Young New Yorkers fight for basic needs security
Just a few months into his term, New York City Mayor Eric Adams released “Rebuild, Renew, Reinvent: A Blueprint for New York City’s Economic Recovery,” which he claimed “centered on equity and economic mobility.”
However, the plan—adding police officers on city streets, removing homeless people from public spaces, creating marketing campaigns and an “opportunity fund” to lure back tourists and large-scale events, and urging New Yorkers to return to the office because, as the mayor admonished, “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day”—reflect the priorities of business advisers intent on returning to pre-pandemic “normalcy.” It did not put the spotlight on Mayor Adams’s stated vision of investing in working families and commandeering a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real change on a grand scale.”
As much as politicians and business leaders would like to put the global pandemic behind them, the emergence of at least three Omicron subvariants in the past month indicates that it is far from over and may even be our new normal. What isn’t addressed in the mayor’s recovery plan are the unsustainable rates of food, housing, and economic insecurity among New Yorkers and policy solutions focused on long-term public health and economic resiliency.
According to a recent report by the nonprofit Robin Hood and Columbia University, nearly half (47 percent) of New Yorkers lived in low-income families in 2020, with 29 percent of adults and 38 percent of children facing material hardship such as food or housing insecurity and medical hardship.
What is perhaps most eye-opening—given the persistence of the model minority myth and the lack of data collected on Asian Americans—is that the poverty rate among Asian New Yorkers was 40 percent higher than the citywide average, comparable to Black and Latino New Yorkers, and double the poverty rate of white New Yorkers. Twenty-seven percent of Asian New Yorkers also faced material hardship, and roughly 14 percent faced severe psychological distress (versus the citywide average of 11 percent).
Beyond the statistics, however, what is it like day to day and what is at stake for low-income New Yorkers, particularly young Asian New Yorkers? For this story, I interviewed a recent college graduate Jessica, a current community college student Alina S., and workers Lisa Nishimura and Brenda to get a better sense of their lived experiences.
Jessica’s, Alina’s, and Brenda’s full names were withheld for privacy.
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“I just didn’t want [my parents] to have to stretch themselves more just because I wanted to do something.”—Jessica
When Jessica was four years old, she, her mother, and two older siblings immigrated from the Philippines to Long Beach, California, where she reunited with her father, who had arrived the year before on a work permit sponsored by a family member.
Both her parents were college graduates; her father had been an engineer in the Philippines. But, as Jessica explains, “A lot of immigrant parents I know don’t have an education, anything to build off. I feel like my parents were just dealt a bad hand. On paper, everything should’ve worked out, but it didn’t.”
The family fell on hard times—her father was laid off more than once, and her mother cycled through several jobs, including working in retail and at the front desk in a hotel, and as a real estate and then insurance agent. Jessica’s eldest sibling had taken classes at a community college but dropped out and started working to help her parents care for her younger siblings.
The American Dream is arguably the United States’ most significant export—so much so that immigrants like Jessica’s family continue to be lured by its promises of prosperity and social and intergenerational mobility. The reality is that it has become elusive for most Americans.
According to economists, rates of upward income mobility have fallen so precipitously that only half of children today (compared to 90 percent of children born in the 1940s) grow up to earn more than their parents. The United States lags behind other wealthy nations like social-democratic Denmark, and cities like Charlotte and Detroit more closely resemble developing countries, with residents at the bottom having a 4–5 percent probability of rising to the top.
While a college education remains key to promoting upward economic mobility, especially for poor and low-income individuals, a 2021 report from Georgetown University notes that the cost has increased by 169 percent since 1980. Today, average four-year college tuition and fees range from $27,330 in-state at public universities to $55,800 at private nonprofit colleges.
Jessica hoped she would follow in her brother’s footsteps and get an engineering degree at University of California, Irvine or another state school. But after calculating tuition and room and board, she concluded that going to college would likely lead to a sizable debt after graduation.
“I knew my parents would try to help me pay for anything, but I guess I just didn’t want them to have to stretch themselves more just because I wanted to do something.”
Providentially, in her junior year of high school, Jessica came across a flyer marketing QuestBridge (QB), a nonprofit that helps low-income students gain access to some of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. Through QB, Jessica ended up being matched with a full-need scholarship at Columbia University, which covered her tuition, room, and board.
She also found support through the group FLI Columbia (for first-generation and/or low-income students), through which she got free textbooks through their book drives. Jessica worked while in school, and once in a while, her parents sent her some “fun money.” Still, she found it tough fitting in as a low-income student among extremely wealthy schoolmates.
“A lot of the kids I went to school with went to boarding schools and prep schools that literally prepared you for college. When you’re poor, you’re not going to have the same resources. I thought I was smart, but it was really hard for me academically,” Jessica said.
Unlike her peers who remained in New York City to pursue internships (which often paid little or nothing at all), Jessica had to return to California in the summers, when her housing wasn’t covered by her scholarship.
After graduating college in 2017, Jessica secured a job quite easily through Columbia’s network and now is doing well financially. “I do sometimes compare myself to my friends, and feel like I’m not doing well enough,” she says. “But I have to remember where I started and the journey I took to get here.”
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“I went because the door was open. It was like I was meant to go on a journey where a new life was waiting for me.”—Alina S.
Alina is originally from the village of Gornovo, Russia, at the Asia-Europe border. She visited New York City almost a decade ago while she was an exchange student but never considered returning, let alone living here. However, like a number of her friends, Alina “played the lottery” for a diversity visa to the United States and was among the lucky few who won (Russians received less than 1 percent of all green cards issued in 2019).
“I was doing okay, but I wanted better for myself. I went because the door was open. It was like I was meant to go on a journey where a new life was waiting for me.”
Alina landed a job at a dental office in Brooklyn, but after two years, she quit and set her sights on college. She recalled a friend’s admonition, “Don’t be the kind of person who doesn’t live the life you wish to live.”
She viewed college as a worthwhile investment in her future as well as an opportunity to become more involved with other Americans beyond the Russian immigrant community. After applying to a number of schools, she chose to attend Kingsborough Community College (KCC), where she qualified for TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) and received the best financial aid package.
She assumed she would be able to find a new job with more flexible hours. But she quickly learned that departments often lacked funding to hire students, and at least for now, she isn’t willing to take jobs from potential employers who tell her she should be grateful and admit that they would prefer to pay her less than the state’s hourly minimum wage of $15 (many are Russian themselves and take advantage of desperate immigrants, particularly the undocumented).
“I’m ready to work; I want to work. Even people close to me say that I made the situation difficult for myself and don’t have a choice but to take the first job offer. But I can’t work for a supervisor who treats their workers like slaves.”
She is acutely aware of her diminished savings. She was able to pay this month’s rent but may have to borrow money from a friend to make next month’s if she doesn’t find a job soon. Through KCC’s Access Resource Center, she learned about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While she didn’t get much help beyond being directed to the government website, she was able to verify her eligibility and apply for benefits.
Alina has never felt more housing or food insecure than in New York City. Unfortunately, she is not alone. According to a 2018 City University of New York (CUNY) study, 53 percent of community college students and 37 percent of senior college students were living in households below the poverty line, earning less than $20,000 a year. Furthermore, the 2018 CUNY #RealCollege survey found that 55 percent of respondents were housing insecure and 14 percent were homeless in the previous year; 48 percent reported being food insecure in the prior thirty days.
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“Young people are constantly told that we can’t do this, or we don’t have enough life experience, or we’re not old enough to understand. No, we understand. We’ve been through these experiences, we’ve had basic needs issues . . .”—Lisa Nishimura
Lisa, who identifies as a queer, Japanese-Salvadorian womxn, grew up in Washington Heights and currently lives in Brooklyn. Her journey as a youth organizer was spurred by obstacles she faced since college. As a student from a low-income family with a single mother, she could not afford the annual in-state tuition at John Jay College (upwards of $7,000) without scholarships or aid.
Students must complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to receive state or federal aid or to qualify for programs like the Excelsior Scholarship, providing free tuition at SUNY or CUNY schools. However, Lisa’s mother could not provide the required documentation for the application, such as proof of income, so Lisa was unable to qualify for financial help from the government.
As an honors program student, Lisa received a $1,000 scholarship each semester, which covered about a quarter of her tuition. She worked to try to cover the rest, and her family often had to negotiate between paying their rent, food, bills, and Lisa’s tuition. Ironically as an honors student, she didn’t qualify for the ACE (Accelerate Complete Engage) program, which provides free monthly MetroCards, textbook assistance, tuition gap waivers, and other academic and career support. Eligibility eventually was expanded to include honors students, but Lisa no longer qualified because she wasn’t an incoming freshman.
At the end of every semester, there was usually a balance on her tuition, and she would be placed on a bursar hold. This meant that she couldn’t register for the next semester’s classes until it was paid off. After completing her degree requirements, she still owed John Jay about $2,000, and the school withheld her transcript and diploma. She missed out on applying for employment or fellowship opportunities such as the NYC Civic Corps Program, which required her official transcript.
In the midst of a global pandemic and the city’s high unemployment and jobless rates, Lisa considers herself fortunate to have been accepted into the first cohort of Young Invincibles (YI), New York’s Young Advocates program, a paid policy and advocacy fellowship, in spring 2020. She later returned to YI New York as a full-time engagement coordinator. Her own lived experience motivates her to fight for resources for students who face some of the same challenges she did.
The policy work of Lisa and her peers at YI have resulted in tangible benefits for CUNY and SUNY students. At the beginning of the pandemic, YI worked with the City Council to convert cafeteria vouchers to cash so that students could continue to have access to food while campuses were shut down. YI also secured $1 million in funding from the City Council for the CUNY Food Insecurity Pilot Program that served 1,250 low-income students, including CUNY Dreamers (those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA status).
And when then-Mayor Bill De Blasio threatened to cut funding for CUNY’s ASAP program, YI successfully advocated for its restoration in the NYC FY 2021 budget. The ASAP program provides non-tuition related student support services and has been shown to double the college graduation rate of low-income students in New York City.
YI also worked with the state to expand SNAP eligibility for students in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and colleges, to increase the maximum TAP award from $5,165 to $5,665 annually, and to freeze tuition at CUNY and SUNY. Particularly resonant for Lisa was advocating for the introduction and successful passage of a bill to permanently ban transcript-withholding across the CUNY and SUNY systems, which Governor Kathy Hochul formally announced in January 2022.
At a virtual presentation Lisa gave as part of the UnHomeless NYC exhibition and symposia at KCC, she urged students to participate in Advocacy Day and share their own stories on a call with state legislators ahead of the April 1 New York State Budget deadline.
“Young people are constantly told that we can’t do this, or we don’t have enough life experience, or we’re not old enough to understand. No, we understand. We’ve been through these experiences, we’ve had basic needs issues, like not having access to food, not having a stable home or being homeless, not having jobs, especially when the pandemic first hit—and the pandemic is still affecting millions of people.”
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“Experiencing financial hardship and food insecurity during the pandemic just helped me recognize how people who are even more disadvantaged than I am are at even greater risk.” —Brenda
According to the Georgetown report, the burst of the dot-com bubble (2001–2002) and the Great Recession (2007–2009) created economic setbacks for young people (particularly the millennial generation) even before the pandemic. The report also noted that since the 1980s, it has taken many young people until their thirties, usually after receiving postsecondary education, to launch their careers (compared to when most jobs required a high school diploma or less and young people landed career-track jobs in their twenties); many disadvantaged youths don’t secure jobs at all. Furthermore, students who left school and entered the workforce during the pandemic recession face nearly $100,000 in total lifetime earnings losses.
Since the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, Brenda’s income from their dog-walking business fell sharply to about a fifth of their pre-pandemic earnings. Nearly all their regular clients had begun working from home or moving out of the city and no longer needed their service. This put a strain on Brenda’s finances. Fortunately, they were able to apply for SNAP benefits, which helped alleviate their food insecurity.
Around the same time, as elderly Asians in New York City were increasingly at risk for either getting COVID-19 or being targets of violence and hate crimes, Brenda became involved with Heart of Dinner, a community-driven organization that delivers “culturally thoughtful” hot meals and groceries once a week to elderly Asians in the community. They also helped with running deliveries and hosting fundraisers, as well as participating in community events.
Recognizing that many of the elderly also felt isolated—especially during the lockdowns, when they were unable to see family or friends and neighbors—the volunteers decorated paper bags and wrote letters to non-English speakers in their native languages. Brenda had spent part of their childhood and adolescent life growing up in Xi’an, China, so they speak Mandarin and can write Chinese and cook with many of the ingredients used in the care packages.
Their father always told them, “There’s no such thing as free lunch.” This way of thinking—where helping the “lazy” less fortunate is seen as diminishing the “hard-working” wealthy—is a notion that Brenda is pushing back against.
“I don’t believe in a scarcity mentality because I think that it’s ultimately detrimental to the world. Experiencing financial hardship and food insecurity during the pandemic just helped me recognize how people who are even more disadvantaged than I am are at even greater risk.”
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Jessica, Alina, Lisa, and Brenda are just four of the many young New Yorkers who have struggled or are struggling with financial hardships. They have also managed to exercise their own agency and empower themselves through community engagement and advocacy for policy solutions and systemic change.
The pandemic has exposed the economic violence of inequality, but it also provided an opportunity to implement progressive policies, such as New York’s Excluded Workers Fund, eviction moratoriums, and stimulus payments. The outcomes of these policies support findings by economists that policy interventions targeted toward the most vulnerable populations, coupled with community-based mutual-aid efforts, can significantly reduce inequality, increase quality of life, and even make the American Dream a more attainable reality.
The Robin Hood/Columbia report estimates that 1.9 million New Yorkers moved out of poverty because of pandemic-era government policies. Unfortunately, these policies were seen primarily as temporary emergency measures and government executives and legislators have allowed them to expire.
Both Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul have described this period of pandemic recovery as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to envision a transformative, inclusive future for New York. Yet their budget and policy priorities—which revert to the broken windows theory of policing and to government transfers and tax credits for businesses—focus on the short-term and do not harness the lessons learned from the pandemic.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it is that another way—a more equitable, sustainable future centered on human dignity—is possible. It just requires an understanding that people and communities are the real agents of creative transformation and are worthy of investment.
Even historian James Truslow Adams understood this in 1931 when he fueled popular imagination with the idea of the “American Dream.” It was never about the pursuit of individual wealth (and actually was a critique of unfettered capitalism, which was detrimental to democracy) but rather about what American society could be if we kept working toward expanding equality, justice, and democracy for all.