Over the last few weeks, I've had the feeling that I'm living through an episode of the Twilight Zone. We've now seen innumerable articles about Roman Polanski and how he's being mistreated for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl (I admit I'm biased because I have a young daughter and believe he should be shut away for life). Mayor Bloomberg has talked about a focus on retraining downsized Wall Street executives as a major way to save the city, suggested a major initiative to support struggling artists and, finally, there have been front page stories about City Hall's efforts to help people find parking spaces!
None of these issues are without merit, but they come while the U.S. Department of Labor is reporting unemployment at 9.7 percent, the highest in nearly two decades, and another report due on October 21st almost certain to show New York City with over 10 percent unemployed!
We all used to snicker in European history courses about the total blindness of Marie Antoinette and the Tsar before the outbreak of their respective revolutions, but I'm starting to understand the very human wish to ignore what's painful and unpleasant. I still remember hiding under my pillow in 3rd grade hoping against hope that the math test I hadn't studied for would somehow magically be cancelled when I woke up in the morning. Regretfully, the impact of the "Great Recession" on New York City isn't going to evaporate just because we'd like to ignore it.
Eight years ago, my head of public policy, Nancy Rankin, convinced me to invest (along with the United Way and Rockefeller Foundation) in hiring a national polling firm to get a sense what was happening on the ground with New York City's poor and near poor. The shock was that no one across the country was bothering to poll this demographic -- they were considered irrelevant despite their large numbers (three million New Yorkers alone). This was despite all the programs and moral outrage and corrective action aimed at this economic stratum.
The polling from the outset has been eye-opening. With a large sample size of over 1,000 and a telephone interview that last nearly 30 minutes, it has revealed a population overwhelmingly struggling to deal with low-wage jobs, that, despite longer hours than virtually anyone else, doesn't allow people to get out of poverty.
We just completed our 2009 poll. The latest findings are exceptionally bleak. This recession may be billed as hurting six-figure executives on Wall Street, but more than 4 in 10 low-income Latinos lost their jobs or had their hours and wages reduced in the past year. Across the board, the poor and near poor are losing basic job benefits from health insurance to sick leave, and hardships (eviction, inability to get medical care, growing food insecurity) have continued to hammer the poor and near poor alike -- making New York City look more like a developing country for three million of its residents rather than the world's leading city in the richest country on earth. (To see the executive summary of the poll, go to (http://www.cssny.org.)
We've continued polling for two reasons. I've sat through thousands of hours of testimony about why people are poor - they don't work hard enough, they lack moral fiber, they're not as smart as the rest of us (plainly, after Madoff, Letterman, et.al., I won't have to be fighting this one out for a least a few months). The list goes on.
Polling has become a tool to unravel what's going on, and its already begun to reveal major skills problems, declines in unionized jobs, the steady erosion of employee benefits, and stagnation of wages at the bottom as prime considerations as to what's going wrong.
But the second reason it's important is that those of us trying to represent the interests of low-income people better be checking in with our constituents on a regular basis or we're going to be advocating for policies that don't really bring about improvement. This is not some game to make us feel virtuous. This is critical work which has a long-term impact on the working poor but also on what kind of city and nation we're going to have in the years to come.