The Reasoned Review

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Looking for Poverty in New York

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The lack of conspicuous poverty in New York City is quite astonishing, given the financial holocaust of which it stands at the epicenter. Unemployment has spiked here, as everywhere else, and sits just below the national average: 8.7%. Yet to an untrained observer, the city still bustles with activity. Pedestrians either walk with focused strides or the confused gait of a tourist. Tourism, incidentally, has continued unabated – if anything it has quickened its pace. Times Square is so choked that the city has seen fit to close Broadway, freeing the herd to graze.

The property values in Manhattan are absurd, and continuously become more so. To live in Manhattan implies one of two things: either the adult a) has resided in their apartment for more than 15 years or (b) has an income in excess of $85,000 per year. If children are involved, the number almost quadruples. South of 90th street, it costs approximately $1500 to share a two-bedroom apartment, $2000 for a studio, $2500 for a one-bedroom, and upwards of $4000 for a three-bedroom suite. On Park Avenue, those values may be doubled, or south of 70th street, tripled.

Even in the boroughs, little visible poverty shows. Low income areas have residents who certainly don’t seem well-off, but everyone appears to be making a living, if sometimes only just. Still, a two-bedroom apartment in Queens costs $1700.

Every so often on the subway an odoriferous, disheveled, pot-bellied, yet clearly well-fed gentlemen will commandeer the car’s attention. Very rarely, he will have a crippling injury. After excusing himself, he’ll launches into a brief speech as to his misfortunes, add a plea for some small change (invariably so that he may get “a decent meal”), and end with an emphatic “God Bless You!” Most ignore, but a few can always be counted on to give a dollar or less. I have also seen five dollars donated, but never more. On average, if one spends eight hours a day at such an occupation, at five minutes per car, allowing breaks and lunch one can expect to make a very rough approximation of $85 per day (at an average of $1 per car).

The crisis’ evident lack of effect in New York City (compare to Detroit, for example) I think can be attributed to two major state-run programs, both of which amount to a seniority-based incentive structure. The first is affectionately referred to as ‘Section 8′ by longtime residents. Tenant unrest forced the city to enact rent stabilization in the ’70s, allowing long-term residents to pay only 30% of their net income as rent, while the city covers the rest. One low-income resident told me gravely that if the city were to revoke the Section 8 clause, “There’d be a whole lot more homeless people”

The second is New York State’s unemployment insurance program – generous, inclusive, and a far sight off from it’s Michigan counterpart. Claims have increased at such a rate as to induce the Department of Labor to set up an expedited online claim process. Newly laid-off workers can file a claim the very day they receive the news. The catch, of course, is that one has to have held a job in New York for a significant period to qualify. Still, I have spoken with seven or eight well-dressed bourgeois in Manhattan parks who told me they had been unemployed for months. They did not appear overly worried.

No discussion of poverty in New York could be complete without this anecdote, which occurred in Central Park two months ago. On a bench far off the path a visibly dirty homeless man with half his yellow teeth missing sang some nonsense into the wind. I approached him to make conversation, which he did in a jester-like fashion, and I asked what he did for a living.

“Me? Nah, I don’t work”, he replied.
“But surely you had a job at one point”, I suggested
“Oh, yeah, I worked at the S&L for years!” he laughed. I expressed confusion. “That’s Standing and Leaning!” he got out between laughs. Then, more seriously – “No, I’ve never worked”.
“Then where do you live?”
“I live here. This is my park. I’m homeless.”

During the conversation he ripped open a high-fructose “cream pie” package – Little Debbie was the brand, I believe – and scarfed it in two bites.

“I tell you what though,” he said between mouthfuls, “I get $300 per month food stamps, $200 per month from the shelter, and a place to stay – so I’m makin’ like $800 per month”

I mentioned this was more than I made, and asked if he felt he should give something back to society for the livelihood it allowed him to draw.

“Give something back?” And here I must say to his credit that he at least considered it. Then he declared: “I do give something back! I’m puttin’ on a show for these people!”

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Written by pavanvan

July 23, 2009 at 8:50 pm

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