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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Presidential Campaign Heats Up, What About The Poor?

According to the New York Times, “The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.”

While it is undeniable that the economy has improved since the Great Recession, it is also undeniable that the levels of poverty have not recovered to where they were before the nation’s economic downturn.

Here are two examples:

According to a recent poll, when asked “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” nationally one in six households answered “yes.” And while that is an improvement over the year before, one in six is a lot of Americans.

Not surprisingly, New York State has its own hunger issues.  Overall, more than 3 million New York residents rely on emergency food programs.  In a recent media report, the head of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier stated that, “We are seeing 30 percent more people than we were before the recession.” New York City’s food pantries and soup kitchens have continued to face an increased demand, on top of increases every year since 2009. 

Statewide in New York, in 2012-2014, three million people lived in ‘food insecure” households.  “Food insecurity” is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, when “the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.”  In other words, when a household is worried that it may not have enough money to buy enough food to eat. 

In 2012-2014, one million New York State residents lived in households that included at least one person working, but was food insecure, unable to consistently afford enough food.  In New York City alone, in 2012-2014, fully 450,000 residents lived in households that included at least one person working but were food insecure.

Another indicator of poverty is the rate of homelessness. 

In 2014, 7 million Americans in poor households were doubled up with family and friends, the most common prior living situation before becoming homeless. This represents the first significant decrease since the Great Recession. Still, the number of people in poor households living doubled up is 52 percent higher now than in 2007, prior to the recession.

Here in New York, during the period 2007 through 2015 the state had the largest increase in homelessness in the nation, rising over 40 percent.  Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped and experienced the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.  This single-year increase accounted for nearly 33 percent of New York State’s total homeless population growth in the eight-year period since 2007. Of the State’s new homeless, 98 percent were living in New York City.

In 2015, New York City despite the recent slowing of the historic surge in the number of people in New York City’s homeless shelters that began in 2011, homelessness continues to hover at near-record levels: More than 60,000 men, women, and children sleep in municipal shelters each night, including 24,000 children.  Over the course of the last fiscal year, more than 109,000 adults and children slept in the City’s shelter system—a decrease of six percent from last year, but still up since 2005.

Yet few meaningful remedies are being debated in the Presidential race.  As is too often the case, real reforms are being debated at the state level.  Here in New York, the last budget saw an agreement to phase in an increase in the minimum wage and an agreement to mandate paid family leave, both of which will help.

But much more needs to be done.

State and municipal policies have to bridge the gap resulting from the failures of federal policies.  New York State cannot continue to be the nation’s leader in homelessness.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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