Tag Archives: New York

Harlem’s Extreme Version of The Welfare State

I met “Danny” and “Keisha” in the Jackie Robinson Park at 145th and Bradhurst, in Harlem, where they were hanging out with Keisha’s four year old daughter, and their nephew, who is two, on their day off from work. Danny works in demolition, Keisha is a dental tech in a dental office in Manhattan. To my surprise, they agreed to talk with me, though both were adamant: “No names, no pictures, no videos!”.

Danny is a tall, lanky, energetic young man, dressed in typical ghetto gear; baggy pants showing boxers, baseball hat on backwards, white undershirt, tattoos, chained wallet – who spent much of the visit alternating between chasing Keisha’s daughter through the playground equipment and sitting and telling stories.

He is gregarious and sassy, in marked contrast to his girlfriend, who is quiet, polite, and sits still as stone on the park bench beside me, considering each answer with care, and seldom showing much emotion beyond a gentle smile. In their early twenties, they both graduated from local high schools and have lived in Harlem their whole lives, though Danny has done some traveling and is interested in the idea of moving elsewhere. Keisha is Harlem through and through, loves New York, has only been across the river to New Jersey a few times – other than that, she has spent her life here in Harlem, and has no interest in moving.

Asked about welfare, they give me the same response I have heard many places this summer – first they say they only get food stamps. Then, they mention that the kids get free meals at school. Then they mention that they have the free cell phones they get for qualifying for welfare. Then they say, “Oh, yeah, I have the Medicaid card”, and then finally, yes, they do live in subsidized housing as a matter of fact.

I can’t tell if it is willful lying, or just a lack of understanding that all these programs are part of a vast entitlement system that subsidizes their entire lives, from cradle to grave. I certainly find myself wondering how many people don’t really consider any of these programs welfare programs. Indeed, Danny and Keisha think they are entitled to them in the true sense of the word entitled: to “Give (someone) a legal right or a just claim to receive or do something.” When asked about each program, their reply is “Well, I need it, I can’t do it on my own, so New York needs to take care of me.” They don’t have any concept of the difference between federal and state and local programs, though they do understand that there is quite a bit of overlap, and some ‘needs’ are met by overlapping offices (housing, for example, can be provided through either HUD (federal) housing vouchers, or through programs provided by the city of New York).

Once we started talking about fraud and abuse in the system, things really got interesting, and this is when I realized that  New Yorkers really do master everything they do, whether it is money making on Wall Street or money taking in the ghetto (though some might argue that both are ‘takings’).  Whereas elsewhere in the country food stamp recipients sell their food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar, here in New York food stamp recipients go to grocery stores, find people with full grocery carts, and negotiate what the buyer will pay for the food stamps, usually seventy cents on the dollar. As Danny said “You a FOOL if you’re paying full price for groceries, lady, when you can get instant 30% off just by using someone’s food stamps! Why would you do that? You stupid?”… Why would I do that? Food for thought!

As for health care, whereas in other parts of the country people hide income and assets to get on medicaid and medicare, here in New York people just pay medicaid card holders to borrow their ID cards, and go to the doctor with other people’s cards, so one medicaid account might be covering medical care for several people. Housing? Well, here in New York people rent out their HUD subsidized housing and take the money and go live elsewhere, in nicer neighborhoods.

You almost feel a grudging respect for these New Yorkers, who have taken gaming the system to the nth degree. I mean, frankly, you have to admire their gumption, right? But  given the population of New York City (eight million people and climbing) and the number of people involved, the cost of their creativity comes at a shockingly high cost to us all.

New York City and Famed Harlem – A Daunting Challenge

If you ever want to experience culture shock without leaving the USA, do what I did next – get on a plane from the sunny, open, blue sky country of Colorado, fly to New York City, and land in the middle of a torrential summer downpour, with traffic stalled, horns blazing, and angry faces everywhere. It is hard to believe the two can exist on the same planet, let alone in the same country.

Once I’d recovered from the change of scenery and culture, I spent a couple of days orienting myself to the city, especially my new neighborhood, Harlem. If Native American tribes think they have cornered the market on unique culture and identity, New Yorkers are worthy competitors. And I say this because it turns out that everything that can be said about what happens in New York City is said because it is New York City.

With a population of over eight million people, more than double the next largest US city (L.A.), New Yorkers have had to learn to survive in ways that the rest of us can’t even imagine – trash collection and food procurement being the most obvious daily challenges, on top of housing and transportation and obtaining even the most rudimentary of services. As Charles Murray noted in his recent book, “Coming Apart”, Manhattan is one notable home of the ‘superzip’ culture, but outside that bubble of wealth live millions of New Yorkers who are barely scraping by.

While Harlem is no longer the crime and crack capital of the city it once was, taxi drivers still balk mightily at delivering passengers there, and I was persistently warned to watch my back, hug my purse, count my change, and hide my house key till I’d scoped the block – and this not only from neighbors on the block, but store keepers and street vendors as well. Stores are secured with bars on the windows and heavy locking gates, and homeless sleep on park benches during the day or wander the streets, some yelling at passerby, others sifting through trash cans for food, and cans and bottles to trade in for cash. There is some gentrification, but there is a long way to go.

I chose a local park with playgrounds to hang out in, in hopes of meeting families with children. Sure enough, the parks had plenty of families hanging out, even during the workday, but I was not particularly successful. Unlike Americans in most places I’ve visited so far, locals here have little interest in talking to strangers, and in fact become fairly agressive if approached.

Starting with the staff at the free local swimming pool at the Jackie Robinson Community center, who insisted I tour the building with an escort, I had a series of rather dispiriting encounters. The escort rushed me through the pool facility in short order and then showed me the door, a middle-aged woman started yelling at me and chased me out of the adjacent park, and a friendly looking family pointedly showed me the ‘Park Rules’ stating only parents can be in the playgrounds, no other adults allowed, indicating I should head out.

I got the message loud and clear: I would need to be creative and agressive to have any chance of talking to people. Finally, after a discouraging couple of days, I came across a family of four willing to talk at length.