As he runs for president, Bill de Blasio emphasizes his record as New York City mayor, trying to make the case that he is prepared to take on difficult issues as president.
During an appearance on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, de Blasio was asked about income inequality in New York City.
"We’ve made a huge amount of progress in New York," he said. "We’ve lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty in the last five years."
De Blasio is asking Democratic primary voters to consider his record as evidence of his effectiveness, and we wondered, have "hundreds of thousands of people" in New York City been lifted out of poverty in the last five years, as he claims?
We approached his campaign for evidence of his claim, and spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie provided us with a report from the city.
The report, released in May, is the New York City Government Poverty Measurement 2017, which is prepared by the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity.
The report originated a decade ago under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2008, using a proposal from the National Academy of Sciences, the city developed a more comprehensive methodology for measuring poverty. It measures poverty differently than the U.S. Census Bureau's official poverty measure. By accounting for more costs of living -- such as housing, child care and medical expenses -- the city found more people living in poverty than the federal government reported, both when the measure began and in the city’s most recent report.
Bloomberg’s efforts "created a far more realistic view of life in the city," the New York Times’ editorial board wrote in 2008. The standards and methods set during the Bloomberg administration have continued under de Blasio, according to Kristin Morse, who worked on the poverty measure under Bloomberg and now is executive director of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.
"I don’t think there is any question that this is an effective way to measure poverty," Morse said.
The city’s methodology also counts as income the value of benefits such as food and heating assistance.
The city this year reported there were 236,500 fewer people in poverty or near poverty in 2017 than if the poverty rate remained at the 2013 level. De Blasio took office in 2014.
The percentage of New Yorkers in poverty declined from 20.7 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2017, according to the city. That's roughly 140,000 fewer people in poverty, using the city's definition of poverty. Declines were evident across demographic subgroups, such as race and ethnicity, educational attainment and geography, but not all subgroups. The poverty rate between 2013 and 2017 also decreased, according to the Census Bureau’s official poverty measure for New York City.
The city defines "near poverty" as those living at 150 percent of the New York City poverty threshold or below. The city’s poverty threshold in 2017 was $33,562 for a two-adult, two-child family. The near-poverty threshold is $50,343. The near-poverty rate dropped from 45.9 percent in 2013 to 43.1 percent in 2017, according to the city.
The city cited rising wages, especially for low-wage workers, as one reason for the decrease. From 2013 to 2017, the minimum wage increased from $7.25 to $11 an hour. Not captured in this report are the effects from an hourly minimum wage of $15, which took effect in 2019.
We got in touch with six experts who study poverty, many of whom work in New York City, and all agreed that poverty in New York City has dropped. They also did not raise any specific objections with the way New York City measures poverty; indeed, some praised the city’s methodology. They also said that the city’s findings on poverty rates are in line with their own research or with other measures they have studied.
But some experts questioned whether de Blasio could take credit. How can you measure how city policies help people out of poverty, they asked, noting that poverty rates are falling across the country.
Indeed, the poverty rate nationally using the U.S. Census Bureau’s official poverty measure and its supplemental poverty measure have fallen steadily between 2014, the year de Blasio took office, and 2017.
Greg Acs, vice president for income and benefits policy at the Urban Institute, said many factors affect the poverty rate, such as food stamp benefits and the earned income tax credit, both federal programs. New York’s local initiatives also help, such as a higher minimum wage and universal pre-K, Acs said. But he warned that it’s a "strong claim" that the city’s actions led to poverty reductions.
Morse said de Blasio’s initiatives are significant, and named paid leave, universal pre-K, and an increase in the minimum wage. The minimum wage increases were advocated by grassroots and labor organizers, strongly supported by de Blasio and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But a huge part of the falling poverty rate is the strong economy, she said.
Harold Stolper, the chief economist at the Community Service Society of New York, a research and advocacy organization for low-income people, said "the city has done a lot in recent years to improve the economic prospects for the neediest New Yorkers," but that it’s difficult to isolate the effects of those from other factors.
De Blasio credits his administration’s push for universal pre-kindergarten for helping families control their childcare costs. Other policies -- paid sick leave, housing programs, and improving access to social service benefits -- help low-income families, according to his administration. This year, the city also implemented discounts on public transportation, which help people get to work cheaper.
The city’s poverty measure is one way to evaluate how life has changed for low-income people, said Robert Hawkins, associate professor in poverty studies at New York University. But he also pointed to the city’s homeless population, which has been on the rise, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
"To say we’ve reached this number is a good talking point, but to impact people’s lives, we have to unpack poverty, it’s more than a number," Hawkins said.
De Blasio said his administration has "lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty in the last five years."
His administration’s methodology in measuring poverty, recognized as effective, calculated that there were 236,500 fewer people in poverty or near poverty in 2017 because the poverty rate was lower than in 2013. But his statement didn't include the term "near poverty." He said poverty. And even using the city's definition of who qualifies as poor, there are roughly 140,000 fewer poor people in New York City today under the declining poverty rate. That's not hundreds of thousands.
What's more, the federal poverty rate has been falling nationally, and the city has enjoyed a robust economy during de Blasio’s tenure. While the city has implemented and supported initiatives that help low-income people, experts are skeptical that his policies lifted all of those people out of poverty as his use of the word "we" suggests.
We rate his claim Half True.