INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: One Social Worker's View of Aging Black on Life’s Margins

INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: One Social Worker's View of Aging Black on Life’s Margins

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Photo: Canned goods offered at many pantries contribute to seniors’ diabetes and high blood pressure.

Part 2 of an ongoing series. 
Read Part 1.
“… Gunplay is sharply segregated, with residents of East New York, Brooklyn, dodging bullets with a regularity that would be incomprehensible to upper East Siders." --New York Daily News, May 2012

"East New York is not a neighborhood of yoga studios, trendy coffee shops and pet grooming spas – yet. However real estate developers who have been eyeing the area, which offers affordable real estate prices and easy access to mass transit and major highways, may soon change that."  --AmNewYork, September 2015

NEW YORK--The news accounts and official stats were on this writer's mind when he interviewed Jacqueline Jones. Both a scholar and community activist, she lives in Brooklyn’s East New York community and works in comparably impoverished Brownsville.

Jones, who has several college degrees, has been a professional caregiver for more than 14 years working for city government agencies and nonprofits. Her community activism, caregiving

No Community Boost Is
Likely From Gentrification

Despite anticipation that gentrification is on the horizon for Brooklyn’s East New York, community social workers Jacqueline Jones doesn't believe it will ever happen. "Gentrification is not coming in,” she said.

She believes East New York won’t attract “the big bucks investing and the Starbucks and the big corporations following behind them coming in. Plus, the kind of people that are coming in to the community, these are also marginalized individuals," she reiterated. "People that were formally homeless, people that were in mental institutions, formerly incarcerated, all low income, that are coming home."

"It's more of the same that are being dumped into areas like Brownsville, as opposed to a Flatbush, a Crown Heights where I grew up, where you have yuppies coming in starting businesses and the big businesses following them into these neighborhoods," she said.

Jones emphasized, “Big investors get big tax cuts from the city and build supportive housing, but the people whom they're bringing in are pretty much not from the community. This would have been an opportunity to actually give people in the neighborhood an opportunity to live in these brand new buildings since they've been here through years of living in substandard conditions," often being ripped off by slumlords.

“That's not happening and the politicians that are giving out all these lands are very rude about it," she stated.

"They're not really informing the community [about the future consequences], and the community's not really asking questions or feel they don't have a voice to ask these questions, like, what are we suppose to be getting out of all this? Absolutely nothing. It's not really being beneficial to the community."

--Gregg Morris

experience, scholarship and research led this writer to believe that she could provide a pragmatic assessment and down-to-earth insights about elders’ struggles for adequate income, housing and healthy food.

Only days before our interview, Jacqueline Jones (who asked not to include her real name) was mugged by a teenager. The violence had stunned her, momentarily challenging her equanimity.

"Social work can be dirty business too, especially the business of social work," said Jones. She started her career, she said, "giving direct service as a case manager, case planner, where I'm dealing one-on-one with a client."

Marginalized Communities

Jones began her career working with clients who had AIDS or were HIV positive. "I saw a lot of death," she recalled. Now she works primarily with seniors, although one of her professional goals is to deal more with troubled youth, like the one who attacked her.

The East New York and Brownsville neighborhoods have a lot of problems, she said. Speaking bluntly, Jones explained that one of those difficulties "has to do with the fact that these communities and their individuals are marginalized. When you talk about elderly people, now--who are currently living there--many were probably, sorry to say, doing drugs during their prime of life. So they've never really worked nor had savings, the pensions, and even the Social Security tax and all of that stuff to get any type of real benefit later on" for their retirement years.

"All they're getting is the very minimum from the federal government, which is [Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)], because more than likely they fit because of some type of disability, whether it's medical, or mental. I think the minimum is $733." Or they receive similarly low Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for very low-income people.

Those who worked as "home attendants, for example, or they worked off the books, they still don't have any savings and they still don't have any real pension or money from the government," Jones said. "They have a very substandard form of living. The maximum they can likely get is $194 a month for food stamps” plus their SSDI or SSI payments.

The average one bedroom apartment can cost $1,100, $1,200, Jones estimated, "and that's in East New York and Brownsville. There's no way they can afford to live like that. They can't do anything with that money so they depend on being subsidized by the city.”

She added, “They are not eating out. They are absolutely dependent on pantry. That is how I spend my day, is to make sure that I find pantries where people can go to supplement their income.”

Jones noted, “Even with $733, they have to pay rent, they have to pay utilities, they have to pay copay for health insurance, so by the time it's the end of the month there is no money. Pantry is vital."

Yet, because of the snail-like recovery of the economy, pantries in East New York and Brownsville have been getting substantially smaller donations from charities as they have in the past.

Canned Pantry Food and Poor Health

"It's really still the black churches that are still giving food to these communities in the form of pantries. What exactly are they giving? Canned goods," she said. Yet, the sodium in can foods for elderly seniors can be harmful. "They're not eating properly at this stage in their lives where they really should be. Diabetes and high blood pressure become issues for them."

"The circumstances just add on top of each other and that is why we have the socioeconomic situation we have in Brownsville and you see in East New York. Because no one really adequately addressed the different pieces that create the problem, that is, the substandard living of so many, or they don't know how to fix things because there's so many layers of the problem," Jones said.

She does not let the complexity of the problems distract her from focusing on what she is suppose to do for her nonprofit service agency. "I am just dealing with a specific subgroup of Brownsville, for example. I can't really touch the whole problem, just a part. I have to do that because, if I

Statistics Reveal Hard Living

Overall, low-income Brooklyn residents told researchers of leading very stressful lives. Key informants and focus-group participants of one study described lacking healthy food and green space, not having adequate community programs and funding for needed services. Health providers described delayed care and low expectations.

Research also revealed severe limits to employment opportunities, housing (in increasingly short supply with the gentrification of many Brooklyn neighborhoods), safety, and appropriate resources for the young.

The 2014 “Final Report,” from the New York City Health Provider Partnership Brooklyn Community Needs Assessment (CNA), examined life in the Brownsville, Coney Island and East New York neighborhoods.

Community members and providers that participated in the CNA clearly recognized the impact that poverty and lack of community resources have on health and well-being. A number of African American communities report poor access to services. Immigrant communities reported workdays often of 16 hours or more.

Demographically, East New York is 52 percent Black, 37 percent Hispanic, 3 percent White, and 2 percent Other, according to stats on The life expectancy is 77.7. The life expectancy a few miles away in Borough Park is 83.5.

Assuming that the death rates from the five neighborhoods with the highest income are achievable in East New York and Starrett City, it is estimated that 40 percent of deaths that have occurred in East New York could have been avoided. The injury assault rate in East New York is almost twice the citywide level.

Drug, and, or, alcohol-related hospitalizations reflect acute and chronic consequences of substance misuse. In East New York and Starrett City, hospitalization rates due to drug or alcohol-related admissions are higher in East New York than the rates elsewhere in Brooklyn or the rest of New York City.

Death rates due to homicide and HIV are more than twice the citywide rates.

----Gregg Morris

don't, then at some point I can feel that I'm not being effective if I go in with a very broad and grand view of the problem and the solution. Just gnawing away at a little piece and being happy with the impact and seeing that success, I'm at peace with that for now."

"I remember when I started working for the city,” Jones continued. “I also was responsible for getting people public assistance, you know, their benefits, and they'd come in and I would see generations of families that have been in the system. No kind of shame, no kind of, ‘I'm trying to get out of where I am.’ Instead, ‘I'm here to add my daughter, or I'm here to add my daughter's daughter; I'm here to add this one, that one, and the third.’"

The Young Need Older Activists’ Spirit

"You see generations of them and you see this life of living marginally on $194 and $733, and, probably, many doing illegal stuff to supplement their income because there's no way that they can live on that. They gotta' find the money," she said.

"Petty crimes are what they do to supplement income," she continued "We do not agree with it, but they're not going to go hungry either. If they can't get it the legal way, they're going to get it other ways. Obviously I don't agree with their rationale, but I can understand it."

"You also have situations where people are severely mentally ill, not being diagnosed, not really getting treatment. Those needs not being met, and, of course, substance abuse where all those needs are not being met. There are also a lot of shelters in Brownsville and East New York. There is already a population that is marginalized and they [city government and officials] are putting even more marginalized people in. It just adds to the problem: Marginalized individuals being put into a community that's already marginalized. I know agencies and officials] feel like they're helping, but they're making the problem worse because there are no other resources coming in."

Away from her job, she goes after issues that irritate her--like the lack of garbage cans allowing unsanitary conditions, or burned out street lights near her subway stop leaving the area extremely dark at night and vulnerable to crime.

What’s more, Jones asserted, "With all the money that they spent to do this reconstruction, they didn't spend anything on elevators," as part of the transit agency’s major renovation project. "I work with seniors. It's an issue for them. They want to complain about it, so I'm trying to get them to have a meeting at our site and I can invite as much people in the neighborhood as possible because they're riled up."

Jones said, "One of my clients was in the Attica Riots. He tells me stories all the time. A couple were in the [Black] Panther movement and got arrested for it, spent a lot of time in jail. They still have that spirit in them," she said, noting, that kind of spirit that's missing with much of the rest of the population. Her clients, she stressed, “have this, I'll-beat-you-with-my-cane kind of attitude." Too many of the younger generation well below retirement age have been apathetic, she said.

For some reason, she continued, the rebellious spirit of the '60s and '70s generations was not passed on. There are youth who will "beat you to a pulp" for stepping on their $300 or $400 sneakers, but are incapable of confronting the forces marginalizing their neighborhoods.

"Where are they going to go? Where are they going to live? They can't work because they have no skills, and even if they did try to get one, they couldn't because they've had all those stints in jail. The priority is just not there for them to become involve in their communities. It's not there," she said.

Equanimity to Balance Anger

Nevertheless, Jones said, there are young people in their early 30s, born in the area who see what their community needs. "We've gone through our education system and we see the benefits and we're trying to get more people involved," she said.

Jones imagines operating her own nonprofit agency in the area. This writer brought up her account of her mugging. "I wanted to kill that 16-year-old boy, and then I went through my process, as they say in social work. That was just me being angry for a couple of days." Her equanimity had returned in full force at the time of her interview.

"I really thought about it. I look at it initially like, that's the population that I would try to save. The elderly, we can give them the resources to live a comfortable life, but if we don't really deal with this new generation, then we continue to have the same crap where they're either making minimum wage, so they're not really having a quality of life now, and they're definitely not going to have it later on" because of thinking that Social Security probably won't be there by the time they come of age.

"You continue the same stuff and you continue the same legacy of marginalization," she said.

Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by a journalism fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.