In April, the Robin Hood Foundation, in partnership with the Columbia Population Research Center, released the results from its first Poverty Tracker survey, a first-of-its-kind effort to examine income poverty, material hardship, and health in New York City. Based on a sample of twenty-three hundred household across the city's five boroughs, the data from the survey reveals that poverty and hardship are even worse for New York City residents than official government measures indicate.
Recently, PND spoke with Michael Weinstein, chief program officer and senior vice president at Robin Hood, about the results of the survey and the larger aims of the Poverty Tracker project.
Philanthropy News Digest: Robin Hood, in partnership with Columbia University, has just released the results of the first Poverty Tracker survey. The federal government has been tracking poverty in New York and around the country for more than fifty years. Why is the time right for a new look at poverty in New York?
Michael Weinstein: There are two answers to that. First, what’s different about this survey is that we plan to re-interview the same families every three months for two years, which will allow us to build a rich, dynamic picture of people's lives and how they change over time. For the first time, we'll have a tool that helps us understand how people fall into poverty, how they adjust to changing circumstances, and how they deal with the economic pressures in their lives. That's not something you can do when you change your survey sample every year, as the government does. And the second thing that distinguishes our effort from other surveys is that we're not just looking at income poverty. We're looking at what we call material hardship. We're looking at whether people can pay their utility bills, their doctor bills, whether they can put food on the table. We're asking them about their health, and about their debts, and the health consequences of indebtedness. We're looking at the details of people's lives, particularly people at the bottom of the income ladder, in a way that goes well beyond just measuring income.
PND: What's the headline finding from the first report?
MW: That the level of need and hardship in New York City is much higher than I, or I think anybody, would have predicted. There are three salient numbers, and each of them speaks volumes about the reality faced by too many New Yorkers.
The first is that more than half of all New Yorkers are either poor by any reasonable definition or are trying to deal with a severe material hardship, meaning they can't afford to put three meals a day on the table for their family, they can't afford their doctor bills or prescription drug bills, they can't pay their utility bills, or have been forced into a shelter, or have had to move in with a relative.
The second surprise was rather stunning: more than 20 percent of New Yorkers who had incomes more than three times the revised and improved poverty threshold were unable to pay for all their necessities at some point during the year. To be clear, we are talking about the revised poverty threshold which was developed using the same methodology as the federal government's Supplemental Poverty Measure. That measure takes into account government benefits such as food stamps and tax credits, and also adjusts for local costs of living. Under that measure the threshold for a family of four in New York City is just over $30,000. So what we learned is more than 20 percent of families making three times that — over $90,000 — were unable to pay for everything they needed. I could never have imagined the level of material hardship in New York City was that high.
And the third surprise was finding that nearly 25 percent of the population of New York City suffers from a work-limiting health problem.