The Other Disaster


For the first time in over 20 years, a police barricade went up outside Yorkville Common Pantry at its Thursday-afternoon food giveaway last week. There were no cops; the barrier was there to bring some order to the crowd that had queued on East 109th Street, pushing several dozen empty shopping carts. “A lot of people are losing their jobs,” said Lino Jimenez, whose brother lost work when the Rector Street deli he made deliveries for shut down. Sara Jimenez, clutching the family’s numbered ticket—180—assessed the long line: “Now there are many people, before fewer.”

The difference between now and before is, of course, the September 11 tragedy. It’s a difference being felt across New York and the nation, in the form of a worsening recession and skyrocketing public costs. But if middle-class people are anxious about the tough times ahead, those who were already struggling are now experiencing “desperation,” according to York-ville pantry executive director Jeff Ambers.

The Coalition Against Hunger reported an average increase of 56 percent in demand for emergency food following the terrorist attacks at the 63 pantries and soup kitchens surveyed as of September 26. Coalition spokeswoman Beverly Cheuvront attributed the rise to lost jobs and family providers, as well as to computer failures in the city’s public benefits system. But “the demand [for food relief] has been going up every year, even in 1999, when we were in the strongest economy in years,” she said. In 2000, about 600,000 people a month needed emergency food, she said. Homelessness, another measure of poverty, had before September 11 reached numbers in New York City not seen since the late 1980s, with a nightly shelter population of over 25,000. And 2.3 million people in the metropolitan area were living in poverty—$14,500 in annual income or less for a family of three—as of March 2000, according to Marc Cohan of the Welfare Law Center. For a lot of people, in other words, things were already bad when the towers fell.

The buildings’ collapse wiped out Francine Cutter’s best shot. A domestic violence survivor and mother of two, she had been on her way off of welfare, training to do phone surveys for a company that serves corporate clients. But as the demand for consumer surveys disappeared, so did her promised job. Maria Hernandez of East Harlem, a single mother of one, used to get by on food pantry goods and subminimum wages from working in Manhattan’s garment factories. Now, though, “I’ve gone to look, there’s no jobs,” she said. “None.” First fired and not likely to be hired—such is the state of low-wage workers, like restaurant and hotel staff, janitors, sales clerks, factory workers.

The Independent Budget Office soon plans to release an estimate of how post-September 11 hardship will expand the city’s welfare rolls, but it doesn’t take an economist to know public assistance is becoming increasingly vital. The direct loss of jobs due to the trade center collapse has been put at about 110,000, the indirect impact incalculable. Mark Levitan of Community Service Society guessed there would be “tens of thousands” more people needing welfare. For now, the IBO’s Doug Turetsky offers the grim numbers from the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s: a rise from 671,000 in December 1990 to 859,000 in December 1994.

The looming clamor for public assistance raises the stakes on the system’s existing problems. Giuliani’s infamous slash-and-burn welfare-cutting policies bred resentment and fear in some parts of the city. Before he had disaster response, one of his biggest boasts was having cut 600,000 people from the welfare rolls.

Just before September 11, the hot topic among welfare advocates had been the city’s plans to force recipients maxing out on federal benefits to reapply for the state’s supplemental program, when the city had the option of automatically transferring them. “Given all the chaos now, it would be criminal,” Levitan said, to force a complicated reapplication process. And yet, even though the trade center disaster had much of the human resource agency’s computer system down for days, Arnette Wooten of Brownsville received her “time is running out” letter, dated September 19. Approximately 38,000 families—two-thirds of the affected are children—stand to get the same note, terrorism or no terrorism.

Wooten, 40, the mother of seven children under the age of 10, complained that the letter gave no details or instructions, only an ominous warning. “I just want to know what’s going on. But none of the workers at the public assistance center know. Even the supervisors don’t know. So why do they send letters to people, just torturing them?” Wooten asked. The benefits she stands to lose: $377 a month, for a family of seven.

Then there are those who have labored and pumped money into the local economy for years, but can’t apply for the help they need now. Undocumented workers are not eligible for welfare, food stamps, or unemployment insurance, and there are complicated conditions even for immigrants with papers. Some of the immediate disaster relief—from the Red Cross, for instance—has been available regardless of status. And Asociación Tepeyac—a tiny migrant workers’ agency whose large media presence in recent days speaks to the dearth of groups serving the undocumented—is raising funds and providing other services on behalf of the least visible victims.

But at the city’s Family Assistance Center on Pier 94, where all relevant city and state agencies offered disaster-related services, the prevailing sentiment was: “If they’re not documented, we’re not helping,” according to José Peralta of the Central Labor Council. Until CLC and others complained, he said, the INS table had stood right at the entrance, and its staff were informing other agencies’ workers that the undocumented were ineligible for any kind of aid.

“Whether we have a nightmare scenario of increased homelessness and hunger depends on the city leadership,” said Levitan. Advocates wondered last week whether previous trends restricting access to public assistance would continue. (A federal judge had to order the Giuliani administration to provide food stamps, an entirely federal expense.) And they questioned whether public resources needed by the poor would go instead toward corporate bailouts and rebuilding costs. In fact, Giuliani’s policies aside, the welfare system has “historically been an area where many administrations tried to save money,” Turetsky said.

Worries over public assistance extend to the federal level, as next September’s debates over reauthorizing the 1996 welfare laws draw closer. Analyst Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in D.C. said, “I would be fairly pessimistic” about federal dollars going toward the poor. He cited the September 25 decision of a House Ways and Means subcommittee nixing a “relatively small” $200 million increase for a program to help abused children. “The subcommittee said, we can’t afford it,” said Primus. “What they’re going to give unemployed workers is very little at all.”

The contrast to what could be saddens some. “The city did an amazing job marshaling emergency support for those affected by the catastrophe,” said one food service provider. “Why can’t that happen in other times in dealing with poverty?” Recent weeks saw the kinder side of a hard-nosed mayor and stereotypically callous New Yorkers, but antipoverty advocates worry that everyday need will not get the same priority as terrorism-related need. “We’re frightened about our individual donors, because so much is being given downtown, understandably,” said Ambers of Yorkville Common Pantry. “We hope that our contributors will remember us at the end of the year.” At St. John’s Bread and Life in Bushwick, one of the city’s largest emergency food providers, director Larry Gile said the response to an annual September fundraising drive was down by 50 percent.

But welfare recipient Wooten suggested overall tough times could spur a new understanding for the poor. “Somebody might think he was all high and mighty before,” she said, but “he might be on public assistance now.”

Reporting assistance: Whitney Kassel