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Report Reveals Deeply Divided New York City

By Billy Wharton

30 December, 2010

For low and moderate-income New Yorkers 2010 felt every bit as terrible as 2009. Though economists pontificated about the end of the economic crisis, those surveyed in the Community Service Society’s end of the year poll continue to suffer from crisis economics. The study entitled "The Unheard Third 2010,” asked 1,400 New York City residents about their current economic situation as well as their thoughts about the future. It revealed a city deeply divided between rich and poor.

The more than 1,400 respondents were divided into four groups – 508 poor residents, 392 near poor, 312 moderate-income and 202 high-income. The results were weighted for age, race and gender and the interviews were conducted in Spanish, Chinese and English. The margin of error is +/- 3.3%.

A Tale of Two Cities

In 2010, nearly 50% of poor residents faced at least three hardships simultaneously. 32% reported that they had cut back on buying back-to school supplies and clothes while 26% reported having their hours, wages or tips cut. Another 23% faced food insecurity because there wasn’t enough money to buy food.

The primary problem for residents just above poverty line, some 32%, was rising healthcare costs. Job insecurity and delinquent mortgage payments were the second most mentioned complaint at 27%, while only 15% faced food insecurity. Nearly a quarter of both poor and near poor respondents reported being unable to fill a medical prescription because of a lack of money or insurance.

The complaints of moderate and higher income New Yorkers was focused squarely on soaring healthcare costs. 36% of moderate income and 51% of higher income respondents reported increases in healthcare related expenses. Moderate income respondents felt a bit more pressure on the worksite with 21% reporting that they had hours, wages or tips cut back. Nearly all other economic indicators declined for higher income residents.

Not surprisingly, negative events such as job losses and reductions in hours, wages and tips fell inordinately on lower income New Yorkers. 23% reported losing a job and 27% losses in income. Both of these figures increased slightly from 2009 and confirmed the upward trend from the onset of the economic recession in 2008 when the levels stood at 18% for job losses and 16% loss of income. Low-income working mothers were particularly hard hit as 21% reported losing a job, 42% a loss in income and 50% experienced both.

Healthcare a Problem for All

One problem that seemed to cut across income levels was healthcare costs and a lack of coverage. More than 20% of low and moderate-income respondents reported some space of time where they were out of health care coverage. This figure has remained relatively steady since 2006, but has increased sharply from 2004. What makes the healthcare crisis even more remarkable is that 17% of both low and high-income respondents reported having no health insurance coverage at the time of the survey.

The economic crisis has also eaten up whatever savings low and moderate income New Yorkers might have had. 61% of low income and 35% of moderate-income respondents reported having less than $1,000 in savings. High-income earners were in far better condition with 58% holding $5,000 or more in reserve. Savings was also segmented based on race with 74% of Blacks and 68% of Latinos holding less than $1,000 in reserve while 49% of Whites found themselves in a similar predicament.

Whose Future?

Worries about the future were also informed by class divisions. While all income levels expressed concern about rising healthcare costs, low and moderate-income respondents were focused squarely on fears about losing their jobs. High income New Yorkers were able to think more long-term, expressing as a primary concern retirement security. The employment fears of low and moderate income New Yorkers have risen steadily, nearly doubling since 2007. Not surprisingly then, 60% of low income New Yorkers feared that someone in their household might lose their job in the next year.

Employment fears also fueled a sense of a loss of control over a person’s economic future. 40% of low income and 30% of moderate income New Yorkers said they had little or no control over their economic future. Conversely, 48% of high-income respondents reported that they felt they had a lot or a great deal of control over their economic futures. The figures speak volumes about which class feels that they are in the driver’s seat in our City.

Class Polarization

The CSS report comes on the back of an exhaustive study of New York State and City tax records by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). This macro-economic study identified a 25% increase in the share of income monopolized by the richest 1% in the state from 1980 until 2007. This increase in income for the elite represented the most extreme class polarization in the area since 1928. The FPI suggest that this trend will grow once the Obama Tax Bill goes into effect. The two studies need to considered together - one, the FPI study, documenting the class war from above and the other, the CSS report, offering a window into the precarious situation faced by those who have been victimized by the upward redistribution.

This is the not so hidden secret about New York. We live in a City and State with deep class divisions. The Economic Crisis of 2008 has only accelerated these divisions. Geographer David Harvey claims that the economic crisis is the tool for capitalism to “rationalize the irrational.” The CSS report is strewn with irrationalities – full of the human deprivation, social oppression and fear of the future that the capitalist system breeds. Any popular break from such social trends will therefore necessarily entail a call for a society that runs on a rational basis, one that begins by satisfying human needs and ends by enhancing the human development of all. We are quite a long way from that in New York City. Time to get started.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at [email protected]