Living the Line

Stretching The Pool Of The Poor

With an income of about $30,000 a year, Beth Ellor, a mother in the East Village, lives at 250 percent above the poverty line. By all official measures, she is not poor. Still, she scrambles for every hour of substitute teaching that she can get just to break even at the end of the month.

“I don’t anticipate any point of time where I can stop working,” Ms. Ellor said flatly. “I absolutely have to die on my feet.”

Between 2009 and 2010, more than 75,000 New Yorkers fell into poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A more expansive estimate shows that close to 127,000 slipped below 200 percent of the poverty line, drawing a total of 3.2 million, or 40 percent of the city’s population. This wider demographic, which includes the “near poor”, is arguably a more relevant measure, especially in New York City, where the cost of living is notably high. The expanding ranks of the dispossessed, many analysts point out, are adding new faces to poverty and raising questions over what it means to be middle class in America today.

“There is this constant nagging feeling of insecurity,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, economist and co-director of the American Human Development Project, which measures disparities in opportunity and wellbeing in America.  “You’re ok today, but you’re one job loss or one hurricane away from poverty, that’s the crux of what’s happening now.”

On the brink of poverty

Today, Ms. Ellor, who describes herself as a professional middle class American, is barely meeting her minimal needs. Her passion for art brought her to New York at the age of 27, where she started to design clothes that she sold to various independent shops.

“You created your life as you went along, you didn’t think about the future being insecure and there were always opportunities,” she recalls.

When she turned 44 she adopted a baby boy, Matthew, and decided to end her entrepreneurial ways and opt for a more stable career as an early childhood teacher.  First she worked as the director of a daycare center, then as a kindergarten teacher in a charter school and finally as a teacher employed by the Department of Education until she retired three years ago.  In her final stretch, she was making $65,000 a year. Back in 1998, she had the foresight to enter an affordable housing lottery, through which she was able to secure a small two-bedroom apartment in the East Village, where she still lives with Matthew who is now 24. The rest is math.

Ms. Ellor gets a $500 pension and $930 in social security retirement benefits every month, which go straight to her mortgage, maintenance and utility bills.  To pay for her cell phone, cable and groceries, she waits anxiously to get called on by the Department of Education for substitute teaching gigs where she is paid by the hour.

“I am incredibly thankful that I have that, but the worst would be if I took a terrible fall and couldn’t go to my schools, then I would be in big trouble,” Ms. Ellor said. After a pause, she quickly added: “No! I have to think positive and assume that I am going to be able to keep doing what I am doing.”

Still, with the Department of Education cutting thousands of jobs since the onset of the recession in 2008, work is not always easy to come by. Ms. Ellor is not sure how she will generate an extra $2500 by the end of the year that she needs for her self-employment tax. At 67, she is applying for jobs.

“People are as hardworking as ever, but the cost of living keeps rising and incomes don’t,” said James Parrott, deputy director of the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York. “So more people fall into poverty or near poverty.”

According to a report published by the institute in November, the number of people receiving food stamps in New York City has grown by almost two thirds from December 2007 until July 2011. “It means they don’t have enough to live on!” added Mr. Parrott.

Though Ms. Ellor’s candid modesty will allow her to expose all the details of her personal balance sheet, her sense of dignity and pride often restrain her from expounding on the extent of her hardship. After a recent Sunday church service she shyly disclosed that she took one of the pantry food bags, something she never had to do before.

“I feel really frustrated about it,” she finally admitted. “It’s just you look at how hard you work and you think how is this possible that you can’t actually make ends meet. It’s ridiculous.”

Climbing in and out of poverty

Roberto Lopez, a part time assistant coordinator in an after school program in the Bronx was the first in his family to graduate college. For a working class household that subsisted at the basic level of food and shelter, this conventional achievement marked a moment of hope for upward mobility.  Mr. Lopez, however, did not move up. After earning his degree the only thing he could afford to do was move back to the projects in upper Manhattan and live with his parents.

“There was always this idea that you can do it, that all it takes is will power and confidence to get ahead,” Mr. Lopez, 32, said. “It’s really not the case, this country is not the land of promise people say it is.”

After two years at City University of New York, Mr. Lopez borrowed money to attend Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He studied English literature and graduated in 2003. Hoping to work his way to a full time job as a teacher, he started as a part time substitute teacher in the Bronx. He made some money but not enough to move out and pay off his loans. He does not dare take on more debt to pursue the master’s degree he needs to teach. Instead, the shriveling job market of the past four years means that Mr. Lopez has had to endure extended periods of unemployment spattered with intervals of underemployment.

“I was under the impression that if I went to college, things would fall into place, that it would be a means out of poverty,” Mr. Lopez said. “But I guess I was naïve.”

In New York City, there are over 250,000 unemployed 25 to 44 year olds. Nationwide unemployment for the age group is at 10.8 percent. And according to Mark Kantrowitz’s FinAid calculations, total student loans are nearing one trillion dollars.

“We may be looking at another lost generation not unlike the generation that suffered during the Great Depression,” said Katherine Newman, author of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America, noting that this is the most prolonged period of high unemployment the country has witnessed since the Great Depression. “It affected their mobility even after the economy recovered.”

Mr. Lopez makes about $20,000 a year and has an outstanding balance of $24,000 in student loans.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot,” Mr. Lopez said of his school debt. “But I live paycheck to paycheck and I can’t send money, I just can’t.”

Ultimately, what he hopes for is a public sector job with a steady income and benefits. In a different time, this may have offered Mr. Lopez the job security and upward mobility he desperately seeks. Today, however, increasingly these opportunities are shrinking as public sector layoffs have contributed significantly to the nation’s unemployment troubles.  According to a study conducted by the UC Berkley Labor Center in April, local and state governments have cut more than 400,000 jobs since January 2009. The problem is compounded by the fact that the majority of employees who bear the brunt of these layoffs have not graduated college and are in the bottom half of the pay spectrum. It means their recovery will be more difficult and the impact devastating.

“The near poor group is growing today because there is downward mobility as working class people are increasingly hit by an economy that is raining pink slips on them,” Ms. Newman said.

The future of poverty

Even the comfortably employed often don’t feel the security that a steady paycheck is supposed to bring.  If Ms. Ellor’s retirement represents the spirit of downward mobility, and Mr. Lopez, the stunted mobility of today’s youth, then Pamela Edgar, a 36-year-old therapist in Brooklyn, is the dying spirit of the vast middle. Ms. Ellor’s beloved New York of the 70s is a very different city from the New York of today where people like Ms. Edgar are discovering new struggles.

“I remember what life was like when we were children and our parents were our age, having a home with space for gatherings and an outdoor yard,” Ms. Edgar said, evoking what it was like growing up middle class in Connecticut.  While her parents never had the money to subsidize her education or help pay for her modest $2000 wedding, they could provide the basic comforts. Unlike her parents, Ms. Edgar cannot conceive of owning a home today.

“We are not in a place to afford these things now. It feels like the reality of what’s possible is different,” she said.

Ms. Edgar is the director of dementia services in a nursing home in Brooklyn.  She lives with her husband, a museum operations manager, and together they make a little over $100,000 a year. But to make money, they borrowed money. Ms. Edgar alone has accumulated $160,000 worth of student loans after obtaining an MA in drama therapy from New York University in 2008. Ninety percent of their monthly income, she says, goes towards paying back loans and rent in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“While my education is priceless, my degree feels a little worthless sometimes,” Ms. Edgar confessed with difficulty.

Over the years, she has learned to tame her expectations. She has not, for example, taken a single vacation with her husband since they got married ten years ago. She also worries about whether they can afford children. In many ways, Ms. Edgar is battling to realize some of the most basic human needs and securities.

“This is going to be the first generation, which in over one hundred years does not see their living standards improve above and beyond their parents,” said Lev Moscow, a political economy teacher at Beacon High School in Manhattan. “It’s not about absolute numbers; it’s about feeling relatively hopeful. With this recession, what does it mean to be middle class?”

There is no single answer. The Census Bureau explicitly states on its website that it “does not have an official definition of the Middle Class”. In its colloquial use, some pin it to owning a home or going to college while others conjure the abstract notion of the American dream.

For Ms. Edgar, it means settling for what she can get. “There is really no planning for the future, there’s only living in the now and trying to make the now as good as possible.”

Anxieties like Ms. Edgar’s have taken hold of much of the city. Thousands of union members recently marched from Herald Square to Union Square protesting cuts and demanding jobs and better wages. Maintenance workers, bus drivers, nurses, teachers, retired men and women, those who lost their jobs and those who live in perpetual fear of losing their jobs took their worries to the street.

Since the recession, mass layoffs, especially in the public sector, have raised unemployment and catapulted working professionals toward poverty. Amid a heightened mood of fear and insecurity, the newly dispossessed now struggle to support themselves and their families.

The scene, especially in this national moment of occupied protests, was somewhat familiar. The “no justice, no peace” chants could surely be heard through the windows of the offices above.

But amid the collective angst was also a message of a new day. One sign waved above the crowd read: “Save the Middle Class.”