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Qualitative Study to Enhance the NYCgov Poverty Measure

Elizabeth Giardino, Anna Jefferson, Deena Schwartz, Bennett Heine, Alyssa Kogan, and Arturo Nava


July 12, 2021

More than 43 percent of New York City’s total population were poor or near-poor in 2016, according to an NYC-specific measure of poverty the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity developed in 2008 and updates annually. This report presents the results of a qualitative study conducted in 2018, before the COVID pandemic, designed to complement the NYCgov poverty measure data to answer the question: What are New Yorkers’ experiences living in or near poverty, and what are the ways that poverty affects their lives?

Living in poverty presents a set of interlocking, compounding challenges that create barriers to exiting poverty. Among these are:

  • Financial precarity leaves many New Yorkers one emergency away from a downwards spiral.
  • Underemployment and low wages in the labor market are bigger issues than a lack of jobs or poor labor market engagement.
  • Insufficient wages worsen the effects of financial shocks or lead to chronic poverty; these pose barriers to investing in one’s future through education or training.
  • Public benefits reduce hardship, but they may not provide enough assistance for many participants and often present a new set of constraints to navigate—difficult experiences accessing benefits and the threat of falling off the “benefits cliff” if one’s income goes too high.
  • Housing costs placed the greatest financial burden on participants. Even for those with a housing voucher, many were still unable to secure housing due to a shortage of affordable housing, upfront costs, and experiences of discrimination against voucher holders.
  • Study participants reported significant physical and mental health challenges. At the same time, the study found that many poor New Yorkers were unable to reliably access affordable healthcare services. Participants described a resulting cycle of chronic poor health, financial burden and mental health issues.