The city’s painfully slow economic recovery has left The Bronx with the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state and more than 60% of residents on Medicaid amid a growing resurgence of COVID-19.
The state Labor Department reported last week that the unemployment rate in The Bronx had declined to 17.5% in October from 18.6% in September.
By comparison, the unemployment rate in Brooklyn and Queens is just over 13% while Manhattan and Staten Island have fallen below 11%. The highest rate for a non-city county in the state is Westchester with 7%
“The COVID-19 epidemic has held up a mirror to the deepest inequalities in America and to systemic racism,” said City Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), whom voters recently elected to represent the South Bronx in Congress. “And The Bronx is ground zero for both.”
The Bronx, like the rest of the city, has seen an increase in coronavirus cases, with significant portions of the borough designated yellow zones as new restrictions loom across New York.
The borough also was originally hit hardest economically because it has the highest percentage of workers in face-to-face industries shut down at the height of the pandemic and in industries that have struggled to rebound, like tourism and restaurants. It also has the lowest percentage of employees who can work remotely.
‘More Intense in The Bronx’
The high jobless rate has led to a growing food insecurity crisis.
A recent survey by Public Health Solutions painted a dire picture with 20% of Bronx respondents having applied for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the last month, compared to 13% of all respondents citywide. One in 10 Bronx residents had visited a food pantry or soup kitchen in the previous month and 15% said their chief concern was getting enough food to eat.
The number of SNAP recipients in The Bronx jumped by 69,000 between February and September, according to data released last week by City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Many fear a housing crisis when the moratorium on pandemic-related evictions is eventually lifted. The nonprofit BronxWorks says it has seen a sharp increase in residents accumulating large amounts of unpaid rent.
“Whatever’s happening in The Bronx, it’s happening all over America,” Juan Nuñez, a tenant organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition recently told Retro Report. “But it’s always more intense in The Bronx. Always.”
New York Tenants Are Organizing Against Evictions, as They Did in the Great Depression | Retro Report
Anticipating a massive wave of evictions when the federal and state bans are lifted in January, housing activists in The Bronx are taking action. They’re pushing to extend the eviction ban until the pandemic is over, organizing tenants, and seeking rent relief. Housing activism in the Bronx has a deep history dating back to the Great Depression, when neighbors banded together to resist landlords’ efforts to displace them. That struggle helped highlight issues and inform policies around affordable housing that continue to this day.
This video is a collaboration between Retro Report and THE CITY and part of the reporting project Hitting Home, that examines the process and impact of evictions, providing historical context for the nation’s persistent lack of affordable, safe housing.
Stringer, who is running for mayor, also found that since February, the number of Bronx residents on Medicaid has jumped by 89,000 or 11% to a total of 885,000.
About 63% of Bronx residents are on Medicaid, compared with an average of 45% in Brooklyn and Queens, 33% in Staten Island and fewer than three in 10 in Manhattan.
A health crisis is also building. Lower-income people in the Bronx are delaying their own care, according to Lisa David, president of Public Health Solutions, a nonprofit operating in The Bronx and other boroughs.
Time to ‘Keep Fighting’
COVID and the ensuing related crises struck, local leaders point out, just as The Bronx was coming off a promising 2019.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has noted the borough’s unemployment rate stood at a record low 4.4% late last year. He recently released a report showing $4 billion was invested into development in the borough last year, a sign of “what The Bronx could become again after we rebound from this global pandemic.”
Torres, meanwhile, has a list of steps Washington could take to help The Bronx as the impending arrival of the Biden administration raises hopes of significant help for New York.
The federal government should put people back to work through a New Deal-like public works program and massive infrastructure program, he said.
In addition, Torres wants an improved earned income tax credit, hazard pay for essential workers and improved unemployment benefits.
“We need to put more income in the pockets of people whose spending would have an impact on the economy,” said Torres, who will replace retiring longtime Rep. José Serrano to represent what was declared the nation’s poorest Congressional district after the 2010 Census.
Torres’ top priority is expanding the child tax credit, which he called regressive. That’s because the benefit of up to $2,000 per child can be claimed by married taxpayers making up to $400,000 and single taxpayers up to $200,000, while people who owe no federal income tax can collect only $1,400.
But Torres recognizes that the slim Democratic majority in the House and either Republican control or a razor thin margin in a Democratic Senate means limits on progressive legislation.
“I have no illusions about the challenges of gridlock and divided government. Even if Democrats win the Senate the filibuster is likely to remain in place,” he said. “I have no choice but to keep fighting because the stakes are existential for the Bronx and for New York City.”