...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...
Those with money insulate themselves from the poor. After all, isn't that what prisons are for? And police? And if there were not poor, who would serve their betters?
With every day that passes, fossil fuels grow more expensive, and there are less in the world.
With every day that passes, the difference between the haves and the have-nots grows.
With every day that passes, the line that marks the rich and the poor shifts upwards.