Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Bit of an Eye-Opener

When you think “poverty in New York City,” what springs to mind? What stereotype has been so drilled into our heads from the newspapers, magazines and TV shows we all watch, like Law & Order or The Wanderers?

The very poorest among us in this city are Hispanics, perhaps African-Americans. Want to portray a neighborhood as poor in a TV show? Get a graffiti-coated wall, and stick a couple of Latinos playing handball against it.

Right? I mean, that’s the face of poverty in the Big Apple. Right?


Despite a rise in employment, nearly half of New York City's population is living near poverty levels -- a problem that is particularly striking in the city's Asian population, which has surpassed Hispanics as the city's poorest group, according to a new report conducted by the Center for Economic Opportunity.

The study revealed 45.6 percent of New Yorkers are barely making ends meet, even with more adults working full-time since the recession. A combination of low wages, rising rents, and a lack of benefits is largely to blame.

The dismal numbers, presented Tuesday to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, follows a growing number of studies showing the harsh realities of income inequality in New York. Just last week, city comptroller Scott Stringer released a study showing just how unaffordable the city has become, with the median rent in New York City rising a staggering 75 percent from 2000 to 2012.

The annual study also showed significant shifts within racial and ethnic demographics. As the report indicates, the poverty rate of Asians and Hispanics were "statistically identical" in 2008, at 22.4 percent and 23.5 percent, respectively. But by 2012, the rate surged to 29 percent for Asians, more than 3 percent higher than Hispanics.

The Stringer study is of particular note, as the rules governing rent control and rent stabilization in NY were amended in the last twenty years  to allow landlords to force tenants above a certain income threshold to pay market rents. This effectively took a percentage of affordable housing off the market. An additional form of vacancy decontrol, as it’s known, is to vacate an apartment for a year, make renovations, then petition the city to remove the rent controls. The landlord is entitled to an immediate 20% rent increase, plus one-fortieth of the costs incurred in renovations (which means premium pricing on plumbing, HVAC, and so on).

Estimates range as high as 300,000 units of affordable housing being taken off the market in the past twenty years.

Now that the economic side of this story has been expanded, let’s take a look at the demographics of poverty in the city.

There has been an influx of Asians immigrants into the city in the past decade. Like every ethnic wave before them, Asians seek a better life than they had at home: in this case, the Koreas, China, and Southeast Asia. There, people were paid pennies for work that here pays dollars.

Like every ethnic group before them, Asians send money home to family and friends to invite them here to America, to get a piece of the American Dream (silly Asian! Don’t you know that’s been dead for thirty years?)

And yet, they come, because poverty here is better than poverty at home. That’s an undeniable fact, but that does not also mean we in the States get the opportunity to deny the poorest among us the help they need.

And yet, they’ll put up with the squalor and crowding and hard work of seven days a week, two shifts a day, simply to see themselves a little bit better, and their families a little bit stronger.

It doesn’t matter where they come from, what their skin color is, or what language is their mother tongue, they will continue to come, no matter how hard we try to stop them, because life gets its way.

The irony is, they become an integral part of the machine that grinds down every one who earns a wage, even as those who run the machine knot their panties over their arrival.

Happy May Day