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

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

In our new series On the Brink: The New Face of Poverty, meet Peter Riquelme, an unemployed single man who is facing bankruptcy and possible homelessness as he, like many Americans, grapples with supporting himself after working for years with nothing to show for it.

Photos and video by Jennifer Hsu

Peter Riquelme, a former team leader in Dell’s re-manufacturing division, never imagined he'd be a 35-year-old intern earning $12 an hour and struggling to survive in New York City when he moved here three years ago.

“It almost seems like I’m starting over,” Riquelme said. “I can’t stay in this situation that I’m in forever for sure. It’s not sustainable.”

Riquelme lived comfortably in Austin, Texas, where he owned a three-bedroom house for several years and rented one and two—bedroom apartments. Now, he is squeezed into an 8-by-12 room in Long Island City, Queens, which he shares with his dog Daisy, a mix between a pug and a West Highland white terrier.

It’s a one-bedroom apartment, and the owner sleeps in the living room. Riquelme has no access to the kitchen.

If options are not plentiful for Riquelme these days, it wasn’t always like that.

He got a full-time job at Dell in 1999, when he was 21 and living in Texas, where he grew up. Riquelme had completed his first year at a community college, but decided to quit school to focus on his career.

The decision doesn’t seem surprising considering the time it was made, according to Carl Van Horn, professor of public policy at Rutgers University.

“During the tech boom of the late nineties the employers were desperate for anyone who had the basic interest and skills,” Van Horn said. “And so whether you had a college or a high school degree was less important.”

By 2009, Riquelme was making $70,000 and could afford to indulge his passion for traveling. He went to places from Chile to New York to New Orleans and San Francisco.

But 10 years after Riquelme began at Dell, the company sold the re-manufacturing division where he helped troubleshoot failures on laptops that were returned by customers. Riquelme said he didn’t have enough confidence in the company that bought his division, and decided to leave.

He had family in the New York and assumed it wouldn’t be too difficult to get re-established.

“But that ended up not being the case,” Riquelme said. “The previous times I looked for work it was easy to get a job, and obviously that has changed.”

Trying to Survive in the City

After an unsuccessful nine-month search, Riquelme said he realized he wouldn’t be able to get a position without a college degree. With tuition help from his parents, he decided to go back to school, and he’s now working toward an Associate’s Degree in computer science at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

In 2010, he got an internship through CUNY, as an intern for the city’s Department of Health. It seemed like a good start. Riquelme expected to be in the position temporarily.

“I was thinking maybe a year at the most,” he said.

Two years later Riquelme is still a paid intern. He earns $12 an hour doing tech support, and he gets health benefits and has a retirement plan. He works 34 hours a week and earned just under $18,000 last year.

That amount puts him above the estimated federal poverty threshold of $11,702 for 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Riquelme said he feels frustrated, because he can’t get a full-time position with a professional wage. He thinks he not only has the necessary knowledge, but is also good at communicating with people.

“When you’re just looking at a piece of paper or a digital resume, you don’t see that,” Riquelme said. “You don’t know that.”

A Life Changed

At the moment, Riquelme says, his life comes down to “surviving” more than living.

He pays $500 a month rent, $120 for storage space for things that don’t fit into his room, $104 for the monthly MetroCard, $100 for his cell phone and $30 for Internet. After that he’s left with $250 a month, which needs to cover food and all other expenses. Because he can’t cook at home, costs go up for Riquelme as he often buys sandwiches in bodegas.

Riquelme filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after he couldn’t keep up with the credit card debt he had. He also depleted his 401(k), in which he had $80,000, when he left Dell.

“It’s all gone,” he said. “It’s non-existent.”

Riquelme says he is determined to get his degree by next spring. It’s the main reason he’s staying in the city, not wanting to again make what he now sees as a mistake of leaving school.

Last month, he celebrated his 35th birthday party at a video arcade bar in Williamsburg, his love of the games unabated by the passing of time. A dozen of friends from the gay soccer league he plays in, from work and from his neighborhood gathered.

One of them, Zach Studt, 25, said, he witnessed moments when things get difficult for Riquelme.

“It’s hard to work all the time and feel like you’re not going anywhere,” Studt said. “I’ve definitely seen that with him and seen him get frustrated.”

Surrounded by friends, Riquelme said he felt happy to see he’s not alone in the city, but he also took the moment to think about his future.

“What I want in life would be to have a family,” Riquelme said. “That’s something I do desire and that’s a major goal for me. And right now with the situation that I’m in, financially and everything, that’s not even something that crosses my mind.”

Despite the difficulty of his position, Riquelme says he will find a way out.

“I don’t need a whole new career,” he said. “I just need to be paid properly.”


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Comments [24]

Supahstah* from los angeles,ca.

I don't feel sorry for him. He jumped shipped because he did not feel secure in his job. Lets see, does the $12/hour internship make him feel more secure? Also,I agree with the others who say dont' spend $70,000 if thats what you make a year. Live off of $50,000 and save the rest for hard times.

May. 12 2013 08:09 PM

If he has strong IT skills, I recommend he try to get trained as a Salesforce Developer (may be expensive but if he can swing it) - maybe even train himself? I work in a company that cannot hire Salesforce developers fast enough. A BA is not required. I wish more people would learn the tool -the demand is there.

Best wishes to you in your struggle to get back on track.

Jun. 05 2012 08:46 PM
Andy from NYC

The real take away for me is the need to constantly upgrade your skills. I started working in IT during the boom. Initially I was hired because I could spell Java; however I made sure I got an MS in computer science so that I would stay competitive. In addition I make sure I learn something new every year. It is difficult and sometimes life is hectic. I do not mean to sound heartless it is just that people need to realize that just going to school or working in a particular field is not enough; you need to constantly reinvent yourself.

Jun. 05 2012 05:41 PM
HipHopSays from Brooklyn (Fort Greene/Clinton Hill)

it seems folks missed some finer points in this piece...he didn't make 70K for ten years. I suspect he made ok money for a 21 year old and through his industriousness worked up to a position that warranted a 70K salary over the last few years of the ten year span....also, the cellphone is the new norm folks. given that he does not live alone (he's renting a room) odds are the mobile phone is his only option (i am in my second nyc apartment that isn't even wired for a landline) and let's face it the $100 month smartphone gives him internet access (which i suspect he doesn't have in the home or vast access too), and a level of connectivity that is conducive to searching for a job.

i am surprised that folks haven't gravitated to the fact he left a paying job because he didn't believe in the new parent company....that seems problematic and point of contention.

Jun. 05 2012 05:15 PM
suzinne from Bronx

Wonkguy: Apology accepted. You're right - New York City is no place to turn your life around. On the other hand, our fair city will chew you up and spit you out.

Actually, this story is not exactly an illustration of the worst that's out there. This guy has some income and has a place to stay. $12 an hour as an intern is a pretty good deal nowadays. Most interns do not get paid. Also, he had a good job and chose to leave it. What I'm talking about are people who worked for many years in a field that imploded like publishing or law and were forced out of their jobs.

Jun. 05 2012 05:05 PM
wonkguy from Manhattan, NY

@suzinne from Bronx
Hi, I'm sorry if my question came off snarky, that was not my intent at all.

I think I was going more for "rhetorical" in that the only new thing about this story is that the subject is a young white male, as Mark earlier this morning, but I wanted to hear it from WNYC.

Look, I feel for this guy. I think he is on the right path and while it is going to be a bumpy road, with the right amount of hard work, luck, ability to borrow and support from his family, he'll be able to turn it around. I do think it would be much much less expensive for him to get his degree someplace other than NYC, unless he can come up with a more reasonable living arrangement. NYC is no place to try to turn your life around, this place will eat you up. Go some place where you can see the stars and hear the crickets at night. The bright lights, big city will be here when you have your degree.

Jun. 05 2012 04:28 PM

There is a true dearth of empathy here. He made the choices he thought were best with what he knew at the time. Are you all sitting on huge savings accounts and retirement plans? How many 20-somethings really have that kind of foresight, or just happen to be lucky enough to maintain an earning pattern? The American economy does not encourage savings, everything we are shown or told from birth instructs us to "spend, spend, spend!" And this government does not seem to value education, as it has virtually cast off an entire generation due to crippling student loans and teacher layoffs. This IS the new face of poverty, people who are neglected and undervalued by their own country. I hope we can turn it around before I have children.

Jun. 05 2012 03:20 PM
Michael from Brooklyn

I believe the point they're trying to bring up is the fact that some of us get caught up in making money for the now. Thinking logically that your skills from that position will someday carry over into a similar position whether you have a college education or not. I'm currently in a similar situation. I give anyone credit for going through what Peter is going through. Its difficult and your life can easily spiral out of control.

Jun. 05 2012 12:13 PM
the_hme from Jersey City, NJ

Wait a minute, so he owned a home, two apartments and traveled around the world, and now he is broke? The problem is that America doesn't save money for rough patches and become too comfortable in a single place, not seeking better opportunities through education and other means. I feel bad for the guy, but at least he had opportunities. I think for tech jobs you now need at least a BS or a MS, and with the economy an BS holders are paid much less than they were a few years ago, and there are plenty to choose from, so AS will not work; unless your have an amazing network of friends in the tech industry.

Jun. 05 2012 11:57 AM
Remy from LIC

People need to be able to talk about these hard times without being judged. There are many ways to plunge into poverty. Blaming the people who are poor or have become poor recently really only benefits the 1%. Keep us fighting over scraps, meanwhile gauging us.

Saving is a good idea, and so is dreaming. Thanks for the report, I <3 WNYC.

Jun. 05 2012 11:24 AM
kthmcgv from queens

I have friends that came to this country with nothing as children, worked, SAVED, and have made it out of the lower class. The comments about consumption and spending money on things that corporations tell us we need are right on!Expensive sneakers...100 cell phone service...gym memberships...are NOT necessary.

I've gotten the impression that those with less monetary means feel they need to spend on their appearance to show others they are not 'poor'. This is sad and unfortunate. Those with real money,that have earned it by working hard and for long years, don't flaunt their wealth.

Forget about the fancy shoes, phones, bags and invest in your future!

Jun. 05 2012 10:34 AM
Belinda from White Plains

To Suzinne from the Bronx,
This is not an indictment on the poor. The poor must learn to make better choices so that they can come out of poverty. This consumer-driven society of ours is what keeps the poor, poor. Priorities is everything. Sure, there are people making very little. But this guy made $70,000/year for 10 years and it never occurred to him to save for a rainy day. And when he left his job, he decided to maintain his old life style, even though his income was no longer. His problems are two-fold: Wrong choices and wrong priorities.

Jun. 05 2012 10:09 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

What struck me as most interesting about this profile is that the subject dropped out of college, and got hired at the age of 21 for $70,000 a year in 1999. WOW. At that age, I was making $7.00 an hour working retail jobs, and concurrently working an unpaid internship for 3 years after I graduated college with a BFA, and I only just made it into the $70K plus salary range now in my 40's.

The "new face of poverty"? Hmmmm, I'm torn about that. On the one hand, it is indeed obvious that in decades past, Americans with plentiful job experience could indeed expect to find new work with relative ease, make a decent living, and the cost of housing was much lower, compared to people's salaries. However, personal decisions, one's motivation level, and changing life circumstances also play into where people are now, at any given moment of their lives. I think it's foolhardy to label anything a trend (in this case calling it the new face of poverty) and not acknowledge that most of us go through "rough periods" in our lives - whether those rough periods happen at 22 or 35 or 65, it's an unfortunate but regular part of life. This particular subject is living the life of a 22 year old at 35. He came to New York at a low point in his life, at a time in which it's generally very expensive to live here. Those are his circumstances at this time.

What's impressive - and a good model for all of us to follow - is that he's resourceful, dealing with his circumstances, choosing to delay parenthood until he's more financially stable, and making a solid changes in his life in order to propel himself into a more stable future. Chances are, his hard work and deprivation will get him where he wants to go in time.

Jun. 05 2012 09:59 AM
Dave from sunset park

America needs to work on re-branding its idea of freedom.

Jun. 05 2012 09:53 AM
Belinda from White Plains

The older I get the more I realize that, actually, for the most part, life has to do with the choices one makes and luck is a smaller part of the equation. Here is an able person, with no apparent disability, who chose to leave college, chose to spend all of his earnings and save none. $70,000 per year for 10 years and he has nothing?! He is filing for bankruptcy because of credit card debt?! Really?!

I am sorry if I come off as harsh, but his situation has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with bad choices. Instead of wallowing in self-pity (boo hoo), learn to make better choices (paying $100/month on cellphone is NOT a good choice).

Listen, young man, iife doesn’t owe you anything. You do not “deserve” a good-paying job, a nice home and money to travel. Learn to make better choices and please allocate money for a rainy day. Good luck!

Jun. 05 2012 09:53 AM
Tara from NYC

Leave NYC! Life doesn't have to be as difficult as it is here. This place has become near impossible to live and the struggle to do it makes you feel like you have a whip constantly cracking at your back.

Jun. 05 2012 09:52 AM
suzinne from Bronx

Wonkguy: you're not getting it. Your snarkiness is a perfect illustration of the disdain for the poor.

The new face of poverty is that it includes many, many people who used to live fairly comfortably, working and functioning well within society. Now those people are living on the edge, worrying about paying their rent, having money to eat and the ultimate fear - homelessness. I'm one of those people, and I'm not under educated. I don't have it as bad as some, but the minute something happens to my spouse - the person whose been keeping me afloat? That's when I fall through the cracks.

Jun. 05 2012 09:27 AM
wonkguy from Manhattan, NY

To the reporter Mirela Iverac and the editors: what exactly they mean by the title "The new Face of Poverty"? From what I can see, the subject is undereducated and underemployed, that describes the "face" of poverty since time began. What's so new here?

Jun. 05 2012 09:01 AM
Fletcher from New York, New York

Poverty in America doesn't get nearly the press reporting that it deserves. We are living in a second Depression, just ask Paul Krugman. Listen the lyrics in this song, "Saving Up To go Bankrupt":

Jun. 05 2012 08:27 AM
Brenda from New York City

I give him credit for trying to do the right thing and wish him the best of luck. I am often troubled by decisions made in service to a bottom line. His degree choice seems wise, but I do wonder about his expenditures. Spending over 20% of his own housing costs for housing for his "stuff" seems unfortunate. As does spending $100 a month for cell phone service. But perhaps there is more to it than that.
I recently read of a long-term unemployed woman who returned to school to get her M.S. in Psychology. A cursory glance at job listings might have swayed her to pursue either an M.S.W. or Ph.D. in Psychology instead. Purchasing higher education is a consumer activity and must be treated as such, particularly in these economic times.

Jun. 05 2012 07:40 AM

Props to WNYC for doing a story about a "normal white guy" who's struggling. Whenever the NY Times does a poverty story they find a minority or a middle aged fat lady. Then everyone can dismiss it saying it's just a problem for minorities or say snide things like "well, she obviously had money for Burger King, can't be that poor!" etc. The reality is everyone's standard of living is dropping. The economy fell off a cliff so fast most people didn't have time to prepare. Right now it's like not having a Phd in computer science is taking a gamble with your life...ten years ago a CS Phd was a luxury only needed if you want to work one of the "cool" jobs doing cutting edge stuff but now you need it to get any job.

Jun. 05 2012 07:39 AM
wonkguy from Manhattan, NY

The first poster said it best, he should really consider moving someplace much less expensive while he finishes his degree and he needs a four year degree. There are kids in India with masters degrees willing to do the work he wants to do for a fraction of the $12/hr he's earning now. Who's giving him career advice?

My advice, find a school in Ohio, go west young man.

Jun. 05 2012 07:31 AM
larry from Paris

Brookln, what kind of comment is that? What cynicism.

This situation could happen to ANYONE. I'm a professional freelancer who, like most of us who have to look out for our own interests, has seen the bad times along with the good. There are no guarantees in life, and I do believe that luck also plays a large part in one's existence and future. I hope Peter finds what he's looking for, although maybe New York isn't really the place to do it (the USA is a pretty big country).

As has been said (this is coming from an agnostic), "There but for the grace of God go I"… Have some heart.

Jun. 05 2012 02:41 AM

Boo hoo.

Jun. 05 2012 12:20 AM

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