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!"