What Does Affordable Mean in an Unaffordable City? 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What Does Affordable Mean in an Unaffordable City? 
By Patricia A. Swann, Senior Program Officer, Civic Affairs, Community Development and Technical Assistance at New York Community Trust and Vice Chair, PNY Board of Directors and Anna Starshinina, AVP, Impact Strategy & Evaluation at United Way of New York City

New York City is consistently at or near the top of the list when it comes to determining the nation’s most unaffordable cities. Foundations and other organizations that seek to combat poverty and inequality require a thorough understanding of who is experiencing economic distress. But federal poverty measures are inadequate for this purpose. Research shows that over 2.5 million New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet, yet only a third of that number are poor according to the federal official poverty measure. The federal poverty measures, which label a family of four as poor if their annual income is less than $26,000, are not helpful for informing interventions and mobilizing action in New York City.

As an alternative to the poverty measure, the Self-Sufficiency Standard—a measure of income adequacy that accounts for family composition, borough and costs of basic needs—offers an opportunity for organizations to align around a shared, realistic measure of economic stability. The Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement, the United Way of New York City, City Harvest and the New York Community Trust recently released “Overlooked & Undercounted: The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New York City,” a series of briefs that reveal a true picture of poverty in NYC. This is the fifth update of the Self-Sufficiency Standard since 2000, backed by local data on household expenditures (food, housing, transportation, health care, etc.) to determine how much income a working family of a specific composition in a given New York City location must earn to meet its basic needs, without public assistance.

Join us for a cross-sector conversation about possible solutions to the City’s affordability crisis on Thursday June 20 at Philanthropy New York.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard research exposes some of the key struggles New Yorkers face and highlights the disproportional burden of low wages faced by different groups. For families with young children, the costs of housing and childcare combined typically make up half of their budgets. Faced with high childcare costs, single mothers experience some of the highest rates of income inadequacy in New York City today. Between 2000 and 2018, the costs of basic needs rose at nearly three times the rate of wages, leaving more families with the difficult decision of paying for rent versus food, childcare or healthcare, lights or heat. Women workers and workers of color are disproportionately found in occupations that pay lower wages and are thus at higher risk of having inadequate income. For example, did you know that most nonprofit jobs, a predominantly female workforce, offer wages that fall above the official poverty level, but below the self-sufficiency standard?

Research around the Self-Sufficiency Standard points us in the direction of finding better solutions. In addition to the key findings that provide a fuller picture of the challenges New Yorkers face, the reports include a set of policy recommendations designed to advance self-sufficiency. Cross-sector working groups composed of 32 issue experts came together to identify policy changes that would be most impactful on increasing income and reducing major nondiscretionary costs as well as those that would reach a broad audience, inclusive of traditionally marginalized populations. With the research and the recommendations at hand, cross-sector working groups will need to engage in collaborative action that pushes forward strategies for advancing self-sufficiency.

Resources like these are important for philanthropy. They reveal the limitations of the silo-ed way in which foundations typically view poverty. They illuminate conversations about income and economic inequality, helping to show that families living in poverty face complex and interdependent challenges, so the solutions must be coordinated and interconnected. Join us for a cross-sector conversation about possible solutions to the City’s affordability crisis, featuring a discussion about the fifth edition of the self-sufficiency standard. It will be held on Thursday, June 20 from 3 to 5 pm at Philanthropy New York.

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