot afford the average cost of a modest one bedroom rental home in any state, let alone in our expensive city, and that over eleven million cost-burdened households must sacrifice other basic necessities such as food in order to cover housing costs.
The sad reality is that these families increasingly have nowhere to go. Homelessness in the city has reached the highest levels since the 1970s and arguably since the Great Depression. According to the City, by the end of 2016, it was estimated that of the approximately 60,000 homeless people in the shelter system, two thirds were families with children, and one third of these families were employed. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), facing ever-diminishing federal funding, has seen ever-increasing demand despite its aging infrastructure. In 2017, the number of families on the waiting list included over 250,000 families seeking public housing and nearly 150,000 families seeking Section 8 assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program. This is in addition to the approximately 600,000 New Yorkers that NYCHA serves, of which nearly half are employed.
What these numbers tell us is that even hard work in the contemporary economy doesn’t cut it. In any society based on human dignity, it is unacceptable that anyone should go without basic necessities such as clean water, food, and shelter. But even in a society functioning primarily on capitalist principles, it is economically unsound—unless workers are truly viewed as disposable—for working individuals to be struggling to feed and house themselves and their children. In truth, this economy no longer reflects the American ideal of equal access to opportunity based on hard work.
Compounding existing failures, the Trump administration seeks substantial cuts to essential public benefits, including $7.4 billion in funding to HUD, comprising cuts to the public housing program, the Housing Choice Voucher program, homeless assistance grants, and neighborhood improvement grants. The reality, however, is that ignoring your burgeoning homeless population will not make them disappear, defunding essential public benefits will not eliminate bureaucracy, and blindly deregulating will not increase efficiency. In fact, underinvestment in essential government services increases unnecessary administrative costs and imposes debilitating burdens on government agencies and low-income families. As a result, poverty and homelessness only become more severe, which negatively affects the economy and all residents, rich and poor.
In New York, we will continue to be guided by Article XVII of our state constitution, which expressly mandates “aid, care and support of the needy[.]” Policymakers in New York who heed this obligation will continue to seek alternative funding for housing; find creative and complex new housing models; build more shelters; scrounge for available property; and develop new zoning strategies and tax incentives for developers to build affordable units.
But addressing this problem is not simply a discussion about the virtues of charitable or creative government interventions; it is about an urgent need to address a debilitating market failure, including the growing and unsustainable chasm between stagnant wages and mushrooming living costs. Under our Declaration of Independence, the people are endowed with an unalienable right to pursue happiness, and it is the government’s duty to safeguard this right. Legislators and policy-makers have an obligation to ensure that our economy continues to reflect our values. Sidestepping responsibility by blaming low-income families only wastes time while the problem swells and its effects ripple.
A living wage, comprehensive integrated benefits, and tax cuts for low-income working families would be a good start. Even if you don’t agree, it is time that we think progressively and look globally for solutions to address this systemic failure, not just at its surface but at its source. It is time for wisdom to conquer foolishness, for our divided cities to become one.
Seher Khawaja is a former policy attorney for the New York City Housing Authority and is currently a Gender Justice Fellow at Legal Momentum.