It is 176 years since Charles Dickens, the journalist, social reformer and novelist, was horrified by the depth of poverty when he came to visit the Five Points Section, of “Gangs of New York” fame, in lower Manhattan.
Today, Dickens would find a relatively gentrified but stratified Manhattan, where according to the United Way over a third of the residents live in poverty or struggle week to week. On Staten Island, the non-profit estimates the middle class is barely holding on, with 44 percent of households either in poverty or one unexpected expense away from difficult choices.
This story first appeared at Salon.com.
In Brooklyn, it is just over half that are struggling, with 51 percent living below the poverty line or check to check. In Queens, it is 57 percent. While in the Bronx almost three-quarters of the families struggle to varying degrees to cover shelter and the basics.
New York City’s deepening crisis in affordability manifests itself in the ranks of 63,000 homeless people, including close to 16,000 families with 23,136 children, according to the Coalition For the Homeless.
This Christmas season, just blocks away from what was Five Points, at the Chamber Street Subway Station, the homeless, many of them in bad physical condition, sit for hours seeking sanctuary from the winter cold. One elderly homeless man was reduced to shuffling along, with a plastic bag on one foot so as to keep dry open sores on one foot. Another sat in a wheelchair with his entire upper body covered with a blanket in the midst of the morning rush hour.
According to Dickens biographer Robert McNamara, the British novelist wrote the “Christmas Carol” as a “protest” because he felt “a strong need to comment on the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.”
In 21st century New York City, while tens of thousands are without shelter one survey found close to 75,000 apartments are vacant listed as in “seasonal, recreational, or occasional use.”
For years New York City, which is the rookery where Wall Street’s vulture capitalists roost, has drawn billions of dollars of ‘hot’ money that’s invested in luxury housing for the world’s dictators and global miscreants.
If Dickens was agitated by the wealth inequality in his own time and place, can you imagine what he might say about both the unprecedented income disparities that exist in America as a whole and in New York particularly?
According to a recent national survey by the Economic Policy Institute, the average income of the top one percent in the Empire State is $2,202,489 while the average income for the bottom 99 percent is $49,617.
Research by economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson indicates that there’s no historic precedent for America’s rapidly widening income inequality. Indeed, based on their research, the current inequality may eclipse the level that in Victorian England Dickens railed against.