U.S. Census: Poverty Rate Rises in New York City

More New Yorkers are living in poverty. According to figures released today by the US Census, the poverty rate in New York state increased from 2008 to 2009. The poverty rate in New York City also appears to have inched upwards. WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez has been pouring over the latest numbers and explains what they mean.

What is the poverty rate in the city and the state, and how do they compare to the national average?

Figures released today show that the percentage of people in the state that are poor grew from 13.8 percent in 2008 to 14.2 percent in 2009. That means a total of about 2.7 million people in New York State were living below the poverty line, which for a family of three means earning under about $18,000 a year. New York has about the same poverty rate as the nation: 14.3 percent.

The city's poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average at 18.7 percent. All of these numbers have a margin of error, and because of the way the number is calculated, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says there really was no increase in the city's poverty rate during that period.

Which borough showed the largest increase?

Staten Island seemed to show the biggest increase, but at 11.2 percent, it has the lowest poverty rate of all five boroughs. The Bronx, as usual, has the highest poverty rate in the city at 28.5 percent, followed by Brooklyn at 21.5 percent. I also looked at the breakdown of people living in poverty by race and ethnicity. Latinos in the city have the highest poverty rate at 28.1 percent. The black poverty rate is about 21 percent, and for whites, it is 13.8 percent.

What's been the trend for New York City over the last five years?

Well, it has stayed right under 20 percent since 2005, with slight fluctuations, but no statistically significant changes. Though that doesn't mean that there are not a significant number of people who are struggling, and many of the them are newly poor. Many soup kitchens and food pantries are still reporting increases in the number of people coming in for help and anecdotally, they say many of them are first time users. I was at a social service agency called the East River Development Alliance in Long Island City this morning. There were about 30 people taking part in a job fair, and at the same time, there were people applying for food stamps for the first time.

I spoke to a 40-year-old woman with a husband and two children. She said she was embarrassed about her circumstances and so she only wanted to give her first name, Angelica. I asked her if she considered herself newly poor.

"Absolutely. I never thought I would be here. Ever. And probably I would have come earlier than that, I just, I couldn't -- I guess I was in denial. And then you see that, you know, you're not really making it," she said. "So now I'm really, I have very tight budget. I have my calendar on the wall, I write my numbers, I write what I spent. I started doing that, actually, three months ago."  

Angelica was working as a masseuse at an upper east side high-end spa, and she was let go because business slowed down. Her husband is a tattoo artist. They have two kids, they live in Astoria. She's hoping for about $300 in food stamps to help pay for her groceries because she says right now she's been charging up her credit card.

Did the census have any information on how many families are using food stamps?

Yes, they did, and those numbers are up in all five boroughs. In the Bronx, right now close to a third of the population is on food stamps -- that's about a five percent increase compared to 2008. In Brooklyn, about 21 percent of households are on food stamps, which is about a 3 percent increase compared to 2008. And I also interviewed another gentleman, Kevin Leiva, at this same place, who was also a first-time food stamp user. He's twenty-two years old, he was working at a construction job, he went to a trade school, to learn construction, and now he feels like that was the wrong decision.   

"I caught myself in a dead end job, you know, in New York City," he said. "It was basically, they would ask you, what can you do, you'd tell them, I could do this and that, they'll hire you, you might work for a month, if you're lucky you might have six months. And when it's over, it's completely over." So Kevin, he's looking for a new career right now.

What about health insurance coverage? I know we talked about food stamps, but any knowledge of health insurance coverage and how many people don't have it?

Well actually, the number of people without health insurance actually went down slightly from about 1.2 million to about one million, and there's been speculation that public health insurance has filled that gap.