Poverty in New York City

The City of New York’s official poverty estimate is 21% of the population. Of course, that estimate is way off—and the leading direct-service poverty-combat organizations in New York City, like The River Fund, have always known that.

Now, however, we have proof: According to the most in-depth research-program of its kind, funded by The Robin Hood Foundation, and executed by Columbia University’s Population Research Center, in 2012 (the most recent year with comprehensive data), 23% of New Yorkers were “in poverty” in 2012—almost 200,000 people more than the official estimate.

Therefore, measured by formal government benchmarks, more than two million residents of our city lack the money to cover food, clothing and basic housing needs.

But, according to the findings of this recent research, formal government benchmarks don’t even come close to assessing the true picture of poverty here. The full depth of the survey will be realized after it has accumulated data for another year or two, but important findings have already emerged: an astonishing 53% of New Yorkers suffer from poverty, severe material hardship or a severe, work-limiting health issue. 37% of New Yorkers experienced a severe material hardship and 23% suffered from poor health. These numbers exceed official statistics and represent more individuals and families who struggle on a regular basis than previously calculated.

Clearly, to get a better understanding of how New Yorkers are faring, policy-makers need to move beyond the narrow focus on income alone—and look at material hard¬ship and health, as well as the interplay among all three of these factors.

When the survey started in December 2012, researchers began monitoring households on a quarter¬ly basis with the intention of tracking them for two years. Then, new households will be recruited for another two-year cycle of quarterly monitoring. The goal is to capture details on household expenditures, income and—unique to this research—information about material hardships and well-being that existing models simply overlook. By tracking households for two years, this endeavor captures the dynamics of poverty—how residents respond to difficult circumstances over time.

The study delivers a very granular look at the reality of material hardship by dissecting need into five categories of poverty and then structuring the concept of “material hardship” into two levels: (1) moderate, indicating that family members at times cannot fulfill basic needs; and (2) severe, meaning that families face a persistent shortage of critical re¬sources or have undergone episodes of acute deprivation. The sobering reality is that, in general, the majority of New York City residents frequently find their resources are no match for their basic expenses.

It was surprising that so many New Yorkers who are not in poverty—according to standard income benchmarks—are also reporting severe hardships. The study reveals that the “poverty line” is an arbitrary threshold: the circumstances of households making double the poverty line are almost indistinguishable from those below it.

As an organization that works in direct service to these populations, we see the heartrending effects of this hardship on a daily basis—and, over the past two decades, we have expanded our programs to address the increasing complexity of poverty’s changing face.

New York City Poverty Facts:

1-in-4 Higher Income New Yorkers Are In HardshipFew realize that 1-in-4 higher income New Yorkers experience severe hardship, which shows that income-insufficiency is not the only form of poverty-inducing hardship. Click here for full report.

NYC Poverty--Much Worse Than It SeemsPoverty in New York City is much worse than official statistics claim. Check the Poverty Tracker showing the results of a study by the Robin Hood Foundation and Columbia University's Population Research Center.

Illness Is a Major Contributor to HardshipMore than half of NYC adults suffer from moderate to severe health challenges—making poor health a key factor in the incidence of poverty-inducing hardship. Click here for a three-page summary of the Poverty Tracker report.

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