NYC Opportunity
Published in

NYC Opportunity

A Study that Listened to the Lived Experiences of Low-Income New Yorkers

The image of the report cover of the Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure. There are diverse headshots of 4 individuals on the cover.

Report cover of the Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure, July 2021.

Discussions of poverty are often heavy on statistics and light on lived experience. There is a need for more qualitative studies that give a voice to people with low incomes, allowing them to describe their own economic realities. In the summer of 2018, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, NYC Opportunity and Abt Associates conducted such a study, which sought to better understand the diversity of lived experiences, the challenges faced and overcome, and the first-hand perspectives of New Yorkers living near or below the poverty line.

This study, the Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure, has now been released (the findings at a glance are here), and it contains some important findings. One concerns how New Yorkers ended up in poverty: many respondents reported that there was not a single trigger event, but rather a series of circumstances that together plunged them into economic distress. Another finding is that underemployment and low wages in the labor market are bigger issues than a lack of jobs. An overall theme of the report is how interconnected the issues low-income New Yorkers deal with are — and how setbacks in one area often spill over into others.

The study was conducted in the South and Southwest Bronx, which have among the city’s, and the nation’s, highest poverty rates. It was carried out with community-based participatory research (CBPR) methods, which are grounded in a commitment to understanding the participants’ experiences from their own perspectives. It drew on a series of in-depth interviews with low-income Bronx residents.

NYC Opportunity and Abt Associates collaborated on the study with BronxWorks, a local service organization with deep ties in the community; community researcher students from Lehman College (a Bronx-based college that is part of the City University of New York (CUNY)); and researchers from Hunter College (another part of CUNY), the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Columbia Population Research Center. At the conclusion of the study, findings were shared back with participants in the research as well as other stakeholders.

The Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure was conducted as part of NYC Opportunity’s work in studying poverty. NYC Opportunity is the city’s anti-poverty innovation unit. It is also responsible for reporting each year on the city’s poverty and near poverty rates. We do this using the NYCgov poverty measure, which provides a more accurate reflection of poverty in the city than the federal measure by, among other things, incorporating New York-specific costs of living, including the unusually high cost of housing. NYC Opportunity also conducts more specialized studies of poverty, such as its reports on the rate of poverty among New York City’s immigrant communities, needs assessments, and program evaluations.

This study was a collaboration that brought together diverse expertise across two teams at NYC Opportunity — the Poverty Research Unit and the Programs and Evaluation team.

Although hard numerical data is important to understanding poverty, qualitative studies can provide additional insights. The Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure illuminated some key aspects of the lived experience of poverty and near poverty in New York City.

On financial precarity, the study gave a fuller picture of the path many New Yorkers take into poverty. Most of the participants reported that their poverty was a result of a series of financial shocks, setbacks, and challenges that became increasingly difficult to overcome, rather than a single severe financial difficulty. The accumulating shocks that participants pointed to included job loss, workplace accidents, illness, and funeral expenses for a family member.

These financial shocks depleted participants’ short-term cash supplies, and in some cases caused participants to take out loans that were not paid off for long periods. Once a household’s financial stability was undermined, it often proved challenging, or impossible, to recover. One interviewee said that she was still reeling from expenses associated with the death of her mother, which she shared with her brother. “Before that, everything was on point,” she said. “After that, no. It’s hard getting back to where I was at. . . . We’re talking thousands of dollars.”

On public benefits, the study found that participants’ level of hardship was reduced when they received benefits, but that there were also difficulties. Many reported that public benefits did not provide enough assistance. Some talked of experiencing a “benefits cliff,” in which increasing work or pay caused them to lose existing benefits. Participants seeking or receiving benefits also reported the challenges of navigating complex eligibility rules and securing required documents, and expressed concerns about social stigma and the potential for unpleasant experiences during the application process.

On jobs and wages, the report found that underemployment and low wages were bigger issues for the study respondents than a lack of jobs or poor labor market engagement. Employed participants reported that their wages were often not adequate to cover their living expenses, in many cases because they could not work as many hours as they wanted. The interviewees said there was a need for better jobs with sufficient, and consistent, hours.

The study also found that housing costs presented the greatest financial burden. It was the area in which participants reported most being in need of additional assistance. Housing costs were so high for many participants that they made it difficult to meet other expenses. One SSI recipient said in an interview, “The SSI check I don’t even see it, because it goes towards rent. The rent is paid, and there goes the check.”

The central theme in participants’ responses was how interconnected many of these issues could be. The challenges of finding work, earning sufficient wages, and securing affordable housing were inextricably linked. Participants spoke of how a setback in one area could lead to declines in other areas. One worker who was injured on the job and required surgery described how the loss of income caused him to lose his apartment, and eventually his car and his daughter and grandchild. “It all went down from there,” he said. “I had to give up my apartment, my daughter left with her daughter. I fell into a depression. I had a psychiatrist. It messed me up a bit.”

Another theme was participants’ desire for the challenges low-income New Yorkers face to be better understood. One interviewee urged the City to come out and spend time with the people resources were being directed to. “Actually have live people . . . come out to visit the locations, people in the neighborhoods, have more forums . . .” the participant advised. “And not only listen to what people have to say, but actually implement.”

Participants also said that there was a need for more resources to be made available to low-income New Yorkers. Many complained about the amount of the benefits they received, including one woman who expected her SNAP benefits to remain constant from month to month but found that they declined from $107 the first month, to $66, and eventually to $15. “What can I buy for $15?” she asked the interviewer.

One positive finding was that many participants proved resilient and strategic in facing their poverty-related challenges. In their responses, they pointed to support of various kinds that they received — from religious communities, education and training programs, and other sources. One participant spoke of being “in a dark place” before attending a training program that gave them a new perspective. The program “got me looking around, like, ‘I’m not the only person with this problem,’” the participant said. “Sitting around talking out loud about it . . . [made me feel like] I’m just going to try.” Many of the participants were optimistic about their long-term financial prospects.

While many of the findings in the study were not surprising, the study provided a chance to lift up stories behind the numbers, and to show the complexity and nuance of low-income New Yorker’s economic struggles. The project reflects the increasing commitment across our teams to amplify the lived experience of New Yorkers in our work, and to use participatory strategies as part of our methods for advancing our understanding of policies and programs.

The Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure is a snapshot of a previous era in New York City. The summer of 2018, when it was conducted, was before Covid-19 arrived in New York, and a time when the city was in the midst of a years-long economic expansion. (Even so, 41.3% of New Yorkers were living at or near the poverty line, a total of 3.5 million people, based on the NYCgov Poverty Measure.)

Since March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic negative impact on jobs and incomes of low-income New Yorkers. The study does not reflect that negative impact but it does provide an example of the existing challenges and problems that were amplified by the pandemic. It also does not reflect the array of federal, state, and local initiatives offering economic support to low-income New Yorkers affected by the pandemic. Many of these initiatives speak directly to the needs expressed by study participants.

NYC Opportunity will release new poverty and near poverty numbers reflecting the impact of the pandemic in 2022. Nevertheless, many of the findings of this qualitative study of poverty remain no less relevant today, and in some cases have taken on a greater urgency.



News from the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store