Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Hurting

Anthony De Jesus is not convinced that New York's economy is recovering. At the young age of 33, he has 11 years of experience in duct work construction, union credentials, a weight lifter's physique and a boisterous spirit. Yet Anthony hasn't found work in over a year. "My wife has had to put a lot on her shoulders," he lamented in an interview at the Workforce Career Center in the South Bronx. Mrs. De Jesus, a medical biller, supports them and their 14-year-old daughter by working overtime. "I wash dishes, do laundry, I paint, I clean, I take care of the cats. She's bringing home the bacon, so I do the house chores and pick up the kid from school," he said.

"She has been the man of the house."

Anthony's story is exceptional here only in that his was once a dual-income household. At 12 percent, the Bronx unemployment rate is the highest in the state, only two points removed from its recession peak in January 2010. The U.S. Census Bureau also recently revealed that the South Bronx is the poorest urban district in the country.

So while Wall Street is celebrating a record year, Fifth Avenue boutiques have recovered and the tony Upper East Side has continued on its well-heeled way, a few stops up the 6 train the Bronx is reeling.

"When things get really bad, our people are the first fired and the last hired," said Phillip Morrow, director of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. A non-profit that offers job training and placement, SoBRO welcomed 5,000 job seekers last year. The downturn brought out more, and a wider range, of unemployed locals than it was used to assisting. Some held college degrees and skilled work experience. They were first in line for jobs in customer service, retail, warehouse stocking and concessions.

Low-skilled individuals came out in large numbers as well, some of which hadn't worked in years. "They're not our typical client," Mr. Morrow said. "Their networks of support must have been exhausted."

Anton Van Putten, 47, is one of those individuals. He was laid off three-and-a-half years ago from a job as a catering cook. Unable to find new work, he lost his apartment and moved in with his father and then his cousin, with a couple months homeless in between. SoBRO is now training him to do green construction work.

Pamela Johnson, 42, hasn't worked in six and half years. She's training to become a medical assistant. Public assistance isn't going as far as it once did and her mother and sister can no longer help support her and her three sons.

Their experiences seem to confirm one of Mr. Morrow's sayings about the local economy: "We're always in a recession. It's only a matter of degree."

"That's true in these low income communities. They're always living in an environment that is more typical of what a recession is for normal middle class people because there is high unemployment, lack of opportunity, public assistance, no jobs, etc. That is the plague of the poorer population," he added.

Hopefully that degree doesn't get any more severe. New York already has the ignoble distinction of fostering a larger income gap between rich and poor than any other big city in America.

But back at the Workforce Career Center, Anthony De Jesus, for one, wont be discouraged. "Just because there's a recession doesn't mean there isn't work," he said. He applies to at least three jobs a week and follows up on each. "I'm a pest. I will call you everyday until you hire me. I'm very persistent, and whatever I want I'm going to try and try again to get it until the guy tells me 'You know what? I'm just going to hire you because you're a pain in my butt!'"

De Jesus left the Workforce Career Center with a lead on a union that was hiring an apprentice. He was warned, however, that the position paid one-third less than his previous salary.

"Well, sometimes you have to start over from the bottom and work your way up," he said in a somewhat resigned tone. "I understand that."