American life, 2015 — income inequality ‘r us

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.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father
This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

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.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bequest from a wealthy patron. A gorgeous side of Manhattan many tourists see….but there are other, darker realities as well

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.


Want to flee poverty? Don’t be American

Gini_Coefficient_World_Human_Development_Report_2007-2008 (Photo credit: jiruan)

Depressing, lucid and infuriating, this recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek lays out a stark analysis of American income inequality, now at its worst level in decades:

A recent finding nicknamed the Great Gatsby Curve may be the most controversial of all. With it, University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak makes the strongest case yet that inequality and mobility are intertwined—the more unequal a society is, the greater the likelihood that children will remain in the same economic standing as their parents. His research comes as the country—and the presidential candidates—debate inequality and what, if anything, government should do to slow or reverse its trajectory. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project, Americans believe more ardently than their global counterparts that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill.” And yet, according to Corak, it’s as simple as this: “More inequality means less opportunity.”

The reporter only had to travel an hour out of New York City, where the magazine is published, to find extraordinary wealth — Greewnwich, Darien, New Canaan, Connecticut, home to billionaires — right next to grinding poverty, in towns like Bridgeport.

If the region were a country, it’d be the world’s 12th-most unequal, ranking just below Guatemala. Economists measure income disparity using the Gini coefficient: A measure of 0 means all money is evenly distributed; 1 means one person has it all. The U.S. had a Gini of .467 in 2010, up 2 percent since 2000, census data show. (With the exception of Chile and Mexico, it has the highest level of disparity of the 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) The Bridgeport region’s Gini grew 17 percent during this time, to .537, making this 625-square-mile swath home to the biggest income divide of any metropolitan area in the U.S.

I live a 20-minute drive from these towns, so I see these disparities in my own life.

They are increasingly common here, and increasingly intractable.

— If you can prepare sufficiently to get into college, can you handle the work and graduate?

– Can you even afford college? How?

— Can you get a job that pays your bills and your student loans?

— Can you save any money?

— Can you afford to acquire, if necessary, even further educational credentials?

— Do you have the requisite social skill and emotional intelligence to take advantage  of — and create for yourself — every possible connection and opportunity?

The leap from poverty to even relative affluence seems unimaginably large now for too many.

My husband grew up in a moderate-income family, his father a Baptist minister of a very small congregation in a small city. Thanks to his father’s service, Jose was able to attend college on full scholarship and graduate debt-free.

Armed with talent and drive, my husband won a secure job at The New York Times in his mid-20s. Today, I wonder how many could replicate that leap.

I came to the U.S. from Canada in June 1989, seeking better work opportunities. I had several clear advantages: no children; serious savings; a demanding liberal arts education and college degree, no debt; fluent English; competence in two other foreign languages.

Plus, perhaps most crucially, confidence in my abilities and the (ugh) willingness to cold-call more than 150 strangers to land my first New York City job.

Today, full-time freelance, earning about that same staff salary 24 years ago, I probably look like a downwardly-mobile failure, which is pretty ironic, given my initial ambitions for immigrating. But I still have short and long-term savings, thanks to a combination of extreme frugality, a lucky lawsuit settlement and a husband with a decent, union-protected income.

A low-wage job, part-time with no health insurance, is no way out out of poverty. In the United States, in 2012, the word “job” is now about as meaningless as the word ‘blue” to describe the sky. 

Millions of working-class and middle-class Americans are being totally knee-capped by crappy wages, part-time work, no union protection, (7 percent unioized in the private sector, 12 percent in the public), chronic unemployment or underemployment — and no one who really gives a damn whether things get better for them.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story about how many older Americans are now losing their homes, even those who lived frugally. The cost of living here is crazily rising while many home values have plummeted:

Once viewed as the most fiscally stable age group, older people are flailing…while people under 50 are the group most likely to face foreclosure, the risk of “serious delinquency” on mortgages has grown fastest for people over 50…

Among people over 75, the foreclosure rate grew more than eightfold from 2007 to 2011, to 3 percent of that group of homeowners…

Older Americans are losing their homes because of pension cuts, rising medical costs, shrinking stock portfolios and falling property values, according to Debra Whitman, AARP’s executive vice president for policy. They are also not saving enough money.

Half of households whose head is between 65 and 74 have no money in retirement accounts, according to the Federal Reserve.

I’ve put that last sentence in boldface because it is so deeply shocking and depressing. Fifty percent of Americans facing the traditional age for retirement have no money at all beyond their Social Security benefits?

So, even if you flee poverty in your teens or early adulthood, you’ve got a 50 percent chance of hitting the skids in your golden years?


Do you fear falling (further) into poverty?

Any thoughts on how to fix this mess?

Rockefeller's helicopter, $1400/month tutors and my little sister: What income inequality looks like

Flag of Westchester County, New York
Image via Wikipedia

I took a wrong road last week and, seeing a particular corner I used to turn left at for 18 months 10 years ago, my heart hurt.

It was the street that once took me to a battered, crowded house whose tiny front yard was always bare dirt. Sometimes there was a bike lying in the dirt, usually broken. It was a small house filled with people who yelled at one another as normal behavior.

A house jammed with an ill grand-mother, a morbidly obese daughter and her live-in boyfriend, a nine-year-old boy and his 13-year-old sister — a girl who was, for a while, my “little sister”, paired with me through the Big Sister program. Her mother, ten years younger than I, had simply disappeared years earlier. She showed up, out of the blue, a month after her daughter and I were matched. But we rarely spoke. She was usually in the basement, playing video games and watching television.

I had never before encountered poverty, and such family dysfunction, in the U.S. so intimately; I had lived in Mexico and traveled to many developing nations, where huge income inequality remains endemic.

Here, a 15-minute drive across 287? That was a shock. No longer.

My “little sister” would now be 23 or 24. Is she alive? Healthy? Did she — as her grandmother kept asking her in front of me, poking at her belly — become a teenage mother instead? Dare I drive back to their house and knock on the door and ask to see her again?

Our relationship, initially warm and mutually enjoyable and something we both deeply valued, ended abruptly, with deception on her part and deep disappointment on mine. It was an instructive experience. I had brought to it absurdly idealistic notions of what was possible, of what she might achieve, of what I might be able to give to her to help even the score between her world and mine, to help her level a playing field so tilted it’s a wonder any one of us can get up each day and walk across it.

Growing up in Canada, where the very best university, my alma mater, University of Toronto, still only costs $5,000 a year, I could not conceive of a place where she was simply, very likely, to be left behind. Without an enormous boost — from whom? how often? from her family? — it would not be a reasonable hope, no matter how desireable, that she flee a chaotic life of junk food, all-night videos and tightly curbed notions of what is possible.

College, for my little sister — and we talked about it — was some gauzy fantasy, a glimmering, glittering theme park sort of like DisneyWorld, a place she’d heard of and wanted to go to. But had no idea how to get there. I doubt she ever did. I had tried to get her into a local private school, $25k a year, on a full scholarship. Schools like that love to add a few underprivileged kids to their mix of lawyers’ daughters.

She never showed up for her appointed day and that was our last contact. Yet I still think of her, often.

I live in Westchester County, north of Manhattan — a county of 1 million people that stretches from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound on its eastern edge. Within it lies a microcosm of the U.S. in 2010, with staggering, Third World-ish income disparities. It contains elegant, manicured towns like Bedford, Scarsdale, Chappaqua, Bronxville and Armonk, where a house easily costs $5m or more, up to $20 million. This is where wealthy and powerful people like Martha Stewart and the Clintons live, on enormous estates with wooden rails and paddocks and stables for their horses.

David Rockefeller, now 90, lives a 10-minute drive from my home — and every morning I am reminded of his wealth and power as his private helicopter clatters just above my top-floor balcony on his way to Manhattan. Our apartment building, constructed in 1960, was re-designed because — in its original tall, narrow form — it would have impeded his view; it is a wide, flat, six-story version instead.

I read in this month’s issue of Westchester magazine an interview with an SAT tutor who charges $175/hour, with most of her students coming twice a week. That’s a cool $1,400 a month, $16,800 a year, to prep your kid(s) for the Ivies. The nation’s most expensive college, Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, is now $54K a year; I have a book on my desk right now borrowed from their library through our county’s great inter-library loan program. I get to keep it for a month.

I have lived in this county since 1989, when I moved to New York and bought an apartment. I was, then, married to a doctor, and assumed we’d have a Westchester life — a house, maybe a bigger house, nice car(s.) Whatever. But the marriage was brief and he remarried; he and his wife now earn $500,000 between them, an amount so staggering I can’t even picture bringing in $30,000 a month. A man in my church wrote a personal check for $250,000, which bought a beautiful new organ.

I sometimes feel like I live in a foreign country. I don’t recognize a place where such wealth exists beside such struggle.

And, in this county, are poor and working-class towns — Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, Ossining, Port Chester — where affordable housing is a constant battle. Anyone earning even $40,000 would find it difficult to obtain safe, clean housing, let alone afford a reliable vehicle and its insurance. You don’t know how bad a bus can be until you need it; I tried to get to my church in Irvington, NY by bus once when our car was being repaired and I did not want to pay $12 cabfare to get there. There is no bus service there on Sundays.

What an invisibly effective way to keep poor(er) people out of our parish.

From an editorial in The New York Times:

When one thinks about segregation, the suburbs of New York’s Westchester County don’t immediately come to mind. Unless, of course, you’re a minority resident searching in vain for an affordable place to live.

Westchester County has now announced an agreement to spend more than $50 million to build or acquire 750 affordable housing units — 630 in towns and villages where the black population is 3 percent or less, and the Latino population is less than 7 percent.

The agreement, which needs to be ratified by the county Board of Legislators, settles a 3-year-old federal lawsuit, filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, accusing the county of taking tens of millions of dollars in federal housing grants while falsely certifying that it was living up to its legal requirement to provide affordable housing without reinforcing racial segregation.

At the time, the county called those accusations “garbage,” and said it was powerless to force communities to integrate. But in February, Judge Denise L. Cote ruled that between 2000 and 2006 the county had, indeed, misrepresented its actions and had made little or no effort to place affordable homes in overwhelmingly white communities where residents objected.

Those objections have been fierce. And we fear the battles are far from over. In the 1980s, Yonkers nearly bankrupted itself trying to fight a federal judge’s order to integrate public housing. There are currently 120,000 acres of land in Westchester where integration is lagging, including in Bedford, Bronxville, Eastchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, Harrison, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New Castle, Pelham Manor and Scarsdale.

Do you see this in your life? How does it make you feel?