American Cities and the Great Divide
By BOB HERBERT
A public high school teacher in Brooklyn told me recently about a student who didn’t believe that a restaurant tab for four people could come to more than $500. The student shook his head, as if resisting the very idea. He just couldn’t fathom it.
“How much can you eat?” the student asked.
When I asked a teacher in a second school to mention the same issue, one of the responses was, “Is this a true story?”
A lot of New Yorkers are doing awfully well. There are 8 million residents of New York City, and roughly 700,000 are worth a million dollars or more. The average price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.3 million. The annual earnings of the average hedge fund manager is $363 million.
The estimated worth of the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ranges from $5.5 billion to upwards of $20 billion.
You want a gilded age? This is it. The elite of the Roaring Twenties would be stunned by the wealth of the current era.
Now the flip side, which is the side those public school students are on. One of the city’s five counties, the Bronx, is the poorest urban county in the nation. The number of families in the city’s homeless shelters is the highest it has been in a quarter of a century. Twenty-five percent of all families with children in New York City — that’s 1.5 million New Yorkers — are trying to make it on incomes that are below the poverty threshold established by the federal government.
The streets that are paved with gold for some are covered with ash for many others. There are few better illustrations of the increasingly disturbing divide between rich and poor than New York City.
“I get to walk in both worlds,” said Larry Mandell, the president of the United Way of New York City. “In a given day I might be in a soup kitchen and also in the halls of Fortune 500 companies dealing with the senior executives. I’ve become acutely aware that the lives of those who are well off are not touched at all by contact with the poor. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t want to help. It’s that they have very little awareness of poverty.”
I’d always thought of the United Way as a charitable outfit. But Mr. Mandell has committed his organization to the important task of raising the awareness of Americans and their political leaders to the pressing needs of America’s cities, and especially the long-neglected, poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the inner cities.
It’s a measure of how low the bar has been set for success in America’s cities that New York is thought to be doing well, even though 185,000 of its children ages 5 or younger are poor, and 18,000 are consigned to homeless shelters each night. More than a million New Yorkers get food stamps, and another 700,000 are eligible but not receiving them. That’s a long, long way from a $500 restaurant tab.
Only 50 percent of the city’s high school students graduate in four years. And if you talk to the kids in the poorer neighborhoods, they will tell you that they don’t feel safe. They are worried about violence and gang activity, which in their view is getting worse, not better.
This is what’s going on in the nation’s most successful big city.
Mr. Mandell is upset that urban issues, which in so many cases are related to poverty, have played such a minuscule role in the presidential campaign so far. “People need to become more aware of the issue of poverty,” he said. “It’s discouraging, frankly, to have it barely mentioned at all in the debates.
“It’s true that John Edwards is the one candidate who seems concerned about it, but to actually have the issue come up just briefly in the debates, and not at all in the Republican debate — well, my view is that we have to change that.”
The United Way of New York has issued a white paper on “America’s Urban Agenda” that says, “The greatest single challenge most American cities face lies in the increasing divide between the haves and have-nots.”
There was a time, some decades ago, when urban issues and poverty were important components of presidential campaigns. Now the poor are kept out of sight, which makes it easier to leave them farther and farther behind. We’ve apparently reached a point in our politics when they aren’t even worth mentioning.