The New Poor

It is not news that the recession has cost millions of Americans their jobs. Those who remain unemployed – the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the unemployment rate at 9.1% in December 2010 – have whittled away their savings and are likely no longer receiving unemployment benefits. Levels of long-term unemployment (those without work longer than six months) are at record highs; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put that number at 6.3 million people in January 2010. Many Americans have suddenly found themselves to be a part of the “new poor,” defined by The New York Times as “people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives.”¹ Many of these people are just above the income cut-off for government programs such as food stamps. Where is their social safety net?

More than ever, Americans are relying on human services organizations. This is particularly true in New York City, which has an unemployment rate slightly higher than the national rate, at 9.4% in December 2010 according to the New York State Department of Labor.² An article in the NY Daily News cited the Food Bank’s findings that nearly one-third of New Yorkers believe they will need food assistance in the next twelve months.³ Kate Nave of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty told us that over the past two years, it has seen a 30-40% increase in the number of clients coming to its food pantries. When describing the increase in its “new poor” client base, she explained, “Some were even former donors to Met Council and other philanthropic organizations.”

The strain on human services is not limited to hunger issues, although that is a primary concern for many newly impoverished New Yorkers. The demand for senior centers and youth programs is high. People are trading in their gym memberships for their local YMCA. Even those who are not in dire straits are making more use of free or subsidized human services programs.

Despite the fact that human services organizations often fill the gaps that government cannot, they have taken hard hits from budget cuts. In an effort to close the New York City budget deficit, major cuts have been made to childcare subsidies, senior services, after-school programs, and other programs for working families and the poor. Across the country, the great irony of the recession is how the safety net has been eviscerated when Americans need it most.

Unfortunately, this increased need will not diminish soon. The unemployed are staying out of work longer. According to The Pew Research Center, by June 2010 the median length of unemployment had risen to 25.5 weeks, from 8.4 weeks in December 2007.4  This is partly because, as the Center on Budget and Policy informs us, there are four or five people searching for work for every one job that is available. Studies are showing the longer a person stays unemployed, the less likely they are to land that new job. The “new poor” will be old news soon enough – they’ll just be known as “poor.”

Economists predict that many people will be out of work for years to come, suspended in a no-man’s land between welfare and an income that is self-sustaining. Human services organizations and programs must be preserved to aid this population. What this recession has shown us is how close we all are to that edge where social services become essential to survive. The “new poor” could include any one of us; it could be you. All of us need to understand the critical role that human services play in our daily life and the lives of those in need. We must remember that human services are not guaranteed and remind our elected officials to retain them.

Contributed by Zan Margolis of
Human Services Council of NYC, Inc.

1 Goodman, Peter S. “Despite Signs of Recovery, Chronic Joblessness Rises.” The New York Times. 20 February 2010.;
2 New York State Department of Labor. “Highlights from the New York State Department of Labor’s 2010 Jobs and Labor Force Press Release.”
3 Ruiz, Albor. “Report shows that thousands of New Yorkers are going hungry.” NY Daily News. 23 January 2011.
4 Pew Research Center

About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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