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A Hard-Earned Life

Robert with his children at his former girlfriend's house.  

In a city that worships wealth, it’s not easy to be on the bottom of the income ladder, or even close to the bottom. Home-health aides, retail workers, security guards, day-care providers, dishwashers, cashiers, couriers, nannies, stock clerks—these are among the poorest-paid professions in the city. The story of the city’s changing economy is well known: In recent decades, the number of manufacturing jobs has shrunk, and the service industry has expanded, so while it’s possible to find a job without a college degree, it’s hard to find one that pays a livable wage.

These days, 20 percent of the city—one of every five New Yorkers—lives below the poverty line. Robert makes about $20,000 a year, which puts him above this threshold. (For a single adult living alone, the poverty line is $10,160; for an adult with two kids, it’s $15,735.) But even a family that manages to stay just above the poverty line is undeniably poor, especially in New York City, where this yardstick for poverty is laughably low. The federal poverty line does not take into account an area’s cost of living; it’s set at the same level for rural Oklahoma as it is for Manhattan.

As Robert makes his rounds at work, he’s surrounded by people who earn more than he does. It’s not just the politicians and government workers filing in and out of the Municipal Building or the lawyers heading into State Supreme Court, it’s other officers, too—those in the NYPD, of course, as well as the guys in the tan uniforms outside the Immigration office. They’re security guards, but since they work for a federal agency, they have to be paid at least $13.99 an hour. Even the janitors who clean the Municipal Building make $13.51 an hour—35 percent more than Robert earns.

Statistics don’t begin to convey what it feels like to hover near the bottom of the city’s economic ladder. It’s about feeling invisible, forgotten, and utterly replaceable. It’s about walking past restaurants you can never afford to go to, passing by stores with clothes you’ll never be able to buy, and, in Robert’s case, riding the 6 train home, passing beneath one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, perhaps seated in the same car with a woman whose wedding ring cost more than his annual salary.

Every week, Robert thinks about leaving the city, moving somewhere upstate where life is less expensive. As Robert puts it, “To be in New York, you have to be a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, a celebrity. The lower and working class are out of the picture. If you don’t fall into one of these categories, New York is not the place for you.”

Robert gets paid every two weeks, and on this Friday, his paycheck after taxes totaled $676. He couldn’t afford to wait for the check to clear in his bank account, so he stopped by a check-cashing place and paid a fee of $11. After work, he went to a horror movie in the East Village. Going to the movies was his favorite way to treat himself, though he couldn’t afford to go often. The ticket, plus a hot dog and soda, cost $19. After five days of waking up at 4 A.M., he was so exhausted that he fell asleep in the theater.

Over the weekend, Robert took care of his most urgent expenses first. He gave $200 to the mother of his children, $40 to his father, and $62 to the cell-phone company. To replenish his worn-out wardrobe, he spent nearly $150, buying four shirts and two pairs of jeans at Conway and a pair of boots at Payless. For food, he stopped at the 99-cent store on the corner and picked up his usual meals: Ramen noodles (five packs for 99 cents). He bought a $10 MetroCard, and he paid back two co-workers—he’d borrowed $15 from one and $5 from another.

By Monday, Robert had only $150 left and eleven days to go until the next payday. On other Mondays after payday, he’d been in worse shape, down to $100. His plan, as always, was to hold on to as much of his money for as long as possible.

Some pay periods, when he felt slightly more flush, Robert tried to tackle his debt. He had stopped using his two credit cards a while ago, but he still owed $4,331.03 on one card and $395.92 on the other. The cards were so old he couldn’t remember everything he’d bought with them. He did try to pay them off every now and then—he’d paid $12 toward the larger debt last month—but because of late fees and interest rates, the amounts on the cards kept growing.