You Might Not Be Poor, But You’re Probably Just A Little Bad Luck Away

A new study of New York residents found that poverty is deeply pervasive–and way more common than what the stats claim.


Living in New York City is not easy. Rent is high, food costs more than in most other cities, and paying for child care is all but impossible. Yet the usual poverty statistics often totally miss these day-to-day hardships that many people experience.


Poverty statistics are misleading for many reasons, but one is that they look at random snapshots in time, overlooking how and why people are constantly moving in and out of poverty. They also only look at income, even though someone who makes far above the poverty line but who has student loans and high living costs may be entirely cash poor. As a recent piece in The Atlantic powerfully highlighted, nearly half of all Americans don’t even have $400 on hand to handle an unexpected emergency expense.

A new survey, called the Poverty Tracker, looks at poverty through a broader lens, and its results should give policymakers pause. Researchers from Columbia University’s Population Research Center and the Robin Hood Foundation interviewed 2,300 New Yorkers of all income levels, and came back to them with detailed questions over two years, providing a much deeper sense of what hardship looks like.

It doesn’t look good.

The survey looked at three forms of disadvantage. One looked at a traditional measure of poverty, but they also asked about chronic health conditions and “material hardship,” which is whether someone could pay for essential daily needs such as food, utilities, rent, and prescription drugs.

A frighteningly high 63% of New Yorkers experienced one of these three forms of disadvantage over the course of a year, the survey found, and 40% over the entire year. Also, poverty is much more fluid than typical snapshots in time indicate: 31% of people met the city’s definition of poverty at some point during the year, but only 9% did over the entire year–the first figure is much higher than New York’s official poverty rate, which is 21%.


“The number one finding is probably how many people are on the verge of poverty, even if they are not literally poor by the federal or New York City definition,” says Michael Weinstein, chief program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, an organization focused on fighting poverty in New York.

The inability to meet daily needs regardless of income was more persistent than poverty–23% of New Yorkers were in that position over an entire year.

The Poverty Tracker also looked at the effect of seeking government assistance or social services. The biggest surprise was that people who sought and received help were only slightly more likely to escape poverty than people who received none–but receiving help did have a much larger apparent effect on protecting people from entering poverty in the first place.

“That should be pregnant with implications for what we do and how we do it,” says Weinstein, referring to how policymakers and funders strategize the fight poverty.

Unsurprisingly, the more assets people had, the less likely they were to be vulnerable to poverty or material hardship, and those with more debt were more likely to fall into poverty. But wealth didn’t offer immunity. Fourteen percent of people with at least $200,000 in assets entered periods of hardship over the survey time, and 11% of people with $1.8 million in assets entered the technical definition of poverty (maybe by losing their jobs).


For people without savings, Weinstein notes how quickly relatively small losses can turn into permanent horrors. An example: A babysitter quitting causes a single mother to drop out of community college, forcing her into minimum wage jobs in the future.

“Our data shows what national surveys have showed for many years: Americans have no wealth,” he says.

Check out the Poverty Tracker website for an interactive version of the graphics above.

Cover Photo: Judith Wagner/Getty Images

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire