The Working Poor in New York City


Rafael Pi RomanRafael Pi Roman(Moderator): Let me introduce the panel. Jean Reynolds is a certified nursing assistant who was supporting her three children, the oldest of whom is too sick to work, and her four grandchildren. Thanks to emergency public assistance, Ms. Reynolds was able to find a home for herself and her family, as well as much-needed economical and medical assistance. Although Ms. Reynolds led her union's successful struggle to increase wages in a number of New Jersey nursing homes, she herself did not qualify for a salary increase, since after 15 years on the job she already earned the maximum of $11.00 per hour. In a moment, Ms. Reynolds will update us on her current situation and give us some further thoughts on her struggles to make ends meet.


Listen to an audio podcast of this interview here or download the file (MP3, length: 59 minutes, filesize: 21 MB)

Linda Gibbs is the deputy mayor for health and human services. In that capacity, her responsibilities include overseeing the department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Administration for Children's Services, Department of Homeless Services, the Department for the Aging, the Health and Hospital Corporation, and the Office of Health Insurance Access, among many other responsibilities. Prior to her appointment as deputy mayor, Ms. Gibbs was the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. During the Giuliani administration, Ms. Gibbs served as a deputy commissioner for management and planning for the Administration for Children's Services, and before that she was the deputy director for social services at the mayor's office of management and budget.

Since 1986, David Jones has been president and chief executive officer of the Community Services Society of New York, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that promotes economic advancement and full civic participation for low-income New Yorkers. Mr. Jones' writings includes an online column for the Gotham Gazette focusing on issues Affecting low-income New Yorkers. Mayor Bloomberg recently appointed Mr. Jones to the Commission for Economic Opportunity, a task force convened to tackle the problems of poverty and unemployment, and whose recommendations are due in early September of 2006. In his earlier career, Mr. Jones was a special advisor to Mayor Koch on such issues as race relations, urban development, immigration and education. Later he was executive director of the New York City youth bureau.

Last but not least, Lawrence Mead is a professor of politics at New York University, where he teaches public policy and American government. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Wisconsin. He has also been a visiting fellow at Princeton and at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Professor Mead is an expert on the problems of poverty and welfare in the United States, and among academics, he was the principle exponent of work requirements and welfare, the policy that now dominates national policy. Professor Mead is also a leading scholar of the politics and implementation of welfare reform, and his work has helped shape welfare reform in the United States and abroad.

Each of the speakers will speak up to five minutes. Jean, will you start it off, please?

Jean ReynoldsJean Reynolds: Sure. I can give you an update of what's going on with me now. My daughter still has poor health, but she's hanging in there. Her episodes of thyroid problems are coming closer together, but we have hope. Through having the means of seeing different private doctors, she's finally hit upon a doctor that's taken her condition a little more seriously. A lot of them just told us that they wouldn't do anything, just to let her go. This doctor wants to fight. She's a young woman, and she's very close to where we live so it makes it very easy for Bridget.

The other kids are doing great. My youngest daughter is going into her second year in college. She's majoring in journalism with an emphasis on music. My oldest granddaughter is going to be a senior in high school this year. The next one is just going into high school, and the two little kids are just being little kids; they're eleven and almost nine. They're the worst kids God put on the face of this earth. [Jean laughs] I know I am being punished for what I did to my parents like they told me I would be. [Audience laughs] But they're keeping me moving. They're okay.

My son has stepped up, and he takes care of me at this point. I'm not able to work now. I injured my knee and I have to have two knee replacements and they found that I have arthritis that's now spreading through my body. But I have no pain and I'm doing okay. My son works now on a research vessel. He was a commercial fisherman at the beginning of the film, but the bottom fell out of commercial fishing and he was able to get a job in what he went to school for, which is oceanography. He's working on a research vessel down in Florida. He supports me and his younger sister.

The state finally caught up with my ex-husband and we get a very small child-support check, but we get it every week and he was just court-ordered to pay my youngest daughter's medical insurance. So that part of life is better. We're more comfortable. I don't worry so much about picking up the phone. I don't worry about the electricity being shut off. I've lived in this house for three years. My son is hoping to -- within the next two or three years -- buy the house. He's spoken to the landlord. He's willing to work out some kind of a deal. So we're doing okay.

I feel better. I mean, I'm never going to be rich, I'm never going to be a millionaire. I still haven't found a single millionaire that wants to be with somebody with older kids. [Audience laughs] But I'm doing okay, and life is a little bit better than it had been. There's a little less pressure.

Rafael Pi Roman: Thank you, Jean. Ms. Gibbs?

Linda Gibbs: Good evening, everybody. It's a little bit overwhelming to have heard these stories, and it makes me feel small by comparison for what we're trying to do, but let me try to say a little bit of background and context about the efforts that we have under way in the city to look at the issues of poverty and, increasingly, the working poor.

It is a little bit personal, so I'm going to share with you how I got to the point. I was recently appointed the deputy mayor for health and human services by Mayor Bloomberg, so I just started this job in January of 2006. Before that, I was -- for four years -- the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. I feel very proud of the work that we did there. The number of homeless people in the city had been skyrocketing in the years before Mayor Bloomberg was elected and I was appointed. In addition to responding to the demand that was placed on the agency in terms of providing shelter, we really forced ourselves to look at the issue of homelessness and think, "Can't we figure out how to solve this issue?" It's not good enough just to build more shelters and make sure that when people needed a homeless shelter that there was a place to go. We really needed to work harder to figure out what could be done to prevent homelessness, how we could put our strategies together at a community level so that people could hold on to their housing, and we needed to do a better job to help people who were vulnerable and less able to live independently to get the supports that they needed so that they didn't wind up on the streets or in shelters. We put together a great plan that's making a lot of progress on the issue of homelessness. We're seeing a big drop in the number of homeless people in the city. There are still 31,000 homeless people, but that's down from 39,000 when the plan was released. There's still a long way to go, but we've made a lot of progress there.

The thing that always grated on me is that I felt like we were -- even in homelessness prevention -- constantly patching things together for people who were living on the edge. While I could feel proud that we were making progress around the issue of helping to stabilize the housing, if I looked back, I didn't ultimately feel that I had really contributed in a significant way toward helping people advance in their lives, and fundamentally addressed the poverty that they were experiencing. So when the position of deputy mayor for health and human services was created by the mayor, he told me that he wanted to find ways to bring the various agencies together in a more coordinated and comprehensive way, because by combining efforts we ought to be able to do a better job. I said, "Well, yes. Sounds really good." I worked on figuring out how we could bring together the resources that the city has in order to open up a conversation about poverty, ask questions about the dynamics of poverty and find out what can we do to make a difference.

It's a big risk for a mayor of a local government to take on that task, because so many of these conditions are broader -- they're statewide, national, even beyond the government because they're about the economy overall. For the most part, at a local level, people have deferred to the federal government to say that poverty is a federal issue, and is not for local government to take up. As a result, there is an absence of local conversations about what we can do to make a difference.

The mayor agreed to take a look at this issue with us and created the Commission for Economic Opportunity, of which David [Jones] is a member, and we've been working since February to put together a set of recommendations around this issue. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be done next week, but we will be done in September of 2006.

I learned a lot as a member of the Commission, and now I realize that it was probably naïveté that allowed me to suggest to the mayor that we take on poverty. Once we started looking at the issues I started learning a lot.

There's tough news, but there's also good news. Very interestingly, poverty levels dropped nationally in a significant way during the 1990s, the same period of time when welfare reform took place. There were big drops in the welfare rolls, but there was also an equal increase in the number of people working, particularly young, single women who had never married. So during the period of welfare reform, the welfare rolls declined, employment went up and, significantly, child poverty went down. There were a lot of skeptics who felt like welfare reform was going to hurt a lot of people in a very serious way, and I think even the critics now will recognize that welfare reform in fact helped a lot of people.

At the same time, since 2000, poverty levels across the nations have started to increase. It hasn't a huge jump, but it is inching up a bit, and on August 29th of this year [2006,] we'll get the newest numbers on poverty in the country. What we see from 1990 through 2004 is that the population in poverty is changing; increasingly, those who live in poverty are working. In 1990, 28 percentof the individuals who were in poverty were working. In 2004, 41 percent of the households in poverty had an individual who was working. Primarily those individuals are working part time.

Because there's wage stagnation at the lowest tier of employment, individuals who are working are slipping behind as inflation drives up costs, because the value of their work isn't able to purchase as much. Over the past decade, we have seen an increase in income inequality. There are now larger portions of the population at the lowest income levels and at the highest income levels, and there has been a shrinking at the middle-income levels.

So when we see the gains from welfare reform, I think we have to be cognizant of them and learn the lessons they have taught us. We also see that increasingly, working is not enough to get you out of poverty. What the Commission realized is that we need to focus on two things at a local level: think about what tools you have locally, and realize the dynamics of your population. We needed to help people increase their skills, training and education so that they can move up the economic ladder and advance their careers; simultaneously, we have to make sure, as I think these stories in "Waging a Living" made abundantly clear, that work pays, that if you move ahead you shouldn't also be losing ground. We need to look at these critical factors and think about how a city government can make a difference when so much of this issue is defined by the federal government.

The other thing that I think, Jean, your story in particular emphasized, is the challenge of raising children as a single parent. Interestingly, a lot of welfare reform focused on the recipients of public assistance, and reinvested a lot of dollars, support and strategies into those who were the head of the household on the case. In a way, I think that strategy passed by the men, and it didn't think about why men were not actively involved in the house; it didn't address the needs that men have in terms of advancing their own careers, and didn't look at which programs and policies might be put in place to allow men to participate more fully and responsibly in their children's homes. I think that's another lesson we have to consider when thinking about how to move forward. It's pretty clear that an adult working full time is not going to allow children who are living in the households of single parents to move out of poverty, and we have to find ways to bring more resources from the non-custodial parents into the household.

We at the Commission are working hard. We said we wanted to get our report out by Labor Day of this year because we thought that was a meaningful time frame, but it's going be a big challenge, and I think the results of the report are going to be something that we really want to organize the entire city government around over these next four years. Hopefully in that time we get things built enough so that it will be something that will naturally continue working in the city in the years following that.