Michael Bloomberg’s legacy was written this week by Mireya Navarro of The New York Times. Her painful profile of New York City residents who are both employed (some with multiple jobs) and living in homeless shelters revealed the narrative, human costs of the nation’s worst income inequality gap.
Navarro begins her piece with a heartbreaking snapshot of this human toll:
On many days, Alpha Manzueta gets off from one job at 7 a.m., only to start her second at noon. In between she goes to a place she’s called home for the last three years – a homeless shelter.
“I feel stuck,” said Ms. Manzueta, 37, who has a 2 ½-year-old daughter and who, on a recent Wednesday, looked crisp in her security guard uniform, waving traffic away from the curb at Kennedy International Airport. “You try, you try and you try and you’re getting nowhere. I’m still in the shelter.”
You try, you try and you try and you’re getting nowhere. This could very easily encapsulate the American economic experience for a majority of U.S. citizens. And not just during the last ten years.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report on such things as poverty and income levels. That report showed that lower- and middle-class Americans have experienced what the New Yorker’s John Cassidy called “four lost decades.”
Since its founding, the United States has been a country based on enterprise, hard work, and material progress. But for forty years now, the engine that generates across-the-board rises in living standards has been stalled, with incomes stagnating at the bottom and in the middle while growing rapidly at the top.
It’s not a new story, of course. Still, for anybody seeking to comprehend modern American politics, its importance can’t be overstated. Here are some of the Census Department’s figures:
- In 1973, a typical American household – one squarely in the middle of the income distribution – earned $48,557 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2012, the typical household earned $51,017. Over forty years, that’s an overall gain of roughly five per cent. To put it another way, it’s a difference of about $47 a week, which equates to an annual rise of about $1.18 a week.
- At the top of the income distribution, things look very different. Forty years ago, a household in the ninety-fifth percentile of the income distribution – i.e., a family with nineteen families below it for every one above it – earned $133,725. In 2012, a household at the same spot in the income distribution earned $191,156. That’s an increase of forty-three per cent.
It’s no wonder that Cassidy’s editor chose, for his column’s photo, the image of a homeless man asleep on a city bench, using an American flag as a blanket. The extreme income inequality chronicled by Navarro in New York City has been a work-in-progress for our Nation as a whole – work that was simply accelerated under Bloomberg’s watch.
New York is currently ‘enjoying’ a homeless shelter renaissance, with a record 50,000 New Yorkers making shelters their primary residence. But here’s the most frightening statistic from Navarro’s article:
More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs.
These statistics should be enough to rip the heart out of anyone who cares about the welfare of our country and its citizens. But these numbers should also serve as a forecast for what this country will look like should NYC’s income inequality levels become the national norm.
It’s a forecast that appears quite likely unless our representatives step in and change course, or unless we rise up and demand that they do so on our behalf.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, now out from Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.