Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Without a flood of food stamps and tax benefits for low-income families, about 250,000 more New Yorkers would have slipped into poverty at the height of the recession, according to calculations to be released Monday by city officials.
As it was, while the federal poverty rate for the city remained about the same from 2008 to 2009, 17.3 percent, by a measure developed by the city it rose to 19.9 percent. The city takes into account factors the federal standard does not — higher local costs of living and expenses for health care, commuting and day care, or the value of benefits like food stamps, housing allowances and tax credits that can supplement cash income.
“To a large degree, economic stimulus programs and policy initiatives aimed at bolstering family income succeeded in preventing a rise in poverty in New York City,” according to the report by the mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity.
“Not every antipoverty program meets its goals and deserves to be protected,” the report by Dr. Mark Levitan, the center’s director of poverty research, says, “but calls for across-the-board cutbacks to programs that help low-income families cannot be justified by the assertion that when it comes to poverty, ‘nothing works.’ ”
The center concluded that the poverty rate would have been three percentage points higher without federal tax programs passed in 2009 for low-income families and an aggressive city program to enroll New Yorkers who were not receiving public assistance but were eligible for food stamps, coupled with higher food stamp benefits.
The food stamp caseload grew by 13.2 percent, or more than 100,000 cases, from 2008 to 2009 (and by nearly 29 percent among two-parent families). With more recipients and higher benefits, the value of food stamps received by city residents ballooned by nearly 39 percent from 2008 to 2009, to $1.9 billion.
“This is an instance when I agree wholeheartedly with the mayor’s office,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the ’New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The added equivalent of income to buy food has been a lifesaver.”
Dr. Levitan credited a combination of factors, including a federal waiver of limits on assets of a food stamps applicant, and the city’s own efforts “to bring in more people who are not the traditional welfare population, but are more the working poor.”
A deeper look at the poverty rates showed that different groups fared worse than others.
From 2008 to 2009, the poverty rate soared from 31 percent to 35 percent among single parents and also rose, from 19.9 percent to 21.7 percent, among working-age adults with only a high school degree.
The poverty rate for children and the elderly was nearly the same — just below 24 percent.
The rate varied from 13.5 percent among non-Hispanic whites to nearly 25 percent among both Hispanic and Asian New Yorkers; both groups have higher proportions of immigrants who might have been ineligible for some programs that require citizenship or longer residency in the state. Dr. Levitan explained that Asians often have “cultural issues about being reluctant to get some kind of assistance.” The poverty rate for blacks was 21.1 percent.
Given that the recession was shorter and less severe in the city than in the country as a whole, the center found that by its measure the poverty rate declined in 2008 to 19.6 percent from 20.7 percent in 2007, and then stood at 19.9 percent in 2009, a statistically insignificant increase.
In 2009, the official federal poverty threshold for a family consisting of two adults and two children was $21,756. By the center’s measure, for the same family living in New York the threshold was $29,477.
A 20 percent increase in the cost of rent and utilities from 2005 to 2008 drove home the center’s conclusion that public housing, rent vouchers and other subsidies and rent regulations had the largest impact on the poverty rate. Without those benefits, the center calculated, the poverty rate would have been six percentage points higher in 2009.
Similarly, unreimbursed medical expenses added 3.1 percentage points to the poverty rate, and twice that among the elderly.
Titled “Policy Affects Poverty,” the report is the third by the center, which was created by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to develop a more modern means to measure poverty than the federal government’s official criteria, which date from a half-century ago.
By SAM ROBERTS, THE NEW YORK TIMES