Pandemic-driven poverty in New York City persists amid recovery, report says

The pandemic has worsened poverty in New York City and, according to a new report from anti-poverty nonprofit Robin Hood, while much of the city is returning to normal, food insecurity, housing instability and deeper income inequality have not disappeared.

Government support at the municipal, state, and federal levels helped sustain many families during the peak of the pandemic, but many of these programs have ended or will end soon. The report found wide gaps in who benefits most from the city’s economic recovery, with minority groups often benefiting least while facing more challenging conditions.

“Despite the incredible progress that has led up to the last few years, and despite the incredible impacts of some of the powerful government policies and financial transfers that have really helped keep New Yorkers afloat during the pandemic, we see that New Yorkers continue to suffer.” Said the executive director of Robin Hood. Rich Buery in an interview with David Brancaccio of Marketplace.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: I remember earlier reports on this tracker showing how the pandemic was certainly felt unevenly: people with lower incomes, people on the front lines. Now that we’re transitioning into another phase of the pandemic, I don’t want to say it’s over, what are you watching? Unfortunately inequality is reinforced?

Rich Bury: Yes, unfortunately we continue to see inequality reinforcing, even as we begin our recovery. New York City’s poverty rate for adults remains twice the national average. We know that children and families living in poverty continue to suffer material hardship. Even today, unemployment rates remain high, particularly in industries that are more likely to employ people of color and low-income New Yorkers. We know that 40% of all New Yorkers were still rent-burdened. So despite the incredible progress that has led up to the last few years, and despite the incredible impacts of some of the really powerful government policies and financial transfers that have really helped keep New Yorkers afloat during the pandemic, we see that New Yorkers they continue to suffer.

Brancaccio: Yes, because from our reports we’re tracking high rents, we’re tracking how, if you’re going to buy a house, you have to pay for everything in cash in some parts of the country, even around here. And that’s going to hurt people.

Bury: Of course. New York City remains the second most expensive city to live in in the United States, so it’s no surprise that New York City residents continue to experience extremely high rates of material hardship. And that’s part of what we see in the survey. Part of what’s so unfortunate is that one of the things that we also know in the last two years is that government programs work, government programs can be effective in fighting poverty. When you look at the pandemic and you see the profound investments that have happened at the federal, state and local levels, like the child tax credit, expanded unemployment insurance, local policies to provide emergency rental assistance, we saw a massive impact on the poverty. We saw that those policies were effective in lifting 1.9 million New Yorkers out of poverty. We saw those policies cut the child poverty rate in New York City in half. But unfortunately those policies are temporary. So many of those supports that people used to be able to pay their rent, to be able to make sure that their children can get what they needed to thrive, so many of those supports are disappearing now, so we’re really facing a cliff.

Brancaccio: What are the policy remedies that you think help some? It documents, for example, not only problems finding and paying for a place to live, but also food insecurity. So is the remedy doing some of the work that you do, which is supporting food pantries?

Bury: Yes, food insecurity is a great example where one of the things you would have expected to see over the course of the pandemic was an increase in food insecurity, but it turns out it wasn’t. However, New Yorkers were much more likely to use food pantries and emergency food infrastructure. So we know that those programs, whether they’re direct cash transfers or programs that support things like food banks, can have a tremendous effect in keeping families and children safe and secure. And what we can’t afford to do is have all those things go away while the economy hasn’t recovered yet. Whereas, in New York City, we have an unemployment rate that is still double the national average.

Brancaccio: It must be something when you have the radio on and you hear the voice say, “unemployment is extraordinarily low.” That’s not what your data shows.

Bury: Yes, it depends on the market. The challenge is that there is no single labor market. The powerful thing about surveys like this is that they help us understand what that means. Anytime you look at numbers at a macro level, you always run the risk of masking the differences within those numbers, so you really have to disaggregate. How do black New Yorkers experience this? How do Latino New Yorkers experience this? How do Asian American New Yorkers experience this? — understand the ways in which the current moment [is] really impacting people’s lives.

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