Making Money on the Lives of the Poor

The subprime mortgage scandal that almost tanked the economy in 2008 gave way to a new one: the New York city taxi medallion scandal of 2019.

“Medallion prices rose above $1 million before crashing in late 2014, wiping out the futures of thousands of immigrant drivers and creating a crisis that has continued to ravage the industry today. Despite years of warning signs, at least seven government agencies did little to stop the collapse, The New York Times found.

Instead, eager to profit off medallions or blinded by the taxi industry’s political connections, the agencies that were supposed to police the industry helped a small group of bankers and brokers to reshape it into their own moneymaking machine, according to internal records and interviews with more than 50 former government employees.

For more than a decade, the agencies reduced oversight of the taxi trade, exempted it from regulations, subsidized its operations and promoted its practices, records and interviews showed.

Their actions turned one of the best-known symbols of New York — its signature yellow cabs — into a financial trap for thousands of immigrant drivers. More than 950 have filed for bankruptcy, according to a Times analysis of court records, and many more struggle to stay afloat.”

Immigrant drivers form the backbone of the short hop driving industry in major cities, not just New York, but here in Seattle as well. Immigrants drive medallion cabs, gypsy cabs, Uber and Lyft. Their labor is typically the entry point into the U.S economy, where limited English and credentials from other countries that often don’t transfer make job opportunities limited.

Someone is making a lot of money from the labor of these largely unprotected workers, but it’s generally not the driver.

When I’m out and about during the day here in Seattle, I generally walk or take the bus. But after dark if I’m downtown, I call an Uber or Lyft to get home. The three blocks I have to walk from the bus stop are safe, I suppose, but very dark and typically deserted — even if it’s not very late. I just don’t feel comfortable doing it.

I often engage the driver, asking how his driving day has gone — drivers for both Uber and Lyft are largely male. A few are chirpy and upbeat and filled with the hope of taking on the world. Most are more sober, and surprisingly honest. The driver who brought me home the other night at around 10:30pm after a movie was particularly down. He said he was very tired, that he worked long hours and it was hard to make enough money to take care of his wife and children. He drives seven days a week, and he doesn’t see them much. We talked a little bit more, as I was mentally calculating his take from my ride. I had a 10% off promotion coupon for the fare. The tab was $6.10 with the coupon, of which he gets maybe half? I gave him a $3 tip, which I hope goes all to him. Out of that he has to pay for his own gas, insurance, and wear and tear on the car. There were bottles of water in the back seat for passengers to take. I didn’t. My ride was about 10 minutes, just up the hill from the movies. He wasn’t guaranteed another pickup until his app pinged him with the location of a prospective passenger.

Someone is making money on his labor, but it’s hard to see how it’s him. I thanked him for a safe ride, and he changed his driving status to “available” and went back to looking for a new ride.

2 thoughts on “Making Money on the Lives of the Poor

  1. Hey taxi medallion Crisis New York City the results of a major paradigm shift in private Kab use in the greed of New York City. New York City has, four years, made millions in the ends of dollars selling yellow cab taxi medallions. With the paradigm shift to Uber and Lyft bottom has fallen out of the medallion market and taxi owners can I pay their mortgages. Mini medallion have drivers have committed suicide. New York City should provide some rebate to reimburse them for the following value of their medallion. That’s not even on the table. Indeed, the city has taken advantage of immigrants with little to no money and now it’s causing their deaths.

  2. for Katie: This is really an ugly story. It’s always the poorest and most vulnerable who wind up getting screwed, while the big money players walk away with millions.

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