In New York City, according to the latest data, around one in five people lives in poverty—for a single adult, that means living on a net income less than $17,000 a year. That’s a higher poverty rate than the national average. But simply looking at income levels isn’t a very helpful way to look at the problem. In fact, it drastically understates how many people are facing deep economic struggles in the city.
Since 2012, Robin Hood, a New York-based poverty-fighting foundation, has worked with Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy to gather more detailed data about poverty in New York City, interviewing the same group of New Yorkers over and over again to better understand their financial situation. (The first cohort lasted from 2012 to 2015, and a new group began in 2015, with a total of more than 4,000 participants in the project.)
A new annual report from the project, called the Poverty Tracker, explains how people struggle over time. While one in five people experienced poverty in 2018, one in three households experienced “material hardship,” meaning that they couldn’t afford a basic necessity like food or medical care. Nearly one in four women experienced poverty. And over the period between 2015 and 2018, nearly half of all New Yorkers lived in poverty at some point. (The $17,000 figure includes income both from a job and from resources like food stamps and housing assistance, and expenses like medical bills or child care.)
“The Poverty Tracker helped us to understand how sticky poverty really is for a lot of families,” says Wes Moore, Robin Hood’s CEO. “It wasn’t just about who’s in poverty now, but it also is about who’s been in poverty over a period of time, and what percentage of those who aren’t in poverty will be back in poverty within a year.”
More than a third of people who manage to move out of poverty will be living in poverty again a year later. The Poverty Tracker project also helped researchers better understand why that’s happening. “The challenge that we’ve been able to see is that there are singular shocks that are knocking individuals back down into poverty,” Moore says.
Having a child, for example, is a common reason someone might fall into poverty; and that’s five times more likely to happen to someone who doesn’t have a college education. Ending a relationship, losing a job, or having an unexpected expense like a medical bill are also common reasons that someone might fall below the poverty line, especially if they have only a high school degree.
By gathering this type of detailed data—some of which is also gathered in the census, but often isn’t available at the city level or all in one place—the foundation can better understand the best ways to intervene. When it realized that 100,000 New Yorkers were forced out of housing each year by evictions or when apartment buildings were condemned, foreclosed, or sold, it also found that rental protections didn’t go far enough.
The organization used Poverty Tracker data to help convince the city to give tenants who live on an income less than 200% of the federal poverty limit the right to an attorney when they’re facing an eviction. The data also shows how much government programs help—housing subsidies and rent regulations were responsible for lowering the poverty rate in New York by 5% in 2018.
Moore argues that it’s imperative for government and other organizations to take a data-driven approach to policy designed to fight poverty. “There are a few narratives that exists when people are talking about poverty, that are not just disruptive, but they’re just factually inaccurate,” he says. “You know, the narrative of, ‘If people would just work harder, they could work their way out of poverty.’ The reality is, that’s just not true. And the data doesn’t reinforce that argument. The majority of people living in poverty in this country are people who have worked in the last year. Oftentimes they’re working multiple part-time jobs.”
Data, he says, “gives us the platform for honesty, and the understanding that when we’re examining poverty and opportunity within our society, that poverty does have a gender bias and a race bias, and poverty oftentimes is xenophobic. And so we have to be honest about that if we’re going to come up with honest solutions.” In New York City, looking at the four years between 2015 and 2018, 29% of white people lived in poverty for one of those years. For African Americans, the number was 59%. For Latinx people, the number was 68%. The average for the city was 50%.
Similar patterns, of course, exist in other cities. Robin Hood is working with other like-minded organizations, like Tipping Point in San Francisco, to share its data and what it has learned about what’s successful in fighting poverty, with the ultimate goal to find permanent solutions. “Our focus really became sustainable economic mobility, because it’s not enough to move people out of poverty for a period of time,” Moore says. “It’s not enough to make poverty more tolerable, or to give people a slight reprieve. It is about how can you move individuals and families out of poverty permanently.”