The U.S. Census Bureau has just reported a sobering statistic: another 2.6 million people fell into poverty in America last year, bringing the total number of people living in poverty to 46.2 million. That's the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.
The problem hits New York hard and presents a grim future for many families, according to Mary Brosnahan, leader of the Coalition for the Homeless. She says there's a record 38,000 homeless people in New York City shelters, including 16,000 children. Many more middle-class people may be soon confronted with poverty, too.
“The Mayor’s solution,” she said, “is his philosophy: ‘Get a job!’ But there are no decent [jobs] and he continues to say we shouldn’t impose higher taxes on his rich friends. “
Compounding the problem, anti-poverty advocates have just lost a fight to City Hall: a state judge ruled Monday that Mayor Bloomberg can terminate the Advantage rent subsidy program, which offers rent assistance for families and individuals trying to transition from homeless shelters to homes of their own.
“This seems to be a case where the city loses by winning," said Steve Banks, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society. "These people will have no way to pay their rent absent these subsidies, so they’ll certainly be evicted and end up back in the shelter system.” And that, he said, will be far more costly for the city government.
For those of us who have been watching the homeless crisis since the 1980s, it seems like déjà vu: The mayor and the city bureaucracy duke it out with the advocates; the city wins temporarily, but not in the long run. It seems to be an endless cycle, and a Joan of Arc like Brosnahan just keeps fighting.
There’s much to consider as the recession takes its toll on the country and on New York. The victory of Republican Bob Turner in a heavily Democratic district here is just a blip on the political radar screen. The people of this country seem to be shaking with indignation. It may be that many incumbents won’t survive the anger of the voters but we’ll find out as the campaign of 2012 unfolds. The immediate problem here, though, is in the hands of Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. This crisis is hitting the homeless, the food pantries and the soup kitchens. It will likely get worse.
With our tradition of humanity and compassion, New York should respond. We can’t quibble over whether a policy is liberal or conservative. Decency demands that we take some actions in this city to fight the poverty that, like an epidemic, spreads across the nation.
In the past, both Cuomo and Bloomberg have shown signs of caring about the poor and the hungry. It’s time for them to lead us again, down humane paths. They can’t solve all the fiscal problems but they can show the nation leadership. And in these dark days, we can hope they will alleviate the plight of the most vulnerable among us.