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City Council Implores Administration to Boost Efforts Against Poverty

By Jill Colvin | December 12, 2011 9:48pm
Manhattan Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Ydanis Rodriguez said that poverty has had an especially harsh impact on the neighborhoods they represent.
Manhattan Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Ydanis Rodriguez said that poverty has had an especially harsh impact on the neighborhoods they represent.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

CITY HALL — As the ranks of the city's poor continue to grow at disturbing rates, local officials are trying to figure out ways to increase assistance to those in need.

According to the latest census numbers, a whopping one in five New Yorkers — or more than 1.6 million — was living in poverty in 2010, a 1.4 percent jump from 2009. The picture was even bleaker for children, 30 percent of whom were living below the poverty line in 2010, compared to 21.6 percent nation-wide.

The city’s poverty rate would have soared an additional 2 percent had it not been for the federal stimulus package, top officials testified at a City Council hearing Monday. They also insisted the city has done the best it can given the bleak economic forecast, which has failed to substantially improve.

“The stimulus package was more successful than people have given it credit for,” said Mark Levitan, director of poverty research at the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity.

He told Council members that without President Barack Obama’s $780 billion stimulus package — which included expanded unemployment insurance, tax credits and higher food stamp benefits — New York's poverty rate in the city would have jumped by 3.0 points, to 22.6 percent in 2009, instead of by just 0.3 percent from 19.6 to 19.9 percent, which was a statistically insignificant amount.

But he admitted things are not "great."

“We had a very deep recession followed by a very disappointing recovery,” Levitan said.

Council members, who called the hearing to examine the increasing number of poor, said they hadn’t realized the impact the assistance had had on poverty rates in the city.

Levitan’s numbers were based on an unofficial measure of poverty that the city considers more precise because it takes into account things like average apartment rents as well as the amount earned through benefits, like food stamps, which the official U.S. poverty rate does not.

But Council members said that no matter the calculation, they feared the city hasn’t done enough to try to stem the tide.

“We can’t come at it with BB guns. We have to come at it as though it is a real war,” said Brooklyn City Councilman Albert Vann, chair of the council’s Committee on Community Development, which co-hosted the hearing.

“My fear is that we have not measured up… We have not taken this on as a full, primary element of what we’re going to do in New York City,” he said.

“We have two societies," said Upper Manhattan City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, noting that in his district as many as 32 percent of people live below the poverty line.

The Center for Economic Opportunity, whose $28 million budget got a $20 million boost from a new city initiative focused on improving outcomes for young black and Latino men, has mainly focused on skills education and helping people get jobs, executive director Kirstin Morse said.

But East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said that, while “any effort to address the issue of poverty is obviously a laudable one,” she worried other city policies, like stop-and-frisk, were undermining the city’s efforts by alienating young, minorities from taking advantage of city programs that could help them complete their educations and find good jobs.

“I’m very concerned, particularly in my community, about policies that make it more difficult to help young people,” she said.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, also accused the administration of failing to come up with programs that work, while giving federal efforts short shrift. He claimed that federal programs were the only ones that proved to significantly reduce poverty.

“The mayor gave the impression that this federal stuff never works… They were wrong. Dead wrong,” he said.

Berg accused the administration of turning its back on the poor.

“We were winning the war on poverty when we were fighting it. We’ve stopped fighting it,” he said.