Low-income New Yorkers are getting more economically hopeful

A client exits a Brooklyn-based food bank.
A client exits a Brooklyn-based food bank.
a katz/Shutterstock
A client exits exits a Brooklyn-based food bank.

Low-income New Yorkers are getting more economically hopeful

A report finds the first such gain in four years, but many still feel stuck.
July 31, 2018

More low-income New Yorkers are hopeful that upward mobility is attainable. But a new report also finds that 2 out of 3 among them still feel they are in a precarious, if not worsening, economic situation eight years after the end of the Great Recession.

Unemployment, low personal savings, race and wages all influenced the feelings of people living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. But a lack of awareness of new employee-friendly legislation is also contributing to many low-income people’s pessimism about their economic situation, according to the Upward Mobility report from the Community Service Society of New York. CSS is the same organization whose research was in part responsible for inspiring the successful Fair Fares campaign for reduced-price MetroCards for low-income individuals in New York City.

The Upward Mobility report is based on an annual survey called The Unheard Third, which has been conducted every year since 2002. Its focus on low-income people makes it the only survey of its kind nationwide, according to Irene Lew, a policy analyst who co-authored the report with Nancy Rankin.

“Just in general in mainstream media, very rarely are low-income people asked about their perspective and their opinions,” Lew said in a telephone interview. “I think the optimism reflects the steady increase in the minimum wage as well as the expectation that in the next few years it is going to continue to increase.”

Last year was the first time in four years that there has been a notable increase in the proportion of low-income New Yorkers reporting they are making economic progress. About 26 percent of low-income survey respondents said they are “climbing up” the economic ladder, an increase from a level of 16 to 18 percent in the previous three years.

About 51 percent of respondents reported feeling “stuck” in 2017, with 16 percent more saying they were “slipping down.” The working poor were slightly more inclined towards a sunnier outlook, with 30 percent of these respondents reporting they were “climbing up,” according to the report.

Here are three more takeaways from the 30-page report.

Record low unemployment reduces pessimism

The unemployment rate in New York City has dropped from 10.2 percent in October 2009 to 4 percent in March 2017, the lowest level since record keeping began in 1976. This is likely playing a role in the rising optimism, though the prosperity has not been shared evenly across all racial and age demographics. The unemployment rate among low-income African Americans in 2016 is nearly three times higher (21 percent) than the rate among whites (8 percent) and Asian-Americans. Latino New Yorkers were caught in the middle at 14 percent, according to the report.

Though these inequalities persist, the gain of 730,000 private-sector jobs between 2009 and 2017 played a part in the 8 percent increase in optimism among low income people overall, according to the report.

New legislation helps when people know about it

Annual increases in the minimum wage have heartened many low-income workers, according to the report. And new laws, including paid sick leave, “Fair Workweek” legislation requiring fast food and retail stories to give workers predictable schedules – and paid family leave for nearly all private-sector employees beginning this year are certainly causes for hope.  However, the different rates at which the minimum wage is implemented – according to industry, region and firm size – confuses some people. In addition, lack of awareness of these other legislative advances might be preventing more optimism from taking hold.

A January 2018 report, also based on The Unheard Third survey conducted between July and August of 2017, examined the discrepancy between the passage of laws and knowledge of them among those they are supposed to benefit.

“These new laws have enormous potential for the city’s workforce,” reads the latest report. “Yet low-income workers, especially immigrants and those in low-wage industries, may not be reaping the full benefits due to low awareness of the new laws, off-the-books employment, and concerns about lodging complaints with employers and enforcement agencies due to fear of employer retaliation.”

A coalition called One Fair Wage has coalesced around the call for a uniform minimum wage for low-income workers, specifically focusing on tipped workers in the restaurant industry. This would not only make the law easier to understand but also reduce discrepancies felt by tipped workers such as waiters, car wash attendants and nail technicians who are usually paid a lower minimum wage.

More money doesn’t always mean more problems

The report examines in detail the intersectionality of problems that lead to economic despair. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest problems facing New Yorkers across the economic spectrum – a lack of affordable housing – makes a particularly powerful impact on the lower third.

Housing hardships are causing more people to live without health insurance, skip meals and forgo prescriptions and public transportation. Nearly half of low-income people with housing problems “often” skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money to buy food, but only 5 percent of those without housing problems went hungry, according to the report.

A lack of personal savings also leaves working low-income New Yorkers vulnerable. About a quarter have no savings, with another 19 percent having less than $500 in emergency funds, according to the report. These and other problems weigh on people’s minds: More than one-third of working respondents under age 65 reported that they worry “all or most of the time” about their family’s finances.

“It just points to housing affordability as being such a key issue in New York and a driver of other hardships,” Rankin said in a telephone interview. “We need to think more about how we ease housing hardships.”

You can read the full report below:

Upward Mobility Report by City & State NY on Scribd

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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