More Americans are poor than ever before, and the national poverty rate is at its highest level since 1994. Meanwhile, one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. But poverty is absent from our civic discourse. Everyone is tired of talking about poverty, it seems, except poor people. Perhaps that’s because the rhetoric around the topic has rarely resembled reality. The latest issue of City Limits explores that lives of four low-income New Yorkers, including Beverly Davis.

Beverly Davis has always worked. From when she was 15 years old, she says, she worked part time at a Dr. Jay's clothing store in the Bronx, while finishing high school and raising two children. In 2009, after six years on the job, Davis was told by a new manager that she was being let go. "I wasn't upset, but I understood how the business went. So I wasn't going to let that stop me. I was still on public assistance, receiving my portion that they gave me, but I wasn't comfortable with it. I was only doing that to make ends meet and to feed my children."

Instead, she applied for a training program run by Cooperative Home Care Associates, a worker-owned and cooperatively run home care agency in the Bronx. "It was public assistance ready," she says, meaning that HRA works with the employer to ensure that the job counts toward her mandated work hours. That, she says, "made it a plus for me."

But more than that, Davis sees it as the perfect stepping-stone to a better life. She's not only raising two children and working 36 hours a week but also studying criminal justice at Monroe College. With her home care job and public benefits tiding her over until then, she's con¬ dent that she won't be long for the low-income world: "I'm going to be a cop for five or six years. After that, I'm going to go back to law school and become an attorney. And After I become an attorney, I'm going to go to become a judge. Hopefully, it works out."

Working in poverty

Of New Yorkers who work full time, 6.6 percent have incomes below the poverty line, according to Census data; many more workers are "near poor," earning less than twice the poverty threshold. It is a vast population that goes largely unnoticed by many in the city, even as low-wage workers staff the city's restaurants and retail stores. And they are most likely only getting more numerous: A May report from the Drum Major Institute noted that 82 percent of all job growth in New York City in the previous year came in the city's five lowest-paid industries: hotels and food service, retail, administrative and waste services, health care, and "other services," which includes maintenance and laundry services.

One of the biggest—and fastest-growing—fields of low-wage work is home health care. By 2016, according to the state labor department's projections, nearly 300,000 New Yorkers will be employed as home attendants, either as health aides or personal caregivers for the elderly or infirm. As a job that doesn't require a college degree, it has attracted a large number of applicants, mostly women, from around the city. (HRA says 12 percent of its job placements are in home care.)

But in part because the pool of potential labor is so huge and in part because of a state home care bureaucracy that has encouraged the growth of subcontractors that siphon off much of the state's fixed Medicaid payments for home care, wages are invariably low: $8.50 an hour on average in the city, according to Meghan Shineman, New York policy analyst for the Bronx-based direct-care advocacy group PHI National. As a result, she says, 1 in 7 low-wage workers in the city is a home care worker.

The 22-year-old Davis works 12 hours a day, three days a week, earning $8 an hour to help a home bound woman with her daily routine. (Cooperative guarantees fixed hours to its employees, helping it avoid the fluctuating hours—and paychecks—that have driven some home care aides at other agencies to take up residence in homeless shelters.) Other days, she takes care of her two children, ages 7 and 4, and takes night courses at Monroe. "I have long days and nights, where I have to get up at 6 o'clock, come to work, do my 8 in the morning to 8 at night, then from 8 at night I'm on my way to go to school, and I leave school at 10:50 at night. And then I'm going home, doing projects, doing research. Papers got to be in by 12 a.m. sometimes."

Davis, though, remains relentlessly upbeat, her soft voice belying her steely resolve to see her self-assigned mission through. It helps, also, that she has family support. "My mom, she helps me," she says. "I live alone, so on Saturdays I bring [my children] to her house, and my son goes to school four blocks away from her house, so she takes them to school and picks them up." Davis also receives government help in the form of food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies, though now that she works full time, even at low wages, she is earning too much per year to be eligible for welfare. The benefits she gets are a big help, she says, as she talks personal ¬finances with two colleagues at Cooperative's offices in the South Bronx. "I'm able to take care of my children's necessities, my own personal things and pay bills. Now, sometimes I have to pay my rent, so I have to hold one check out then pay the other bills in portions." Still, she says, "it's working out for me well."

Avoiding welfare

By contrast, Davis' co-worker Francia Alejo, who attended the same training course as Davis last January and works five days a week for Cooperative, says she's steered clear of the public benefits system at all costs. "I don't have food stamps," she says. "I don't have public assistance. I don't have housing. I have to pay rent. I have to pay my bills. I have to pay my gas for my car. I have to pay for my food. I have to do something on the side. I do taxes. I do travel." She also offers weight-loss coaching; she whips out her business card: "Take Shape for Life: Pierda Tallas, Fácil, Saludable y Económico."

Only one time did she apply for public benefits, Alejo says: "Their people, they treat you like an animal when you are there at the office. That's why I don't like that. One time I was there, and I quit—ripped up the papers and, 'No, I don't want this,' because they were saying I qualify." She does, however, have the benefit of a $558-a-month rent-regulated apartment and a roommate: "If I don't have that person in my house, believe me, I go to public assistance!"

For many Bronx parents, rent and food aren't the only major expenses. There is also education: With schools in the borough widely considered among the city's worst, many parents have traditionally sent their children to parochial schools. And that costs money.

Alejo notes that she just switched her 10-year-old daughter from a Catholic school to a charter to save money. "I was paying $320 a month," she says.

"I am paying $550," remarks Milevy Joga, another Cooperative worker with two children in high school.

"Because you got two?"

"No, for one."

"For one?"

"For high school."

"Ah, because high school."

"Something happened in my house that was very funny," says Joga. Her 11-year-old son, she says, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. "The therapist was asking him what is the cause that he is so depressed. He said, 'It is because I'm scared to lose my shelter, because my mom and my dad, they have a lot of problems. And we have such little money that I'm scared to lose my shelter and lose my food.' "

"I tell my little son that he never was going to lose the shelter, because it's the first thing that I pay in my house: I pay the rent, and I pay the school. That was the priority things."

"They have an imagination also," remarks Davis. "Sometimes you may cry, but you don't cry in front of your child, but the way you do something different from whatever you did the last day, it's like, 'Oh, Mommy's going through something. Is the bills paid?' When they see you rubbing your face, all that's on their mind."

"I've been single for four years," she continues. "It's just me and my children, aside from my family being my support team. So I have to stay a step above my bills and a step above what's coming next. That's why I registered for school. Because if I don't do it now, later on I'm going to have so many bills, it's going to be over my head." With this in mind, Davis says, she made sure to take out student loans only for tuition and books, not living expenses. "I don't want to have loans and loans to pay back."

Davis is especially fortunate in one way: Last summer, to get out of her grandmother's overcrowded house, she took her children to live in a shelter for a few months. This made her eligible for Work Advantage, the program launched by Bloomberg in 2007 that paid 70 percent of the rent for individuals moving out of shelters into private apartments.

The Bloomberg program that Work Advantage replaced, Housing Stability Plus, reduced housing aid by a fifth each year over five years, resulting in a wave of evictions After the first year's 20 percent cut kicked in. (It also was restricted to PA recipients, meaning that having your benefits cut off —or finding work that raised your income to where you were no longer eligible— could result in eviction.) Housing Stability Plus was widely panned. But Work Advantage, which, instead of tapering support over ¬five years, cut o completely After two, similarly drew criticism as insufficient to ensure long-term housing stability. The Coalition for the Homeless issued a report in February charging that one-quarter of Work Advantage enrollees had already returned to shelters.

But Davis says she's not worried about what will happen come 2012. By that fall, she says, she plans to have a job as a police officer in Westchester County ("It's more dangerous here than up there"), "so I'll be good by then." She says she can't wait to be done with school and with the entire public benefits system: "I don't want nothing to do with them—not in a bad way. They did help me. But I don't want to get comfortable with them. Because I know that I can do a whole bunch of other things than just staying there waiting for people to help me."

Cuts sting

In March, however, Davis gets a jolt when the state of New York announces that as part of its drastic budget cuts, it will be eliminating the state funds that supply one-quarter of Work Advantage's budget. Soon After, the city Department of Homeless Services declares that without the state money, the program will be shut down. Letters go out from DHS to all 15,000 Advantage clients: "The City is no longer authorized to continue the program. As a result, no further Advantage rental assistance supplement payments will be provided to your landlord on your behalf. This means that your Advantage rental supplement amount is now $0.00." PA clients will still be eligible for a smaller shelter allowance; those not receiving welfare benefits will henceforth get nothing.

For Davis, who earns too much to get welfare, this will mean losing $765 a month in state rent subsidies on her $1,070-a-month one-bedroom apartment in East Tremont. "I don't know how I'm going to make ends meet," she says. "I'm going to have to find a job in school or ask for more hours. It's going to be a lot, but I don't want to be homeless."

As soon as the announcement of Advantage's pending elimination is announced, the Legal Aid Society files suit on the grounds that the city promised in its Advantage leases to supply rent subsidies for one year. A temporary restraining order forces DHS to pay subsidies in April through June; beyond that, though, the future for Davis and the others remains uncertain.

On top of this, Davis has just learned that her transitional food stamps and child care benefits have been cut off . "I didn't even know I was cut o until I went back—and they said, Oh no, we cut you o today," she says. "I'm like, What? I never received any notice. I never received no documentation saying I was cut off. They just said it was closed due to me working. I'm like, that's insane, because I worked before, and I was getting transitional food stamps and Medicaid." Cut off , though, is cut off. "So I have to reapply all over again. And as this is going on, I'm taking finals and everything. I passed my finals! But goodness, it's just so much."

Davis is resigned to another trip to the HRA office. Finding time between work, school and child care, though, makes it a challenge.

"I was going to do it today," she says. "But they came to plaster my house because I had lead paint poison." Maybe next week—if she can find the time.

This article is the fourth chapter in our July magazine exploring the complexity of low-income life as it is lived by individual New Yorkers. To read the fifth chapter, click here. To read the rest of the feature, begin here.