Ending poverty will take a new look at wealth, too

By E. West McNeill and Liz Theoharis
Albany Times Union
Dec. 31, 2022

Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency last week as a winter storm of historic proportions bore down on western New York, warning families: “We want all New Yorkers to get where they need to go safely to celebrate the holidays with loved ones.” As we continue to deal with the aftermath of that deadly  storm, we would do well to remember the millions of families in New York that were already experiencing the storms of poverty, inequality and policy violence, not to mention those who have nowhere safe to celebrate the holidays.

Indeed, earlier this month, the state comptroller’s office released the first in a series of reports about poverty in New York. The report highlights that New York lags behind the nation in reducing poverty; the official poverty measure in this state has been higher than the nation’s since 2014, and the gap has grown. 

The comptroller’s series, “New Yorkers in Need,” is a welcome recognition that poverty needs to be a state policy priority. After all, without the Child Tax Credit, low-income families are without basic necessities and too many are without a place to lay their heads. The Coalition for the Homeless just announced the highest number of unhoused people in New York City history last week.
In reality, the situation in New York today isn’t a significant departure from the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.  While the holiday season is often marked through cozy-sounding themes that conjure idyllic images, the Mary and Joseph of scripture were poor, indebted refugees, forced by the ruling authority to endure difficult passage to Bethlehem only to bear a homeless baby Jesus in a dirty barn. It’s a scenario all too resonant for the 2.7 million New Yorkers living below the poverty line, struggling to find adequate food, housing, heat or transportation while extreme storms disrupt already precarious lives.

The comptroller’s report describes poverty as a phenomenon impacting one our of seven New Yorkers overall, and up to one in four in the most impacted counties. These numbers are alarming, but they reflect only those with an income below the federal poverty line of $12,880 for an individual or $26,500 for a family of four. These are absurdly low numbers anywhere in the U.S. and especially in New York. Looking at a more realistic measure of what is needed to make ends meet, the Poor People’s Campaign (which we help lead on a national and state level) found in 2020 that 45 percent of New Yorkers were poor and low-income. Recognizing that close to half of New York residents are struggling points to a structural problem in our society that will take a much more sweeping policy response.

Also inadequate is to look at poverty without looking at wealth, something the comptroller’s report fails to include. A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows New York has the highest income inequality and highest concentration of extreme wealth in the country. New Yorkers with $30 million or more hold a staggering $6.7 trillion. The extreme wealth in New York is both a cause of poverty and a resource that must be mobilized to end it.

New York has set a goal of reducing child poverty by half. Though a lofty goal, it would still leave almost one in ten children living below the federal poverty level. Indeed, efforts focused on reducing child poverty rather than eliminating it force the question, which children will stay impoverished? This is not a choice anyone should have to make, especially when we have witnessed the success of policy in lifting the load of poverty.

In fact, pandemic-era relief programs — such as stimulus payments, eviction moratoriums, pandemic unemployment, and the Child Tax Credit —  succeeded at addressing poverty. Such results are evidence that poverty is a policy choice, and these programs must continue and expand. But they are grossly inadequate when we consider the real extent of both poverty and wealth. We need a moral and policy imagination that meets the scale of the problem we are facing, not one that tinkers around the edges or targets only the most extreme suffering. 

In the midst of this holiday season, let us resist a society that would rather evict, deport, or jail the most vulnerable among us than meet the needs of all people. Let us be called out of the comfortable and cozy into preparing for great change and justice that comes from the bottom. As we sing in our work with the Poor People’s Campaign: We’re gonna be ready for change to come!

Rev. E. West McNeill is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, and tri-chair of the NYS Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Rev. Liz Theoharis is a theologian, ordained minister, director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.