On the Brink | The New Face of Poverty: Meet Yolanda

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Yolanda Cotto (Jennifer Hsu/WNYC)

In our new series On the Brink: The New Face of Poverty, meet Yolanda Cotto, an unemployed mother of three who is facing homelessness as she, like many Americans, grapples with supporting her family and tries to get back on her feet.

With tears rolling down her cheeks, Yolanda Cotto, 53, recently sat in the front row of a packed courtroom in the Bronx Housing Court writing two money orders and a check totaling $2,000 that would enable her to keep the Bronx co-op she has called home for 30 years. 

Only two years ago the fiery mother of three, with a Master’s Degree in psychology and a model resume, could never imagine being in this situation: unemployed, on public assistance and defaulting on maintenance fees for the two bedroom co-op on Seward Avenue she bought in 1982, paying only $1,800.

“You work all your life,” Cotto said, her voice cracking. “And then you wind up like this. I just don’t understand. I can’t get it. I can’t get it why I can’t get a job.”

Outside the Bronx Housing Court, the Dow was inching upward, and the economy was showing strong signs of recovery. But for Cotto and many other New Yorkers escape out of poverty remains a daily struggle.

The Bronx native, who has worked in managerial positions for various non-profits and the city for 30 years, is one of more than 120,000 New Yorkers who lost their jobs from March 2008 to November 2009. Today, Cotto remains one of over 361,000 unemployed New Yorkers. Based on her disposable income, she is among the 20.1 percent living below the poverty line.

Falling Out of the Middle Class

Cotto’s descent from the middle class began in 2009, when she was laid off from a position with the city’s Department of Education ensuring children with special needs were matched with proper resources. She earned $79,000 annually.

“It was April 17, and I knew something was not right cause we usually have a cabinet meeting,” she said. “I was told I didn’t have to attend that meeting.”

Cotto was laid off due to budget cuts. She immediately started receiving unemployment benefits, $405 a week and $376 in food stamps. That largely helped cover her monthly maintenance fee of $1029 for the co-op, groceries, as well as other expenses, such as transportation, which can add up to $120. But soon she had to dip into other resources.

“I took everything out of my pension, I absorbed all resources,” Cotto said. “I have nothing.”

She took $15,000 out of her retirement fund, the maximum she could pull out before turning 59. And in December, the unemployment benefits were replaced with public assistance, a much smaller sum of $283 every two weeks.

The hardest days are those when she’s reminded of the things she could once easily provide but no longer can: a movie ticket for her 12-year-old son; a gift to her 37-year-old daughter’s newborn girl; help with college expenses for her 22-year-old daughter. 

Cotto said she is currently unable to make a profit by selling shares in her co-op building due to terms of her contract.

Stuck in Limbo

At 53, Cotto is too young to retire and too old to climb the ladder from the bottom. She has had trouble finding jobs suited to her skills and experience. In the past two years, Cotto applied for around 20 positions, from telemarketing to cashier to case worker. She has been regularly checking job postings online as well as dropping off her resume at various day care centers in the Bronx.

Marisa Di Natale, director of policy research for Moody’s Analytics, said people like Cotto are in an especially tough situation.

“The people that have been out of work for a very long time tend to be more disproportionately older,” Di Natale said. “That’s sort of double stigma against them. Employers may not want to hire people that have been out of work for a long time, but they also may prefer to hire someone that’s right out of college and is cheaper.”

Cotto received her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Fordham University in 1983 and began working in East Harlem as an intake officer for The New York Bilingual Institute, which provided vocational training and employment assistance to its clients or the area’s residents.

She earned a Master's degree in psychology from the College of New Rochelle in 1993.

On a recent sunny afternoon, she stood on Third Avenue in the South Bronx. It’s a block with housing projects on one side and a building with three public schools on the other side. Cotto worked here as the director of the Beacon Community Center until 2003.

To a passer-by it might seem like any other building in the neighborhood, but to Cotto it holds what she said were the best memories of her life.

“This was one of my biggest accomplishments,” she said. “I was here for 13 years. It was a wonderful place to be. Wonderful.”

The school-based centers were first opened in neighborhoods with high crime rates in the 1990s. Eighty still exist today in the city, providing tutoring and sports classes for kids and parenting skills for Moms and Dads outside school hours.

“I grew up in this neighborhood,” Cotto said, referring to her childhood home only a short distance away. “I was a little girl. I went to school around here. So, for me giving back was one of the best things that could happen to me in my life.”

After more than two years of failed attempts to find a job, Cotto said she doesn’t have enough energy to do much on most days.

“I don’t leave this house. I don’t go anywhere,” Cotto said. “My highlight is going to the supermarket. And that’s my daily activity every other day. I’m basically here and sometimes I just pace the house.”

Mimi Abramowitz, professor of social policy at Hunter College, said inability to find a new job can have a detrimental impact on people’s psyche.

“We’re a very work oriented culture,” Abramowitz said. “Most of us get our identity from work. People are devalued if they don’t have that identity.”

Uncertainty Prevails

Before her court appearance in February, Cotto despaired over how to come up with the money she owed her co-op. She feared the judge might evict her if she was unable to prove she could cover her $6,000 debt, which she accrued after failing to pay monthly maintenance fees of $1,029 for several months, beginning in 2009.

“I have no idea how I’ll get the money,” Cotto said at the time. “I might be homeless.”

The day before her court appearance, Cotto received two money orders from her sisters and a check from her ex-husband.

Her two sisters and friends pulled together once again and in the second part of February came up with the rest of the money she owed in maintenance fees for her co-op.

Still, the relief is only temporary: This month, Cotto needs to come up with the regular maintenance fee of $1029.

The one thing that keeps Cotto busy is the daily struggle to survive.

“Now I still have to look at how I am going survive the month of March,” she said.

Video and photos by Jennifer Hsu/WNYC


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Comments [8]

ErykBly from South Florida

@ Chris E. from Manhattan, NY - when I read the story, I also initially thought that the line about applying to 20 positions over 2 years was 20 job applications, but then I realized that that wasn't what the story's author meant, she meant 20 different types of jobs, that is jobs in 20 different fields of employment. Cotto wouldn't have received unemployment if she had only made 20 employment applications - the number varies by state but in most you are required to make =at least= 5 employment applications per week while you are on umemployment.
@ everyone else - as for people who like Cotto think they are "too young to retire and too old to climb the ladder from the bottom", most of us will =never= be able to retire (you just keep on working until you are physically incapable - and then you die - life's a bitch...) and if you find yourself back at the bottom of the ladder, you put your foot on the bottom rung and start climbing again, or you die. If you take on an attitude that you can't begin again, then go find a hole and crawl in - I hate to sound unfeeling, but I too am starting again from the bottom (and I'm 60) and my sister, who has severe rheumatoid arthritis, drags herself to a bottom of the bottom of the ladder job at a discount store giving out samples to obnoxious and unappreciative customers - when they have a shift for her. Simply put - you put one foot in front of the other for as long as you can and hope and pray for the best, or you put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger - CHOOSE.

Mar. 07 2012 08:18 PM

I am in a simular situation. We did what we were supposed to do in this society to obtain the so called "American Dream". We are educted, we have worked for 30+ years and paid taxes into a system, that unforunately has dropped us. Our plight is not even discussed by most politicians. It's a very difficult situation to deal with. And by the way, my skill set meets the quailifications of many positions on line, but still 95% of the time, you don't receive a response. Keep the faith and don't give up!

Mar. 07 2012 01:34 AM
Cynthia from office - careers tab might be helpful - there might be a couple of jobs that are up her ally

Mar. 06 2012 03:55 PM
pOLITICAL POP from america

she should have saved her monies

Mar. 06 2012 02:24 PM
Lisa Fabatz from Seattle, WA

I am a 49 yr old single Mom, I was in a very similar circumstance and was unemployed for 18 months and then got a temp. part-time job. Then on a whim at 11:30 PM on a Sunday night saw a online posting for a job that related to the skills I was learning at that position, I decided to apply and to my surprise I was interviewed that Tuesday and hired on Friday of the same week. My advice is to not give-up and really look at all your skills and experience to see where they match a sector you never considered. I think being so poor was the most difficult thing I've ever experienced but I also learned a great deal. I take nothing for granted and am very thankful for the small things in my life. Good Luck!!!

Mar. 06 2012 02:11 PM

Thank you WNYC for this story! Unfortunately, Yolanda Cotto's story is but one of thousands - no, millions - of like circumstances (myself included); just change the name and tweak some specifics, and her travails reads like an anthem of those of us caught in the dire situation: "too young to retire and too old to climb the ladder from the bottom...she(he) has had trouble finding jobs suited to her skills and experience." Someone hearing/reading this segment might be so moved and reach out to Yolanda to offer her an opportunity; I hope for her that that will be so. However, what can be done about the millions like her? Surely they are NOT unable, unwilling, unmoving, or undeserved. There must be something systemic going on and society as a whole has not addressed the issue.

Mar. 06 2012 12:54 PM
Chris E. from Manhattan, NY

I sympathize with Yolanda, and was even in a similar position for a bit. However - applying to 20 positions over 2 years? Thats not going to cut it, not even close.

I applied for 40+ positions over 2-3 weeks before I found my current full-time job. I've applied for 200+ positions since 2008. I've sent hundreds of resumes - each tailored to the specific job description, with unique cover letters for each. I've followed up by email, phone, and snail mail. I didn't hear back from 95%, but it's that other 5% that results in a job offer.

A successful job search requires diligence and constant, sustained effort. 20 job applications over 2 years is barely scratching the surface.

Mar. 06 2012 11:46 AM
kikakiki26 from New York City

These are the stories that need to be told. I identify completely but have been slightly more fortunate in that I found a job, less money but a job and I can only hope to hold on until retirement time when I no longer have to wonder if today I'll be out of a job again. The uncertainty eats up your strength. And though I look forward to retirement to end the uncertainty all that I had put aside the last 30 years is gone, I'm facing retirement with just social security and the few dollars I'm trying to put away during the seven years I have left to work. Employers are profitting more than ever but not hiring back employees.

Mar. 06 2012 10:50 AM

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