May 29, 2024

Addressing NYC’s Poverty Surge: Insights from the Poverty Tracker (Pt 2)

Welcome to "This Robin Hood Moment" with your hosts Crystal Cooper and Kevin Thompson. In this episode, we center the voices and experiences of those directly impacted by the recent surge in poverty across New York City, illuminated by the stark findings of Robin Hood’s annual Poverty Tracker report. With guests Greg Silverman, CEO of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and Robert Cordero, CEO of Grand Street Settlement, we embark on a journey to hear how both of these organizations have become beacons of hope for low-income New Yorkers.

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Listen to Part 1 of our podcast on the 2024 Annual Poverty Tracker from earlier in the season.

Learn more about Robin Hood’s 2024 Annual Poverty Tracker.

To learn more about Grand Street Settlement, visit their website.

To learn more about the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, visit their website.

Read The New York Times article by Stefanos Chen on the findings of the 2024 Annual Poverty Tracker.

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at

This Robin Hood Moment” is produced by Cory Winter; graphics are produced by Mary Power; visuals are provided by Motion Array; music and sound are provided by Epidemic Sound. Special thanks to Robert Cordero and Greg Silverman.

The views and opinions expressed by external podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Robin Hood or its personnel, nor does Robin Hood advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.


This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Kevin Thompson: Welcome to “This Robin Hood Moment.” I’m your host, Kevin Thompson, and joining me is my colleague, Crystal Cooper. We’re back to discuss Robin Hood’s Annual Poverty Tracker report, which has brought to light the harsh realities confronting millions of New Yorkers. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of individuals living in poverty surged from 1.5 million to a staggering 2 million, with the overall poverty rate jumping from 18% to 23%. But these numbers are more than just statistics. They represent families struggling to make ends meet. Children going to bed hungry and seniors facing impossible choices between paying rent or buying medication.

Crystal Cooper: That’s right, Kevin. Today, we’re privileged to hear from two organizations on the front lines of this battle: Grant Street Settlement and the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Collectively, Robin Hood has been funding both of these organizations for decades. Welcome to the podcast, Greg Silverman, CEO of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and Robert Cordero, CEO of Grand Street Settlement. Through your tireless efforts, you’re providing not just assistance, but hope to those most in need. Gentlemen, welcome to the show and thanks for being here today.

Greg Silverman: Happy to be here.

Robert Cordero: Thank you.

Crystal Cooper: So, Greg and Robert, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty surged by half a million people between 2021 and 2022. You both serve this population day in and day out. So, can you provide a picture of who your constituents are, what are their needs, and how those needs been changing over time as poverty has shifted? Let’s start out with you, Greg.

Greg Silverman: Thanks for having me on. You know, at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, we’ve been at this right, like many organizations for 45 years, and the front line keeps expanding and changes. And, you know, this last week, I was with one of our volunteers who’s a customer, Martina, who right, she’s a grandmother taking care of a nephew who just had a heart transplant. I was at a senior center meeting some Holocaust survivors who can’t make ends meet. I was talking to a grad student with a young child, a single mom. Right like, it’s everyone who is a New Yorker. Like, it’s just our community. Everyone is struggling.

Crystal Cooper: Right, and these are all people who are struggling to afford to eat like, one of the most basic needs. Robert, tell us a little bit about the clients that you serve and what you’re observing at Grand Street.

Robert Cordero: Thank you, Crystal. You know, the struggle is real. You know, we serve a lot of families who reside in public housing, and we have never seen this level of struggle to address basic needs. Right, it’s always been, difficult; it’s always been a challenge, but everything piled on, you know, from even pre-COVID, exacerbated by COVD. And so, people are hungrier that we’re seeing from our, our babies, all the way through our seniors. You know, we’re intergenerational. We serve about 18,000 people from, you know, newborns and toddlers to seniors in their 90s. And we’re seeing mental health issues exacerbated, especially with our young people. We’re seeing, disconnectedness that’s driven by just the state of society that we’re in. You know, we’ve been around 108 years and we’ve seen a lot of change. But this is something unique and different.

Kevin Thompson: Robert, I’m interested in knowing, because this is something that’s unique and different, and the demand seems unprecedented in a lot of ways, at least in recent history, how is your organization adapting to this? I mean, what are you doing differently in the face of all of this? What stress points, you know, have you had to deal with, you know, in the face of this upsurge of poverty in New York City?

Robert Cordero: Yeah, thank you, Kevin. We were founded to serve immigrants in 1916, now were serving migrants recently. But it is unique. The lack of support at the government level for folks who are arriving new to the city is striking. So, it’s left to organizations like ours to fill in those gaps with insufficient resources and with some limited but important support from funders like Robin Hood.

And we all know that that’s insufficient. And so, you know, there’s always been frayed safety net, but the inability, government to keep up with, you know, the erosion of benefits and entitlements, you know, from basic things like food stamps, so just being able to eat all the way through, how do we get people, you know, safe and decent housing, is something that, you know, we’ve had to adapt.

We are restricted in many ways as an extension, for better or worse, of government, because we do things that government shouldn’t do or can’t do, right? So, we’re paid and contracted to serve meals, right? To educate preschoolers, to make sure that seniors are not isolated, to provide housing for seniors. I think the lack of creativity by policymakers and frankly, our sector… the nonprofit sector, to figure out new and different ways to address these needs and to target resources. I think that’s a major issue, and I know that’s why Robin Hood continues to dig and shine a light on this.

Kevin Thompson: Let’s get Greg in here for a second. Greg, kind of the same question. What are the ways that you all have had to adapt at your organization to meet hunger needs on the Upper West Side and further north in Manhattan?

Greg Silverman: Yeah, right. Like, for decades, we served mostly folks on the Upper West Side and North. And, you know, I think in the last six years or so, we have upwards of 30 distribution points across four boroughs. And, you know, we all stretched and were forced to grow in different ways due to the demand and the pandemic. And you know whether that be WSCAH starting to serve from 25,000 to 80,000 customers and opening up more sites and doing things virtually and literally flipping from purchasing 30% of our food, to purchasing 70% of our food, while doubling the quantity of food, it’s unprecedented, the need, but also the needs of the organization. And so we’ve had to transform our tech systems, our distribution models, our entire supply chain, while, as Robert said, right, we got through the pandemic and like, as he said, like the city and state and federal governments have all of a sudden, in some sense, wash their hands.

Right? I would say, like we’ve seen we had an increased safety net during the pandemic, and it worked, it was proven, the data is there and then we cut it all. And now the situation for so many New Yorkers is even worse. On top of that, so many asylum seekers who we’d love to be working, who can’t work.

It’s all about the folks who can’t work. So, we go to like this sort of back to the government side. You know, Robert said, like it’s an inability, government had an inability to sort of do this. I’d say they’ve had an unwillingness. Right? Like a budget, like you said, all time by just a moral document, the city and state budgets that have come out, they pretty much flatlined, at least in the specific, I’d say, in the hunger space, like increase inflation. You can’t flatline just in that alone. So, it’s kind of a tragedy being played out by our elected officials.

Kevin Thompson: How are organizations like both of yours, you know, who are really at the forefront of these sorts of fights in New York City against poverty, what is the next step, and that, you know, to kind of get those policymakers attention to kind of harness those resources that aren’t forthcoming, that have been cut?

Greg Silverman: I mean, we just got through the budget cycle. So, we just lost, right? To be very clear from an advocacy perspective, New Yorkers in need lost, and in, so we have a lot of work to do over the coming year. But we, I can only speak for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, like we doubled down on engaging an amazing community of supporters to support this work so that we can actually do what’s needed…

Kevin Thompson: And so, it’s organizing!

Robert Cordero: Yeah! And for us, you know, yeah, it’s all about advocacy. This is the interesting thing, right, is you cannot exist as a nonprofit social service organization just by being a service provider. For us, the most powerful poverty fighting tool that we have is the one that’s, that changed the course of my life. And it was not college. It wasn’t, you know, University of Chicago. It was…

Crystal Cooper: Was it child care, Robert? Was it child care, Robert?

Robert Cordero: It was child care!

Crystal Cooper: You’ve spoken incredibly to the crisis, the scale of the child poverty crisis, and also the child care crisis in New York City, at this moment. So, I’m curious, either from the perspective of wins or lack thereof, that we saw in the state budget this year, you know, what are we up against and how do we make sure that those early poverty-fighting investments come through for the next generation of New Yorkers?

Robert Cordero: Yeah, well, we’ve got to get the child care tax credit back in place and strengthened. It was it was okay. But we know. And you saw what it did. Numbers don’t lie. You all did the analysis. But we saw it on the ground level. We met recently with a parent, Dior, fifth generation Brooklynite, she’s a young mom on the verge of homelessness.

Fifth generation New Yorker, right? Her family is a part of the fabric of New York. And, well, thanks to our Head Start program, we’re able to connect her to job training, workforce development, a benefits program funded by Robin Hood. Get her back on track with, going back to school. Her son had an individualized educational plan, and now is actually thriving without an IEP label.

That, to me, is a major place that policymakers need to focus. It’s not going to solve the hunger crisis. It’s not going to completely solve the homelessness crisis. But if we want a future in this city, we have to invest, invest deeply in universal child care, because that is the easiest way for a family to fall into poverty, that is, that were they’re locked in poverty, inter-generationally.

Kevin Thompson: Greg, I just want to bring you into this a little bit. As you know, a third of adults and almost half of children with families in New York City regularly experience food hardships. But I think a lot of our listeners probably have misconceptions or, you know, maybe a stereotypical sort of image of who is visiting food pantries and the like in New York City.

I’d love it if you could just share with us what the profile of that population looks like today. The people that you serve at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and what steps you’re taking to adapt to the needs of the changes in that profile and population.

Greg Silverman: It’s funny, because sometimes we’ll have supporters who don’t understand the work, right? And they’ll come in, they’ll see people on the line, and like that person, they have a cell phone, they can’t be hungry. They’re like, that person came up in a car and they’re picking up that food. You know why? And it’s like, yeah, because we give out about 32 pounds of food and they’re picking up for their neighbors as well, and they’re 64 pounds of food.

They’re bringing home fresh veggies. You’re going to carry that on the subway right, right, right. You’re not going down the stairs. Then you’re a senior? And by the way, in the cell phone this could be a family’s, this is their lifeline, right? This is their, they needed to engage with their, with their kids school, like people in poverty are just like you and me. It’s really hard.

A friend of mine, an old college friend, came to visit, the pantry recently, and he said, what really struck me was I couldn’t tell who, I thought that I’d have an image of what people look like. I was like, there is no image, right? It’s all New Yorkers. It’s people whose jobs are not paying them. It’s people whose jobs don’t. They don’t have enough hours, right? It’s the moms showing up with their kid on it, right? Today. Still spring break, right, for school. So, you’re coming to the pantry on a Monday or Tuesday when your kids are out of school, right? And then you’re going to go to work tonight?

I’m a former chef and restaurant owner. Like people in kitchens being underpaid. It’s people who are waiting tables. It’s just New York.

Crystal Cooper: Greg and Robert, I want to get back to something you both have discussed passionately earlier about our inability to get to full solutions in a vacuum. How does your organization collaborate with other stakeholders to tackle these systemic issues? And how do you envision these collaborative efforts shaping the future of anti-poverty initiatives in the city, especially in light of these shifts and of the swelling population of folks in poverty?

Robert Cordero: But for us, we’re, you know, we’re blessed that we’re a settlement house, right? We have 39 other settlement houses in the city of New York. I think the few victories that we have had around, you know, raising, wages for human services workers around protecting against cuts, it’s insufficient, but it’s only possible through coalition work with groups like United Neighborhood Houses.

You know, at the programmatic level and service level, I think that COVID, I think folks were working together before, but boy, did COVID like force everybody in the best way. Nothing like a good crisis to bring everybody together and get real creative, real quick. So, working with people in creative ways, I don’t want to lose that. Part of legacy, I think for my career, too, is a lot of the things that we did that brought us together, including Robin Hood, who was a big unifier, especially with all the grantees that you have, I think it’s really important that we continue to have those relationships. For us, it’s, you know, basic need organizations, we tightened it up with, you know, City Harvest and, and food pantry, which are like old hands for Greg…

Crystal Cooper: Right!

Robert Cordero: But were newer for Grant Street, right? I think that that’s as you say. I’m betting I speak for Greg, but I’m betting he’s doing more social services now, then maybe he was doing pre-pandemic, you know, and so all of us, I think we need to support and lift that work up. That’s the way forward.

Crystal Cooper: So, what you’re saying sounds like collaboration leads to innovation, it leads to the ability to scale, to find new solutions. Greg, how have you seen this play out in in the food space and in New York City?

Greg Silverman: Yeah, I mean, when I, when I came to West Side Campaign Against Hunger, right, my background, I was a chef, restaurateur, and I was shocked at the pricing we were getting, and I assumed that other organizations would be shocked as well and we didn’t have separately, like the gravitas to sort of get the pricing we wanted.

And so, I actually went to Robin Hood, I pitched this idea and, and there was a brand new guy working there, on his first week, Wes Moore, walked in, sat in on the meeting and said, wait, you want to do collective purchasing? We’re going to support this, right? And the team was like, yep, we’re in.

So, he built the roundtable from an initial funding from Robin Hood and a few other organizations and started out with four organizations: St. John’s Bread & Life, Project Hospitality, Common Pantry, all grantees of Robin Hood, and we used our cash dollars to try to save some money in our purchasing. And just by tracking pricing, not even purchasing, we saved 22% of our food purchasing for a year.

Crystal Cooper: Wow!

Greg Silverman: Then we started collectively purchasing. Then we started advocating together. We’re pushing up the supply chain to drive down prices. Now there’s eight of us who do this together. As a group, we have a lot more power. You know, it used to be there’s only a few groups who would speak for what’s happening on hunger in New York City. There was like a little a little table and the pandemic, they expanded that table. They brought four organizations to the table. And the four organizations were all members of the round table.

Crystal Cooper: And it equips you to be able to meet the surging need of the moment, right?

Greg Silverman: Yeah, and to drive the change at a policy level, to say like this is actually how, you know, no one knows better than frontline organizations, how to engage and be a part of community. And that’s the power of collective action. And I don’t think there’s any other way forward. If a group is saying, we do it the best way ourselves, they’re wrong.

Kevin Thompson: What is the power of collective action sort of pointing you towards, in terms of what the priorities should be for next year’s fight in Albany, and for the current battle, as we still shore up what will become of a final city budget in June. What are the priorities that you’re kind of focusing in on as an organization? What you’re hearing from the people that you’re serving.

Greg Silverman: I mean, we’re hopeful on things related things related to SNAP at a state level, in terms of like the state sort of kicking in a bit of money. That’s doesn’t seem to be happening the way we had hoped. I think we want to see in the year ahead, a fully revamping of emergency feeding at a state level, how HPNAP and, nourish these two big programs are run, how the food is distributed.

We want to see more state product get to more organizations, but we don’t want it going through larger regional networks. We want it going directly to organizations so that they have choice of the product. Same in the city, we want to see the Community Food Connections program expand. You know, it was expanded in the pandemic and it’s great.

And they’ve done a lot of great work. But it needs to continue to expand. Bringing on, not just more dollars but more organizations because it’s the changing landscape of emergency feed. It’s not just the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Like, just like Robert said, there’s so many organizations on the ground, smaller nonprofit who are being left out in the cold, and big organizations who are all of a sudden during feeding, like Grand Street Settlement, you’re feeding 700 people. That might be small food wise compared to others, but like, you’re not getting the resources that you need.

Kevin Thompson: And the reality is that 700 people, even though it may sound small, that’s 700 people that need to be fed.

Robert Cordero: Look, we’re, yeah, thank you, Greg. We’re subsidizing the failure of policy in New York City, alright? You know, no contract that Greg or I receive pays 100% of what’s needed to support human potential.

Kevin Thompson: Yeah.

Robert Cordero: We’re looking at, really, for us, it’s about moving towards universal. The more that we can move things from kind of ad hoc year to year budget cycle stuff to being universal to being an entitlement, call it something else if you want, if people don’t like that, but we need to preserve and expand universal Pre-K, 3K needs to be preserved. Families are suffering. It’s the most, it’s close to 30,000 a year to provide childcare for a two-year-old in the city of New York. That’s what it costs. And then we need to pay our teachers, our early childhood teachers, who are overwhelmingly women of color in the communities that they serve. They are the backbone of communities. They need to get paid!

Crystal Cooper: Robert, we should let listeners know that Greg is snapping his fingers and clapping his hands in this room right now!

Robert Cordero: Now, the equivalent to what they would get at the Department of Education, and if we get policymakers to stand and deliver, I think we’d have a stronger New York economically, we’d more vibrant, we would have, you know, a lot less of a huge gap between the wealthy and the poorest, and New York City should be leading the way for the rest of the world in all of these areas.

Crystal Cooper: That was Robert Cordero, CEO of Grant Street Settlement, and Greg Silverman, CEO of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and that’s it for ‘This Robin Hood Moment.’ Today’s show was produced by Cory Winter. Our graphics were produced by Mary Power. I’m Crystal Cooper joined by the insightful Kevin Thompson for Robin Hood—New York City’s largest poverty-fighting philanthropy. Thanks for listening.