By Caitlin Kelly
Are you familiar with the Gini coefficient?
It measures income inequality — the chart linked above lists it for every U.S. state.
New York, where I’ve lived since leaving my native Canada in 1989 — ranks 50th. i.e. second worst in this regard in the United States.
The worst? You have to laugh, albeit bitterly, Washington, D.C., home to the Capitol and the nation’s federal legislators.
I recently re-lived it, while working on a story for a New York City website about a company giving out food to bring awareness of food insufficiency — aka not having enough to eat every day — in the city’s five boroughs.
Last week, I spent two broiling hot, humid days — 95 degrees — working in the poorest part of the poorest Congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Local residents lined up that day, as I walked over from the subway, some carrying parasols against the brutal heat, some arriving from the public housing complex across the street, for a van offering medical care.
Many of them line up, three days every week, for whatever the food pantry has on offer; I saw many bags of bread and rolls, crisp green apples and cookies.
I was there to watch a company hand out food, and to write about it.
I did this with mixed feelings.
Yes, charity is a good thing.
Yes, alleviating hunger and poverty is a good thing.
But everything is a very small bandage on a large gaping wound.
It is deeply shocking, if you still have gauzy fantasies of America!!!!!! to see the reality of American poverty face to face.
I stopped that day for a quick lunch, (I never eat fast food!), at McDonald’s, one of a dozen fast or fried-food joints lining 125th Street in Harlem. Parts of that street, even in sunny mid-day, have some people nodding off after using a new synthetic form of marijuana.
The restaurant’s clientele that day was, possibly, 10 percent Caucasian.
I had a long conversation, half in French, half in English, with a young librarian from Normandy, traveling for a month with his wife. They planned to visit New York, Philadelphia, D.C. L.A. and San Francisco, which, I told him, would also offer some insights into the income inequality now splitting the country in a way unseen since the Gilded Age, some 100 years ago.
“I can’t believe what I see,” he told me, gazing around at our fellow diners, many using crutches, canes and motorized wheelchairs, some the result of diabetes and obesity.
Welcome to the U.S., I said.
The next day I visited another part of the Bronx; (for you non-New Yorkers, that’s one of the city’s five boroughs, north of Manhattan, a place very few tourists are ever likely to see), this one an astounding and essential part of the city, the Hunt’s Point Food Center.
I saw the warehouse for the Food Bank for New York City, an entity I was certainly well aware of; you can’t live here for any length of time without some idea of their work.
From their website:
Hunger is caused by food poverty, a lack of geographic and/or financial access to nutritious food. In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. Throughout the five boroughs, approximately 1.4 million people — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.
Their warehouse has nine bays, each loading millions of pounds of food each month, in and out.
We were given a tour by the warehouse manager, running the place since 1994, a burly, lively whiz running a team zipping about in hand-trucks in a space so enormous it simply boggled the mind.
Imagine the biggest store you’ve ever seen, in the U.S. a Home Depot, for example. Try again!
This warehouse is 90,000 square feet — the above image, (mine), gives you some idea how enormous.
In my 25 years living here, few experiences have struck me as powerfully as these past few days, powerful and visceral reminders that there are many New Yorks, not just the ones tourists see or the ones shown in movies and on television.
It’s hard sometimes, living here, to manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with being even vaguely socially conscious in New York — the size oo’s in their Prada and Gucci, stepping out of their driver-chauffeured Escalades into helicopters to fly to their mansions in the Hamptons.