Income inequality and New York City
COVID-19 has pulled the Big Apple’s economic inequality into the spotlight in a way that shouldn’t be ignored.
I relocated to New York City from Dallas in June 2014. Back then, I was still riding high from the fact that, even though I hadn’t achieved my dream of becoming a fashion editor yet, at least I was in the proximity of the biggest and best publishers in the world. What once felt like a pipe dream immediately seemed attainable simply because I was smack-dab in the middle of the action.
Plus, it was summer. I’d soon discover that almost everything about the city feels a bit more energizing when the sun’s out. Another discovery: I was months away from experiencing the first of many bone-chilling winters, something that would make me second-guess my decision to move altogether. (You’re reading words from a man who grew up in a school district that issued snow days like Pez candy dispensers at the sight of the thinnest layer of ice crystals. Imagine this guy zig-zagging through the city to pick up Burberry swimwear and Proenza Schouler runway looks in freezing temps as a fashion assistant. (Little did I know I was one promotion away from that aforementioned editor job.)
I’m jumping ahead though. Let’s rewind to the end of July, about six weeks after my move. I’d just published an essay to my bygone lifestyle blog The Stylish Standout titled, “The Tug of War Between My Heart, My Wallet and NYC’s Homeless.” The essay was inspired by a Gawker-published essay written by Paul Cantor and an ambitious attempt to reconcile another one of my discoveries: New York, like so many pockets of our country, was a tale of two cities.
I should mention that I’d been to New York once before I relocated. The year was 2008, the occasion was New York Fashion Week and the opportunity was mine to cover the collections as a reporter for an LA-based editor who was short a freelancer. This was when Bryant Park hosted the shows in Midtown Manhattan; while it was cold as all get out, I caught taxis and buses between shows, parties and the house I was staying at in Jersey City, New Jersey.
That experience was hardly up to the task of showing me the many warts of the best city on the planet, including its willingness to allow a heart-wrenching number of people to experience homelessness. Now that I was a transplant, I got to see and feel the impact up close. I dealt with it the only way I know how: by writing about it. I couldn’t find the original essay on the Wayback Machine, but I’ve excerpted the doc in which I wrote the text below:
Around six weeks ago, I performed my own survey when I arrived to New York. The sample size was small (a few friends, acquaintances and my roommate), my methods were far from scientific (one simple question: Do you give to the homeless?), and the responses were so similar to Cantor’s that I’ll allow his to prove the point: Some people give without much thought; others cite the notion that they can barely make ends meet, so anything extra surely isn’t going to a beggar. But almost all concede that each situation carries with it a set of variables that move the needle from clear-cut black-and-white towards the often-indiscernible shades of gray.
Which subsequently doesn’t make the issue any easier for me to reconcile. And because of the mixed bag of outlooks that dominate the Gawker piece, its comments section and my own personal investigation, I’m kind of left to my own devices.
So I find myself defaulting back to the sensibilities I cultivated back home in Texas, where although the plight of homelessness was an afterthought, as I basked in middle-class privilege that I didn’t earn or deserve, I was surrounded by what the church calls “cheerful givers.”
That’s why I’m so conflicted. Because I’m conditioned to give: My Dad unceremoniously buys entire Thanksgiving dinners for multiple families each holiday season, and my Mom donates heaps of clothes to Goodwill what seems like every two months, in addition to me witnessing them often sparing more than “a little loose change” when asked in public.
However, here, the demand (homeless people) is so disproportionate to the supply (my income) that it’s hard to legislate to whom to give. It sometimes feel like dropping change into a cup is a prerequisite to crossing the street because someone’s always waiting and asking. That’s a lot to handle for even the greenest of transplants or those with the most generous hearts. Especially when you consider what I’ve quickly realized and what Cantor shrewdly asserts: “You have to be rich to be poor here.”
Like most Americans, I’ve spent the past few days attempting to make sense of the COVID-19 global pandemic by localizing and personalizing it: What does it mean for me? My city? The vulnerable populations without a place to go or the resources required to weather the storm?
For all the good private citizens and companies are doing to supplement the government’s response, the novel coronavirus has pulled the city’s economic inequality into the spotlight in a way that shouldn’t be ignored.
The wealthy’s coronavirus game plan: Stock up and escape
As Bloomberg reporters Polly Mosendz and Andres R Martinez note, today is the first week under President Trump’s national emergency. Public schools are closed here as New York attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, of which there are at least 729 confirmed cases and three deaths at press time.
Mosendz and Martinez interviewed New Yorkers who planned to get themselves in their families out of town, including a hedge-fund trader who took his daughters out of school and moved his family to a house he rented outside of Manhattan. From their report:
The population in parts of the Hamptons normally reserved for vacation retreats had swelled to summertime levels. The urban refugees retreating anxiously to summer homes made runs on local grocery stores and banks. A New Yorker who visited a Chase branch in Southampton to take out $30,000 on Friday told Bloomberg News the bank had imposed a $10,000 limit on withdrawals. Several banks in the area were facing large requests.
In Manhattan, at the farmers market in Union Square, the paranoid edge to acquiring could be felt at one booth in particular. “People are super into beans,” said Leonardo Ballerini, sales manager for GrowNYC Grains.
Those stocking up to make the run out to the Hamptons or beyond stood in lines along with New Yorkers who benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides basic food aid to the needy. In one sign of economic disparity, vendors said the use of SNAP was steady or lower than on a typical weekend, even as many also reported extraordinarily high cash and credit-card sales volumes.
The reality is different for working-class New Yorkers, as this excerpt by the Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones, from last Wednesday’s Daily Reader, illustrated:
In times of crisis, the rich always have the furthest to fall. The stock market can plunge, as it did on Monday, and wipe billions from several fortunes with almost no real-world consequences for the men who built them. Bill Gates has billions more to spare, and so does Jeff Bezos. Even in less rarefied circles, where dwell the unlucky souls who are rich but not megarich, the consequences of COVID-19 must seem relatively minor.
How else to explain the St. Louis family who violated a quarantine order? Despite having a sick relative and ignoring orders from the health department, the father took his teenage daughter to a school gala for Villa Duchesne, a Catholic girl’s school. (High school tuition: $23,135 a year.) The school closed for deep cleaning, and so did a coffee shop the man visited. No word on whether the employees who missed shifts will be compensated for them. The family is now back in quarantine at their home in Ladue, which is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Missouri.
Low-wage workers, meanwhile, inhabit a higher state of anxiety. Not only do many work with the public, where the possibility of coming into contact with the virus may be high, they lack basic labor rights. That’s a problem for workers, who can’t take measures to keep themselves healthy, and for members of the public, who have to interact with people who can’t afford to call out sick. The U.S. is the only developed country to not offer universal paid leave, which leaves workers dependent on the good graces of their employers.
Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urged Donald Trump to pass some version of sick leave, which is a necessary if futile effort. The president seems more intrigued by the notion of a payroll tax cut, which would provide little benefit to low-wage workers. But some workers are taking the fight straight to their bosses.
On a press call today, activists with Fight for $15 and a Union put forth a list of demands to their employer, McDonald’s. They want paid sick leave, updated safety protocols, a COVID-19 policy posted in every store, and compensation for the shifts they’ll lose if stores have to close, guaranteed to all workers whether they’re employed in a franchise or a corporate-owned store. They’re demanding security, a right that higher-wage workers already enjoy.
The same is true for gig workers, who get paid directly for their services and rely on the income they earn to support themselves. As I wrote in last Monday’s analysis of contemporary American capitalism’s role in how the haves and have-nots are able to adapt to the restrictions from governments and health care professionals:
White supremacy, patriarchy and anti-LGBTQ+ bias are baked into our economics. American capitalism groups us into the haves and have-nots based on identity, which we have little to no control of — not merit — despite what some of the most successful people would have us to believe. Look closely enough at those that rail against “identity politics” and you’ll see that they’re the ones whose power and privilege would be threatened the most by policies that make work and life equitable for the people without it.
If you don’t have a sustainable pipeline of luck, privilege, access and time, a combo that eludes most gig workers, then your options for earning an honorable income are limited.
Again, be clear that this isn’t an indictment of gig workers or wealthy people — it’s one of the system. And although I acknowledge the generous contributions of executives and companies to support their workers while we survive this crisis, as I wrote last week:
These short-term benefits fail to address the class divide that ignores the responsibility working-class people — who may be unable to hire help — have to care for their children and loved ones who may be at home due to school closures or sickness.
And what about the students who are expected to continue their education off campus and online without the technology to do? Chances are students from low-income households will be academically worse off when we come out on the other side of the pandemic.
The digital divide
The explanation is simple: Too many students still have unreliable access to a computer and the internet in the year of our Lord 2020. As Tony Romm reports for the Washington Post:
In states like Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington, educators say they are feeling firsthand the sting of the digital divide — the historically hard-to-erase gap between those who have speedy, modern-day Web connections and those who do not. Even in the time of TikTok, an era when every song, movie and book seem a mere click away, millions of Americans lack basic broadband or simply cannot afford it.
The burden often falls heavily on younger students, who may struggle to complete their classwork even during a normal school week because of technological and economic barriers. But the disruptions wrought by coronavirus threaten to exacerbate those digital woes, raising the question of whether the U.S. government and the telecom industry should have done more to cure the country’s digital divide — well before a pandemic gripped the nation.
This feels so personal to me. I’m a digital native who grew up on the internet. I remember working with the Bondi Blue iMac G3 computers before I hit puberty. I learned enough about the Adobe Creative Suite as a college newspaper editor that I was able to parlay those skills into launching a digital magazine when I returned from my first fashion-week circuit. (The experience connected me with other scrappy creators from across the internet — many of whom have gone on to become editors-in-chief, published authors, nationally renowned activists, and six-figure-earning entrepreneurs — and introduced me to one of my closest friends. And that fashion editor job I referred to at the beginning of this essay? I earned in part due to my lifestyle blog, which I proudly edited with the attention-to-detail of a professional. I didn’t have a resumé full of internships to help me get my foot in the door. I had access to the internet.
The irony is that the social internet enables connection, learning and expression like no force we’ve seen in our history. Yet here we are 20 years after Google introduced us to the search engine living in a country where 19 million Americans lack high-speed internet access.
Meanwhile, products like Facebook and YouTube exploit good-faith internet provisions like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to the tune of a combined $86 billion and under the guise of “free expression.”
It’s commendable that AT&T, Verizon and dozens of internet providers have committed to keep people online even if they fall behind on their payments. Shoutout to the companies who will make it easier for people to access free wireless hotspots in their communities. The same goes for Comcast and Charter, who announced last week that it would expand its low-income broadband program over the next 60 days.
But there’s no guarantee that the families in need of these services will be able to take advantage of them since they only apply to people in areas the companies already serve.
Poor MTA riders subsidize the rich
I should know better by now, but my blood pressure still rises when I walk down the steps to exit my subway stop only to see a group of police officers standing in wait for passengers — mostly brown and black — to jump the turnstiles or slip past one of the service entrances (even though the service is often poor enough to justify doing so). And it’s a surprise my eyes aren’t permanently stuck in the back of my head from rolling them so hard at bus ads that read, “We’d rather your $2.75 fare than your $100 fine.” It’s even more nonsensical when you consider most people who bypass fare don’t have it; if they do, they’re one-time offenders who encountered an out-of-service ticketing booth or forgot their MetroCard at home.
Anyway, the cops and eyeroll-inducing ads are all part of the city’s fare evasion crackdown, an initiative that will lose the city nearly $50 million when it’s all said and done.
I understand the city’s incentive to curb fare evasion: It costs the MTA $300 million a year, a pretty penny for a system that is expected to reach a $1 billion operating budget deficit by 2023. But the crackdown, according to data reported by the Wall Street Journal, is barely working — if at all:
MTA officials presented anecdotal evidence that the presence of officers at some busy subway stations had significantly reduced fare beating. But overall, they said, subway fare evasion increased to 4.7% of riders in August compared with 3.9% in June.
During the same period, fare evasion on buses fell to 22% of riders from 24%.
This makes it harder to interpret the initiative as another way the city criminalizes the poor.
Poor folks were top of mind when I read Ali Winston’s latest report for the Verge on OMNY, the MTA’s new tap-to-pay subway system. I’ll discuss the economics in a moment, but I wouldn’t be me if I also didn’t frame OMNY within the context of data and the tension between convenience and privacy:
In addition to privacy concerns, there are also questions related to the security of such data, whether OMNY could be used by the MTA to unilaterally exclude people from New York City’s transit system, and language in the payment system’s terms of service that indemnifies the MTA from liability for customers being double-charged for rides.
The problems have been exacerbated by the MTA’s refusal to engage with questions about different aspects of OMNY, even as the payment system is being rapidly introduced throughout the city. By the end of 2020, OMNY validators will be in every subway station and bus in the city. Early next year, the new payment system will be introduced to the Metro North and Long Island Rail Road commuter lines. […]
Privacy advocates say that OMNY’s retention of individual rider data and smartphone device identifiers for an indeterminate period that could run over half a decade warrants greater disclosure and public discussion. […]
The MTA maintains that it retains all information securely with triple DES encryption and that such data is never decrypted.
We’ve entered an era where companies have waived their privilege to our benefit of the doubt when if the convenience of their products are worth the privacy they require us to give us so they can mine our data. I’m sure I’ll wax about this in the Daily Reader later this week. For now, turn your attention to another snippet from Winston’s reporting:
Much like how cashless payments have come under fire for discriminating against people without bank accounts or mobile payment apps or debit cards, OMNY’s implementation is running into questions over access and equity. Last summer, in the early stages of the new payment system’s rollout, riders who pay with a MasterCard debit were reimbursed $5.50 every Friday. In other transit systems run by Cubic, customers can earn fare discounts by watching ads on their cellphone.
At a moment when the MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo are taking a hard line with fare evasion, the idea that OMNY’s promotions are effectively subsidizing wealthier riders’ trips has proven galling for some.
The MTA offers discounted rides for students and seniors and discounted weekly and monthly cards. But low-income riders are less likely to be able to afford weekly or monthly passes. I’m sure the weekly $5.50 reimbursement — which equals two subway or bus rides — is designed to entice customers to use OMNY. But in the process, it does little to address the inequality that faces the riders the MTA is designed to serve.
In the days since COVID-19 disrupted work and life as we know it, several companies developed policies to support their most vulnerable workers. I’ve argued that they should be standard practice even after we treat the pandemic. Jay Perez from the Verge agrees:
It shouldn’t just be the right thing to do when there’s a pandemic — it should be the right thing to do all the time.
Many of these companies make billions of dollars in revenue every three months. Having to account for two weeks of pay for some of these workers will be an added expense, but it seems unlikely paid sick leave is going to make a significant difference to the bottom line of tech’s biggest corporations. (Covering eight hours of sick pay in Washington, DC, which currently has the highest minimum wage in the country of $14 an hour, would cost $112, which adds up to $1,568 for two weeks of pay, if you were curious.)
It’s telling how quickly all of the companies announced fairly similar employee safety nets. The above listed companies announced these policies within days — and sometimes hours — of each other. There’s an element of good optics at play: nobody wants to be the company that won’t support its workers during a pandemic.
But the immediate crisis will eventually die down. What shouldn’t end is a world where multibillion-dollar companies support all of their employees, whether they’re full-time or not. Contract workers deserve paid sick leave, too.
The tech companies that announced they’d pay these workers should keep giving sick pay to their workers, period. People don’t just need support when there’s a pandemic; they need it all the time.
The companies have proven they can do it in a time of need, so we should expect them to find a way to do it when the stakes aren’t quite so high. Because workers of some of the most valuable companies in the world need — and deserve — to know that they’ll be taken care of when they are sick, no matter what.
We’re probably still months away from having an answer so watch this space. I’ll keep you posted.
This article was originally published on to This Should Help, an independent publisher of top-notch multimedia content for a vibrant community of business-minded creators who value direct relationships with their supporters, creative ownership of their work, and financial independence from corporate interests.
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