An enlightening, comprehensive account of family poverty throughout New York City’s history.
The extreme poverty of New York City neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx, Brownsville and Harlem, is nothing new. In fact, as Nunez and Sribnick show in this remarkable work, it’s a phenomenon that goes back to colonial times—the city’s first poorhouse for the unemployed, homeless and sick opened in 1736. “Poverty has existed in New York as long as, if not longer than, it has anywhere in the United States,” the authors observe. They travel through eight distinct eras and detail how, with varying degrees of success, New York politicians and social reformers tried to combat poverty. Their ideas and initiatives were shaped by ideological biases that still influence today’s policies. For example, colonials believed that the poor were victims of their own personal failings, which required that they be dosed with work and religion; Jacob Riis and other 19th-century reformers believed that the causes of poverty weren’t personal but economic and environmental. In the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration almost went full circle, implementing “workfare” programs that required welfare recipients to participate in job training; this pro-business, pro-development orientation, the authors write, has made New York what it is today—safer, wealthier and cleaner but “with pockets of abject poverty and more homeless than ever before.” Nunez and Sribnick avoid delivering what could have been a dry sociological treatise by including vignettes from the lives of poor and homeless people; one of them, Carmen Santana, shares a cramped two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with her boyfriend and four of her children, the floors covered in “peeling linoleum” and the children sharing a single bunk bed. “[W]hen it comes to family poverty, there are no quick fixes,” the authors caution, but they convincingly argue that as long as New York, and the United States, remain wedded to “market-based solutions...all the proposals and plans will be window dressing.”
An engaging historical study of New York City poverty.