Tue, Sep 20, 2011 - Page 9 News List

A divided New York reflects a divided US

A census report has shown that at least 46 million people in the US live in poverty. But few places so sharply illustrate the nation’s wealth gap as the South Bronx and the Upper East Side

By Paul Harris  /  The Observer, NEW YORK

Illustration: Yusha

They are barely 1.6km apart, separated by a few gritty streets and a thin muddy stretch of water known as the Harlem River. They are in the same city and have experienced the same recession, but New Yorkers living in the city’s 14th and 16th congressional districts — electoral districts with populations of around 600,000 each — often occupy completely different worlds. Their lives provide a shocking example of growing inequality in the US, where the rich are leaving a growing mass of the poor completely behind.

The numbers are stark enough. Last week, a census report revealed that 46 million Americans live in poverty, the highest number ever recorded. At the same time, the richest 20 percent of Americans control 84 percent of the country’s wealth. Indeed, just 400 families have the same net worth as the total of the bottom 50 percent. The US’ Gini coefficient — which measures inequality of income distribution — now nears that of Rwanda.

The Gini figure is just a number, but to walk the streets of the 14th and 16th districts is to see that story of growing inequality in terms of people, living almost next to each other but separated by education, job prospects, health, race and class.

The 14th occupies a chunk of Manhattan and Queens. Not all of it is wealthy, but at its heart lies the Upper East Side, by Central Park, a neighborhood that is home to New York’s moneyed classes. It is here that the titans of finance, whose recklessness brought on the near collapse of the US economy, live and play. They raise their families in gigantic apartments, send their children to the best private schools and patronize the pricey bistros that dot the street corners. Old money New York has long considered the Upper East Side its natural home, viewing Central Park as its backyard and Manhattan as a private playground.

The same cannot be said of the 16th. That district spans the South Bronx. It has been occupied by waves of immigrants, now mainly Hispanics from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, plus black Americans heading out of the south or fleeing higher rents in gentrifying Harlem. It is rife with gangs, drugs and crime.

Well-paid jobs are scarce. To travel between the two districts is go from a world of unimaginable luxury to one of fear and poverty. It takes about 10 minutes on the subway.

Felix Santiago, 51, has certainly felt the impact of the great recession on the 16th district. He arrived from Puerto Rico 30 years ago and made a home when the neighborhood was scarred by the drug epidemic and racial troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. Now he sees it going downhill again.

“If you live in this neighborhood, you are poor. If you try to be middle class, you just can’t do it,” he said.

Santiago has tried. He works as a handyman in a local church; his daughter joined the US Marines. However, he struggles as rents and food prices go up. He shook his head at the idea that the US economy has recovered since the financial crisis. In the South Bronx, he said, it is still getting worse.

“I think this year has been the real critical one. There is no work. Prices are going up. It is getting ridiculous,” he said.

Life is definitely hard in the 16th compared with the 14th. Life expectancy is three years lower in the South Bronx than on the Upper East Side. The median household income of US$23,000 in the 16th is barely above the official poverty level. In the South Bronx, nearly 40 percent of people live below the poverty line; in the 14th, the figure is less than 10 percent.

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