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Bloomberg's Record on Poverty
The Gotham Gazette
Gail Robinson

September 22, 2011
View the Original Article

For many months, the Bloomberg administration has boasted that as poverty rose elsewhere in the country, it remained constant here, thanks in part to his policies.

Unfortunately, he can no longer say that.

New census figures, as reported in the Times this morning, show that poverty rose more rapidly in New York City – by 1.4 percentage points — than in the nation as a whole from 2009 to 2010. This brought the number of people living in poverty in the city to 20.1 percent, the highest level since 2000. Child poverty rose even more – by 3 percentage points – leaving three out of every 10 city children in homes below the poverty level.

A report by Alliance for a Greater New York said the situation may be even worse than those numbers would indicate because of the high cost of living in New York – a luxury brand, as the mayor has called it.

Incomes across the city fell by 5 percent. But some people continue to do very well. In Manhattan – the county in the country with the biggest income gap – the average earning of the top fifth of the population came to $371,754,

While deploring this high level of poverty, advocates quickly responded that the figures only confirm what they see every day – an increasing level of need in the city. More homeless. Longer lines at soup kitchens and food pantries. People desperate for work.

More reaction and a review of Bloomberg administration poverty policies after the jump.

So far there has been no official response top this from the Bloomberg administration, as far as we know. (The mayor today though has celebrated the friendship between the city and the French with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and responded testily to questions about where Deputy Mayor Robert Steel lives.)

Advocates have not been so reticent. Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said the numbers offer the “latest proof our city and state policies are failing in fundamental ways.”

While saying the figures in and of themselves are not surprising, the Coalition for the Homeless‘ statement said they paint “a shocking picture of reality.”

Renewing its call for a so-called Living Wage – a move the Bloomberg administration has rejected – the Living Wage NYC coalition blamed the mayor for the rising level of need in the city.

“The Bloomberg administration’s economic policy has prioritized the interests of corporations and developers, and neglected the needs of most New Yorkers,” its statement said in part. “It has given corporations and developers billions of taxpayer dollars and allowed them to create poverty-wage jobs with impunity. … This aristocratic agenda of protecting the rich and ignoring the most vulnerable has clearly failed countless New Yorkers across the city.”

Despite occasional forays into poverty policy the administration has had a spotty record on the issue. The Bloomberg rarely mentioned poverty – political opponent Fernando Ferrer said he never did –during his first term. During his second term he did launch a poverty initiative, but it never gained the kind of traction and mayoral enthusiasm that has marked his public health campaigns, for example.

In 2009, Bill de Blasio, then running (successfully) for public advocate, told Gotham Gazette he “never felt social services was one of the chief concerns” of the mayor. While the motivation for the policy initiative, was good, de Blasio said, it “did not create meaningful” change.

At that time Frances Fox Piven, an expert on poverty programs who teaches at CUNY, gave Bloomberg credit for not following his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, in punishing the poor. But she added, the Bloomberg administration failed to revamp “the policies that keep the poor poor. Moreover, it has presided over a real estate boom that has steadily encroached on the neighborhoods of poor and working class people, replacing affordable housing with glass towers of multi million-dollar condos.”

Earlier this year, Gotham Gazette public finance columnist Glenn Pasanen looked back on the five years since the initiative and concluded,” it is hard to find any changes in city policy, practice or theory to ameliorate city poverty.” While pilot program to fight poverty have served only a few thousand of New Yorkers, Pasanen wrote, the mayor’s budget cuts have affected programs that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of low-income New Yorkers rely on.

Ironically, despite their failure to do much here, Bloomberg has spearheaded an effort to replicate his anti-poverty programs in other cities – and gotten funding to do so. One popular idea involved giving cash to poor people in return for certain behavior – making sure their children go to school, say, or taking them to a doctor. Although these programs show some sign of success in developing countries, Pasanen found little evidence they do any good in the United States as a hole, let alone in New York City.

“The weak premise that cash-incentive, self-help pilot programs will alleviate poverty in New York City has effectively obscured the real conditions of poverty in the city: unemployment, limited childcare, poor schools and job training, etc.” Pasanen wrote.

(This summer Gotham Gazette looked at program and policies in a number of areas affecting low income New Yorkers. To see our series – The Tattered Safety Net – go here.)