The Working Poor in New York City

Audience Questions

Rafael Pi Roman: Thank you. I'd like to open it up to the audience. Does anybody have any questions right off the bat?


Listen to an audio podcast of this interview here or download the file (MP3, length: 59 minutes, filesize: 21 MB)

Audience Member: I'm Joel Berg and I'm with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and I want to congratulate Ms. Reynolds for your incredible struggle and the incredible work you do providing health care to our society. I personally think your wages are too low. My question to you is a series of questions about your benefits. Do you think the Monmouth County social services folks started treating you better after a camera crew was following you? How far did you have to go to get your benefits? Were they were in Atlantic Highlands or Longbranch? Or did you have to go to the county of Freehold? Did anyone ever offer to provide benefits to you over the phone? In the film, I saw that you had a boatload of documents under your arm. Did you physically have to go to the social services offices? How frequently did you have to go and how did they treat you?

Jean ReynoldsJean Reynolds: First of all, they treat you very inhumanely. They are the pits. The very first time I went to social services I was very, very upset. I have never, ever relied on anybody else to raise me or my children, including when I was married. I was the breadwinner. And I resent that it's divorce that's put me in this position. My husband never contributed enough, and that was because of his illness. He was an alcoholic, and that's an illness, and that's what did it.

The first time I went to welfare I was told I was a liar because when I gave my address, the woman told me she was very familiar with the town I lived in and there was no such street. So she proceeded to prove me wrong, and of course I did give her the right address. I'm not a liar.

The next thing was that she told me that I made absolutely too much money. To support a family of eight, I was paying $1,200 a month in rent, which is exorbitant for where I lived, but it was the only place I could find because of what the situation was when I left my ex-husband. It was the only home I could find. Housing in Monmouth County, New Jersey, is outrageous; I'm sure it is in New York City as well. The price of living and everything else is also outrageous in New Jersey. When I asked this woman from social services for any kind of help, she offered me a five dollar coupon to get my medication filled. I worked and my union provided my health care benefits, so I myself didn't pay more than three dollars for any prescription. I said, "Well, could my daughter use it?" And she said, "Absolutely not."

My daughter did apply for charity care -- I filled out the forms at least three times. She filled them out many times as well. And the forms were lost, they were misplaced, they weren't complete, they were whatever. I tried to explain all this to the woman and she really did not care. I went home and cried and screamed and couldn't figure out what to do, but I read on the form that I could protest it, which I did. The next person they assigned to me was a young single woman who was probably a year or two out of college. She said to me, "Why don't you take another job? Take a second job. You should be able to make ends meet then." And I said, "But you don't understand. I work 37.5 hours a week." I travel by bus back and forth to my job. I also work as much overtime as possible. I was working double shifts, I was working on my days off. I never took vacation time; I used that for school clothes, for doctor visits, for whatever needed to be done. She basically told me that I needed to find a way to support my family without begging the government.

Then I went and I told the producer of the film, whose name is Eddie, because I was livid and hysterical at this point, I told Eddie. I did not know what I was going do because now I was being evicted, because I put my daughter's life ahead of my rent by paying her medical bills and her doctor bills. Doctors don't see you unless you pay. I was paying the doctors. I was paying for her medicine. So I told Eddie what happened, and Eddie said, "How about if I get that on camera?"

Well, of course the minute he got social services on camera and spoke to them on the phone, they sent a supervisor. I had to go to Atlantic Highlands each time, which meant a day of travel for a distance that should have been an hour of traveling, because I had to take public transportation. I had to do this all the time. I went every time with this whole briefcase full of papers, and the third time I went there nobody else was there. They had closed the office to clients that day. So of course the receptionist said, "Hi, how can I help you?" whereas before she had said, "Take a number, sit down and don't ask me any questions." [Jean and the audience laugh]

There's a lot that they didn't show you in the film because I have the typical Irish temper and do not know how to keep my mouth shut. I kept biting my tongue, because I knew if I flipped out they would kick me out. So when I went back they brought me upstairs in an elevator, whereas before they made me walk up flights of stairs every time. I went in an elevator with a supervisor and she was very patronizing at first. She treated me like I was an imbecile until I opened my mouth and got a little Irish, and then things changed. And they changed, I still believe to this day -- I don't care what anybody says -- because there was a camera there. When they saw the camera, they didn't want to be seen as the bad guys, and they don't want people to think that they're insensitive, they don't want people to be so against them. They think they're doing a wonderful job. So that time, they called me at home the same day and let me know everything went through, which is amazing, because I've never heard of anybody getting welfare the same day they've applied. [Jean laughs] Never, ever, ever, ever. So it was like a miracle.

I did have to go back and forth to Freehold several times to get paperwork and all of that, but that was the least of my problems. At this point I knew at least that the kids weren't gonna be taken from me, because I was also threatened by welfare that this could happen, that they would turn me in to the Department of Youth and Family Services in New Jersey.

Rafael Pi Roman: Jean, the camera is rolling now, so I'll be very nice. [audience laughs] But we have a lot of questions, and I think Deputy Mayor Gibbs wants to say something.

Linda Gibbs: Based on Jean's comments, I have a couple of thoughts. One is the issue of how we can bring technology into the social services field to better serve clients, and this is particularly relevant when you have a mayor in New York City whose wealth was made on technology. We're about to unveil the first step of an electronic calculator where a client can go into a terminal, or access it on the Web, so it's accessible in a library or somewhere else, and you can put in your family information and it calculates the benefit programs that you would be eligible for. For each program the calculator will tell you that to get that one you go here, to get this one you go here. The ideal will be to get to the point where you can have an electronic filing of an application. So this is to save all the time and travel that people have to incur in order to access the benefits, and save the trouble of not knowing what you can and cannot get. The purpose of this technology is to try to make sense of all of the government programs, and we're trying to pull together not just the city programs but also the state and the federal programs.

Which gets me to my second point, and that is that we spent a lot of time on this issue of notches, of falling behind when you get ahead, and we mapped it out and found a couple of things. One is that if a client is in fact receiving all the benefits that they're eligible for in New York State, the notches have been, with the exception of child care, smoothed out. But, in order to get to that point you actually have to be successful in making an application and receiving all of the benefits, so that includes food stamps, public assistance, the earned income tax credit and Medicaid. There has been a lot of attention on this issue. The big exception is child care, and the cost of child care is huge, and so that is an issue. Particularly for parents of children who are not school age, it can be a huge impediment, and we think it is a big impediment for individuals going from part time to full time.

For the sake of argument right now, assume that all the notches have been worked out. Even if it is true, it means you have to be successful in getting to each one of those programs, staying on them, maintaining your eligibility and doing all of the certifications. I think part of what government can do is try to do more to support those who are working hard and eliminating some of the barriers that come up when you have to apply and reapply and meet a variety of obligations.

Rafael Pi Roman: Thank you. Does anybody else have a question? Yes, over here.

Audience Member: Hi. I just want to thank you all for being here, and I appreciate watching the documentary. I have a question about the unions. You've all mentioned unions, how unions can strengthen workers and help keep people working, increase their benefits and so forth. I'm a union chapter leader at my school where I'm a teacher. With regard to teachers, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein in particular have a pretty bad record of what their reputation is in terms of protecting unions, and I'm just wondering, for the people who know the mayor and who might know Joel Klein, with regards to their opinions on unions, could you give us a briefing on what the mayor might think of unions going forward? [audience laughs]

Rafael Pi Roman: Deputy Mayor Gibbs?

Linda Gibbs: Hopefully a simple answer can address your comment. In creating the commission with its 32 members, we intentionally wanted to make sure that we had a very diverse representation. When the mayor reviewed the list that I brought to him of recommendations for commission members, he noticed that there was not a union representative, and he added a person to the list that he asked to participate in order to bring the union perspective to the discussion. I mean, he's really brought in the smartest, most committed individuals who have made this work their life's work, and he has been willing to open the agenda to their discussions and hear their recommendations, and he specifically included a union representative to address that issue.

Rafael Pi Roman: Mr. Jones?

David Jones: I think the unionization question is, to try to look at this as a political problem, part of the difficulty for this group of impoverished New Yorkers -- who are 40 percent of the population -- because they're perceived as not politically potent. New York has one of the largest reserves of unregistered eligible voters of any large city in America at nearly a million people.

The question becomes not what the mayor feels, but what voters can start to exercise as a mandate if they're able to organize. Low-wage workers have not been organized particularly well in the city of New York and in other places, so this is not a matter of whether a politician likes certain people or unions or not. You have to have something more potent than just moral persuasion here. That's why I find myself in the weird position of being allied with Professor Mead on this matter. Part of this situation is a political problem, and to think of it in any way other than that is a mistake. We're dealing with people on the other end of the political spectrum who have vast stores of money and political influence, and then we're supposed to ask them for change as a moral responsibility, even though they're in America. We're asking them to have some long-term obligation to the poor, particularly the poor of color, but also in a broader sense, as a moral obligation. I think that's why there have to be political solutions, and that unionization, particularly of low-wage workers, has to be something we have to start talking about seriously.

Lawrence Mead: The unionization that I would advocate is not predominantly that of municipal workers. They are usually well above the income level we're talking about in this film. They're usually not low income. In fact, municipal workers are relatively well paid by the standards of workers with their skills and kind of jobs. Although I'm not taking any stand on municipal union issues per se, the pay-off is more substantial for the low-wage worker in the private sector, people like the security guard in the film or Jean Reynolds. There would also be strong public support for the union in the private sector because of a common perception that workers in the private sector are relatively low paid. So unionization should be aimed at them.

There is a broader concern that I would share, and I think David alluded to it earlier, and that is a concern that low-paid Americans and Americans with low education levels are becoming too passive. One of the problems in terms of them getting attention and so on is that they themselves are not organized, they don't vote at high levels, they don't join unions and they don't join other organizations. They typically get spoken for by the better off, and that has a lot less impact than having the workers themselves march on Albany or march on Washington, so we have to get back to a more populist conception of what society's about. I see that as offsetting the apparent dependence that might arise from greater government program and greater government support, provided that this greater support comes about through political action by the beneficiaries. They could be taking responsibility for themselves in a different way. Maybe they're relying on the government to live, but they're also making sure the government does the right thing, and that's a very different thing from the kind of elitism I think has overtaken social policy in the last 20, 30 years.

David Jones: I'd like to follow up on that comment, and I'll keep quiet after that. I don't want to condemn working people and poor people who haven't been able to organize. When we look at the lives of trying to keep children fed, dealing with not being evicted, these are overwhelming circumstances, and I'd like to see anyone try to be politically active under those kinds of concerns. But that's essentially why you need unions to start helping the organization, because once people get a platform of benefits and supports, then you can start to get the political muscle to bring some attention to bear on the problems. But I think it has to go together. This is not a condemnation of the poor, "Well, they're just lazy, you know, they're not in the town hall fighting." I'd like to see anyone work this hard and also be able to help politically bring pressure to bear on anybody. So that's where the unions fit for my vantage point.

Rafael Pi Roman: We have a question from another audience member.

Audience Member: I'm Marlis Harris, I'm a finance editor of Consumer Reports. I have two questions for Professor Mead. The first is about the minimum wage, which is$5.50 an hour now. It's an artifact; it's not pegged to anything that has any reality. In fact, couldn't Congress pass a law tomorrow saying the minimum wage should be $2.75? They actually could. That wouldn't change the facts of what it takes to support a family. So in fact, I think there's something economists have to do, which is to decide what the minimum wage should be. If we're going to have a minimum wage at all, which perhaps you would not grant, shouldn't it be pegged to something like the minimum amount it takes to live and survive?

The second thing I'd like you to address is the so-called slack on the health care system, which I take it you interpret as a lot of charity care. I'm wondering about some of the other slack in the system. I'm thinking of, for example, Medicare Part D, where I have to pay for Warren Buffet's drugs and I have to pay Merck and company the full price for drugs; in fact, they've even raised the price, and I have to pay the huge salaries of the executives of health care companies. Isn't that greater slack in the healthcare system than charity care is?

Lawrence Mead: Since I thought this would be about the minimum wage, I dug up some numbers. The gist is these numbers show that minimum wage is virtually unimportant. You could almost say that hardly anyone is paid the minimum wage. I mean, there are certainly people who are paid the minimum wage, but they're not the sort of people we see in this film at all. Of those paid the minimum wage -- and I'm quoting this figure from 1988, which is the last year I could find information for, but I'm sure the situation is roughly similar today -- only 5.5 percent of them were husbands; 19 percent were wives; 7 percent were women maintaining families, in other words, single mothers; 36 percent were teenagers; 33 percent were full time, 67 percent part time. So most of the people on the minimum wage are not supporting families, they're not in the position that you're assuming, where there would have to be enough income to support a family.

The point I'm making is only that the image we have of the minimum wage worker as someone struggling to support a family on the minimum wage is almost nonexistent, that there are almost no such people. Almost everyone who has a family, like those that we saw in the film, is working at well above the minimum wage. They may still have problems, I'm not saying that there isn't a case for higher pay, but the minimum wage is really irrelevant to their situation. Also, a large majority of people paid the minimum wage are not poor, because they're in families where other people are working, and as a result, the family's above the poverty level. The poverty level for people who are working steady hours is very, very low. It's from three to six percent. I don't mean we should ignore it, but the idea that you can work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year and be poor easily is false. That's really not the case, and most of the people that we saw in this film are not poor. When I say "poor," I'm using the federal definition; if you want to set a higher poverty line, which is what we have implicitly done as some of this discussion, that's another matter. But the federal poverty line is one that you get above very quickly if you're working steady hours at any legal job, and that job will usually be above the minimum wage. So the issues are important, but we shouldn't imagine that the people earning the minimum wage are in the situation we saw in the film. That's really not the case.

To address your second question about Medicare, I largely agree with you that the Medicare system is confused and irrational in many respects, and that the health care benefit that was added is confusing and difficult in lots of ways. There are a lot of issues with Medicare, but it's really part of a larger health care problem where we have these three parts: Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance. Most people are under one of those three systems, the three parts don't fit together well, and they're confusing and inefficient in lots of ways. The prescription drug system raises other issues about costs and who's paying for the development costs. We don't really have time to go into that now, but I'm just going to say that I think your points about Medicare, to me, have greater relevance to our discussion than the minimum wage.

Rafael Pi Roman: Another question from the audience.

Audience Member: Good evening. I would like to say thank you to both Jean and Barbara, because what you really did was put a human face on so many issues that every-day poor people have to deal with whether they're trying to live on the minimum wage or not. While race is always a factor in the United States of America, the film also shows that class is a big issue. So I want to thank you both because it takes a lot of courage to put your life out there, to put your stories out there, and we need the human faces or else the other experts come in and they give us statistics, they give us public policy, and the human element goes out of it. Again, I thank you both for being able and willing to put the human aspect on it.

A question for Professor Mead: I'd like to know how in a capitalist society wage is not an issue, because how much money you earn determines where you live, how you eat, how you're treated, whether you're demonized, criminalized, whether or not a doctor will see you, whether or not you can get medicine, whether or not you will get treated with respect when you go into a store, a bureaucratic office, any place that you go, how you're educated and where you're educated. So it totally baffles me when you say that wage is not the central issue.

In terms of people getting a free ride, I agree with you. I wish a lot of people would stop getting a free ride. I wish in New York that the developer Bruce Ratner would stop getting a free ride, I wish Donald Trump would stop getting a free ride. [audience laughs] I wish that all of these corporations that are able to dismiss workers here in the United States and take them over to other countries would stop getting a free ride. I wish we would stop blaming people who are struggling, working overtime each and every day to try to feed their families. They get blamed for the free ride.

To Ms. Gibbs, you said the workfare worked? It didn't work. There were thousands of students at City University of New York (CUNY) that were put out of CUNY schools when welfare-to-workfare reform took place, and they had to choose between Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance or going to college. When workfare made people go to work, it was not for academic or skills training, it was to clean parks, to clean subways, to do menial work. So you say it worked. Well, the human faces that I know, that I've seen, the children, the young adults, the mothers, all of those people, it didn't work. And I'm really tired of politicians telling us how much their policies work.

Lawrence Mead: I would only say that welfare reform's chief success has been to get these class questions back on the agenda. As long as we were talking about welfare and poverty, we weren't talking about class and inequality. Now we're more talking about those subjects in part because we have a lot more people working. So this is positive, and in the end I think some solution will emerge whereby the struggles of the working poor and the near-working poor will get more attention. That wasn't going to be possible as long as you had as many people on welfare as we had 20 years ago. So this is movement, this is progress.

Rafael Pi Roman: More questions.

Audience Member: My name is Nadia, and I wanted to thank Barbara and Jean again. But my comment really goes to the federal poverty level. I think that's a real farce, and I think I would like to challenge the panelists, particularly Ms. Gibbs and Mr. Mead, to talk about what that farce is. We're talking about essentially $12,200 for a family of one; that's considered federal poverty. So we throw this number around and say that there are 1.8 million people under poverty. We need to look at the figure and then say, "Can we survive on that?" And then that can be a real figure for poverty. What does it take to change that? Also, when real people are here saying "My life demonstrates that policy X has not worked," I think we need to pause and recognize that even though our policies may be intended to work, in reality they have not worked. For example, Barbara has seen the policies not work for her.

Linda Gibbs: I think the issue of the definition of poverty is an important one to address. The federal poverty level was defined in the late '60s at a point in time when households spent about 30 percent of their household income on food. Over the course of the years, there was some adjustment in the cost of food, but never an adjustment on that 30 percent. Spin forward to today, and now it's estimated that a household spends about 13 percent of their costs on food. So the poverty level is antiquated for that reason. As a result of that and other inconsistencies in calculating the poverty level, $19,500 is the annual poverty level estimated nationally for a family of four. There's no difference of that federal definition if you live in New York City or if you live in Nebraska, Wyoming, or Florida. It's the same everywhere, and we all know that costs vary dramatically, particularly here in New York City and other large urban areas. The housing costs are just astronomical. There is another calculator that estimates the salary that a household would need in order to live at a basic level. In New York City, for a family of four, that cost is $58,000.

So that's the federal poverty level. We can't change federal law. We can advocate around changing federal law, but we don't have the power to change it. I think a major contribution that we can make here in New York City is to talk about poverty in a different way. We struggle because we can say, "Well, you're not poor because you don't fall under the federal poverty level," but we know that people who are earning twice the federal poverty level are poor. I hope we will be able to move forward in this city by creating our own definitions of poverty that can help to give a better measure. At the same time, I think there are a number of flaws in the opposite direction, as the federal poverty level only counts income, earned income and cash benefits in a household, and it doesn't count the value of a lot of other benefits, so in some ways it also understates poverty. All things being equal, it grossly exaggerates the number of people who are not poor, but there are things that move in both directions.

Rafael Pi Roman: Professor Mead, and then Mr. Jones.

Lawrence Mead: I want to say that welfare reform succeeded in New York City, much as it did in the rest of the country, by causing a great many families to leave welfare and take jobs. This didn't solve all their problems, but it was a big step forward. The welfare roll also declined by about half a million people in New York City. This is an enormous change, and it's directly related to the drop in child poverty that was mentioned at the outset. So there has been progress in New York, because people have gone to work. That doesn't mean that their problems are all solved, but now we can address those new problems that come up because they're employed. It's notable that in this film there was no issue raised about employment. That is, all the subjects of the film assume they're going to be working, that they should be working and that they're better off as a result. It doesn't mean, again, that their problems are all solved, and there are further issues, but there is progress. It's very important not to go back on that and have an idea once again that single mothers should simply not have to work. That's not a solution. The solution is to work and then address the new problems that come from that.

David Jones: I'd just like to say a couple of things to put this in context. New York is the only major city in America that's seen increases in poverty; that's one thing we should recognize. So I'm very concerned with the local; I'm not as concerned about the rest of the country as I am about what's happening in the city of New York. Clearly we have 1.8 million people in the city of New York that are at or below the poverty level, against all the problems we're talking about in terms of extraordinarily high housing costs and health costs.

I take one exception. I see all this wringing of the hands about the fact that we can't do anything about the federal government. I've seen politicians on their heels driving Congress crazy when they think it's a priority. This issue is not a priority, and that's the reason there's no movement on the federal level. I don't see every member of the New York delegation saying, "We're not going to let anything go until you start handling this" to the federal government. Everything else seems to have a higher priority. Clearly politicians don't think that this constituent -- the 40 percent of the people mired in this situation -- matter as much as some of their other constituents. I think we have to recognize there's a distinct political problem going on here. Because even though New York can't solve this problem, they're not using any political capital to move the needle.

Rafael Pi Roman: Thank you, panelists, for coming and participating in this. Thank you, Roger Weisberg, for your film, and thank you all for coming and joining this conversation.