For almost two years, a team at Columbia University’s Population Research Center has been calling 2,300 New York residents every three months to ask about housing, health, income and more. While the federal definition of poverty is most often based solely on income, here in the most expensive city in America, there is a growing concern that poverty needs to be redefined.
“There’s been decades of research in the U.S. trying to come to an improved measure of poverty in this country with the idea that the official statistics that the government puts out every year are pretty inadequate – they’re based on relatively antiquated notions of what it costs to get by that were developed in the 1960s,” explained Chris Wimer, a research scientist at the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC).
Wimer is the project director of the CPRC’s long-term study, the Poverty Tracker. Developed with funding and support from the New York City-based nonprofit organization Robin Hood, the Poverty Tracker aims to paint a more nuanced picture of what it means to be poor in this city.
According to Wimer, using only income to define poverty misses other factors that affect New Yorkers. In 2012, the federal government reported that 21 percent of New York residents live under the official poverty line—about $23,500 in pre-tax income for a family of four. But adding the cost of food, clothing, housing and more in this expensive city, Wimer’s team found that 23 percent, or an additional 170,000 New Yorkers, were living in poverty in 2012.
“We know that there are plenty of people above the poverty line, wherever you set that poverty line, who are still struggling to make ends meet,” said Wimer.
We met 36-year-old Amria Watson in the busy, crowded offices of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Watson lives in that gray area—above the official poverty line, but below what she needs for her family.
“I’m a mom with a bachelor’s degree. But my degree and my status, where I’m supposed to be, that’s not where I’m at. I have to depend on this pantry, Bed-Stuy Campaign, for my survival, my kids’ survival,” Watson said.
Watson’s husband moved out two years ago, making her a single mother of four. She has a full-time job with benefits and overtime and some additional income from part-time jobs. It adds up to about $28,000 a year for her family of five—too much to qualify for many government benefits, but not enough to get by without help.
“A lot of times, like I said, after I pay my bills, I pay my rent, I pay my light, I may pay the gas—sometimes I don’t have enough money and now I have to worry about buying Pampers and probably worrying about getting pants for my son or a t-shirt for my daughter,” she said.
Watson says she doesn’t want to live in public housing, so most of her income goes to renting an apartment.
“I don’t know where or how they define poverty line, but you know sometimes it’s amazing how I know I’ve worked two to three jobs, getting my pay stub. And by the time I pay all my bills and take care of something that my kids need, there’s no money left to buy a gallon of milk. That’s poverty.”
The Poverty Tracker study is showing that the choices people have to make in order to get by in New York City are what push more people into poverty.
“There are unique challenges to living in a high-cost place like this, that is showing up in people’s express inability to meet those monthly needs,” Wimer said.
“When the government says to me, ‘We can’t really help you with a lot of stuff because you’re actually making money to live,’ yes I’m making money to live, but I’m not making enough to survive,” Watson said.
The first two-year Poverty Tracker survey wraps up in December 2014. In 2015, continuing in partnership with Robin Hood, the Columbia University researchers will begin tracking a new group of New Yorkers.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.