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July 19, 2009 / sadhbhanu

New York / new york

51854069New York has more billionaires than anywhere else on the planet, yet one in six are standing in line at food banks.


New York/new york

As the song goes, New York is so good it had to be named twice.  These
lyrics were oddly prescient as it’s become increasingly clear that
there are in fact two New York cities.  One where billions are spent
bailing out financial institutions and the other where, according to
data provided by the Food Bank of New York, 4 million people are
having difficulty affording food.

4 million people accounts for almost half the city’s population. (48%
to be precise.)  Of that 4 million, 1.3 million currently rely on
emergency food programs to eat and their ranks are rising daily.  Aine
Duggan, Vice President of Research, Policy & Education at the Food
Bank, which distributes food to the 1000 or so food pantries and soup
kitchens across the city told me that “we have yet to see the full
need for 2009 and do not know if we will have sufficient food to meet
that need”.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is New York we’re talking
about – one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

I paid a visit to The Westside Campaign Against Hunger, one of the
larger food pantries in the city.  Doreen Wohl, the Executive
Director, told me that they have witnessed an unprecedented increase
in demand for food since October and that their food budget is
severely over extended.

I spoke to one first time visitor called Georgina who had lost her job
at McDonalds in January.  She doesn’t receive any unemployment
benefits and she doesn’t have any health insurance. She does have five
sons whom she is struggling to care for.  One of her sons, an earnest
looking 11 year old, told me “there is no food at home today.”

A 63 year old Russian woman called Alla who lost her part time job
recently told me that “her heart is full of stress.” As a non citizen
she is not entitled to most benefits and so needs a job desperately.
She asked if I could help her.  She was a good cook and could mind
children or clean.  Though she added that cleaning floors is difficult
because of her knees.

What  people like Georgina and Alla need are living wage jobs with
health benefits and affordable housing.  Until these things are
forthcoming they, like the banks,  need an emergency bailout.  Instead
they have a safety net so inadequate that already 1.3 million people
have fallen through the holes and millions more are hanging on by a

According to a spokesperson for the Human Resources Administration
which administers public assistance, the maximum cash benefit a single
individual is entitled to is $414.00 a month, $215.00 of which must be
paid directly to a landlord for rent.  I won’t waste words
demonstrating the impossibility of living on $50 a week in New York,
but if anyone knows of an apartment in the city going for $215.00 a
month, I’d love to hear about it.  I pay 6 times that amount and
consider myself lucky.

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom opponents have dubbed an ‘out
of touch billionaire,’ made combating poverty a priority of his second
term.  Sadly the statistics show that he has not had much success.  In
2006 he launched the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) which
provides $150 million dollars for anti poverty programs.  While these
programs have enjoyed some success, the approach  has come under
criticism for being too narrow in scope.  Joel Berg, Executive
Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said that
“attacking a full blown poverty crisis with a few pilot programs that
only impact about 3% of people in need is preposterous.  If the Mayor
took the same approach to crime he would be run out of town.”

I paid a visit to a soup kitchen in the Lower East Side run by
Father’s Heart Ministries.  It was packed to capacity when I arrived
and before I could get my bearings I was ushered to a seat by an over
eager volunteer and handed a plate of food consisting of 2 fried eggs,
1 meat pattie, a small portion of rice and 1 slice of bread with no

The lady sitting next to me was crying. I couldn’t bring myself to ask
her what her specific troubles were.  Instead I offered her my meal
which she silently accepted and then carefully began to wrap the
rubbery eggs and other items in cellophane and place them in her worn
out tote bag.

Walking through the Manhattan streets later, it was hard to shed that
image. It’s even harder to reconcile the levels of desperation I’ve
witnessed with a city that still has the appearance at least of a
thriving metropolis and that as of last month,  according to Forbes
Magazine, is home to more billionaires than anywhere else in the
world, the richest of whom is none other than Mayor Bloomberg whose
personal fortune actually increased in the past year from $11.5 to $16

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