In City's Job Growth, Faces of the Working Poor

On a recent cold morning, before the boutiques in Soho opened their doors to customers, Nyasha O'Kieffe made her way out of Uniqlo, a clothing store on Broadway that proudly displayed its red-and-white banner. She had just wrapped up her overnight shift.

O'Kieffe, 21, whose long, braided hair was covered with a pink hat, said she doesn’t mind working while the majority of the city sleeps. 

"It’s not that bad," she said. “It’s just afterward, as soon as you hit seven o’clock, you just want to go home.”

What O’Kieffe now calls a home is a homeless shelter in Bed-Stuy, where she lives with her mom, her sister and her 10-month-old daughter Angel.

“I would like to be able to like save enough to actually get my own apartment with my daughter,” O’Kieffe said. “If I can get enough money to get that, I’ll be fine.”

Her part time salary of $10 an hour makes that goal uncertain. It also embodies a wider problem that lies just under the surface of the city’s successful job growth.

The good news is that New York City now has 237,000 more jobs than it had before the recession.

The bad news is the growing number of them that are low-wage jobs, said Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. He said the number of New Yorkers who work in jobs that pay less than $28,000 a year increased from 31 percent to 35 percent in the last five years.

“This is a time when New York was creating a good number of jobs,” Bowles said. “But a lot of the job growth was in fields like restaurants, healthcare, hospitality. Jobs that pay fairly low wages.”

And fields like retail, where O’Kieffe works. Her family is one of 3,000 that live in homeless shelters even though at least one member works. O’Kieffe says she usually ends up with around $900 a month. That makes a major expense such as rent seem impossible. At times, even daily necessities are out of reach.

“There are things that my daughter needs, like diapers, and I can’t even get it for her this week because I don’t have enough money,” she said.

The downward trend began before the recession, with the decline of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s. Technology, and outsourcing jobs overseas, have made more jobs disappear. James Parrott, the chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, said the growing concentration of low-wage jobs is an important factor in the city’s growing income inequality.

“It means that’s increasingly hard for working families to provide for their families at an income level above the poverty line,” Parrott said. “We’ve seen a demonstrable increase in the number of people who are working poor.”

Sixty percent of fast food workers’ families in New York state qualified for some form of public assistance, according to a report from UC Berkeley Labor Center. In the city, 40 percent of households that receive food stamps have some income from a job.

Workers who manage to avoid public assistance often rely on family support instead.

Glen Ghany, 37, is a home health aide who maintains his bulky physique with regular runs in his Pelham Bay neighborhood in the Bronx. He said he loves taking care of his two patients, an 85-year-old man and a bedridden man in his 50s.

“Between the cooking and the cleaning and the conversing and the talking, it’s all good," he said. “To me it’s all good.”

What’s not good is the pay. It’s $9.50 an hour, for 28 hours a week, which, Ghany said, leaves him with $132 after taxes.

He can only afford to live in the city because his grandmother lets him stay with her. After child support, a Metro card and cell phone payments, Ghany often needs her help to cover basic expenses as well.  

"Is it enough for food?” he said. “Not really. But, due to my grandmother, she helps me. It’s enough.”

It’s not enough for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who won office on his promise to increase the number of middle-class jobs.

“We are growing a lot of jobs,” the mayor said in his preliminary budget address last month. “Unfortunately, they’re in the lower-paying fields. And these are dollar figures that make it very tough for people to take care of their families.”

De Blasio said he will address the problem through job training, education and affordable housing.  He’s also asking Albany for permission to raise the minimum wage above the current $8 an hour.

But some experts, like Nicole Gelinas at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said that even those measures won’t solve the problem. Gelinas said the cost of doing business in New York City makes it prohibitive for many companies to set up shop here.

“It’s very hard for the government to directly create private sector middle class jobs,” she said. “It’s easy to get a tech company to move a few people here, but it’s hard to get people to buy or rent acres and acres of office space for middle class people to work. Those jobs still tend to be in cheaper cities or in cheaper suburban areas.”