I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York but I’ve never hopped the turnstile while heading into the train station. However, I’ve certainly crawled under a few turnstiles, walked through unsealed emergency exits, and flashed at least a hundred bus drivers a look of confusion as I waltzed onto the bus, knowing very well the MetroCard I placed in the card reader had insufficient funds.

According to Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City’s public transportation system loses $240 million a year due to its citizens’ use of fare-evading tactics such as the ones mentioned above (Paybarah 2019).  For burdening the city in this way, “fare-beaters” have been depicted in the media as greedy, malicious, and up to no good: In 2019, the following newspaper titles and many like it inundated local bodegas and newspaper stands: “Beating the farebeater is vital to the MTA and public safety”, “Fare beaters still take MTA for a ride despite efforts to make riders pay”, and “Bronx farebeater tried to convince officers he was undercover cop, police say” (Gelinas 2019; Guse 2019; Parascandola & Anese 2019). From my perspective, however, the people who use fare-evading tactics are just like anyone else: they are mothers trying to get from point A to point B with multiple children in tow. They are homeless people looking for a warm place to brace the cold. And they are teenagers who cannot spare the train fare to get home from SAT Prep and other after-school activities once the lime-green “Student Metro” runs out at 8:30 pm. Given the socioeconomic segregation that marks this landscape, it would be remiss of me to neglect to mention that these people could also be among the 800,000 low-income individuals who qualified for Mayor de Blasio's 2018 Fair Fare MetroCard program, yet went almost two years without any information surrounding the application process for the services that would be offered at a discounted price (Fitzsimmons 2020).

Over the past 10 years, the cost of using public transportation has looked something like this: 

  2009-2010 2013 - March 2015 March 2015 - 2019 Present Single Ride $2.25 $2.50 $2.75 $2.75 (+$1 if you don't already own a MetroCard) Weekly Metro $30 $31 $32 $33 Unlimited Metro $81 -> $104

$104 -> $112

-> $116.50

$121 $127

(Collated using information from (Furfaro & Musumeci 2019) and (Desta 2015).

The fare increases listed above have not only been on a constant ascent over the last decade: they have also outpaced inflation. In 2009, the rate of inflation was slightly above 20%. With the base fare for a Metro Card remaining the same, the cost of a 30-day unlimited is now the price of 23 round trips, as opposed to that of 18 round trips which it was a decade ago (Surico 2019). Instead of empathizing with New Yorkers who are faced with reconciling this financial dissonance, Governor Cuomo has chosen to inundate the bus routes and subway stations of New York’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with an additional 500 uniformed and armed police officers (Paybarah, 2019). Since November 2019, there have already been 2,500 police officers patrolling the train stations on any given day (Fitzsimmons, 2019).

The MTA’s ongoing fare-beating campaign is insensitive, unjust, and fits within New York City’s broader history of stigmatizing poverty. When European migration into the city increased during the late 19th and early 20th century, members of New York City’s middle class grew unsettled. Many European immigrants during this time period worked menial jobs, begged in the street, lived in overcrowded tenements, and relied on their children’s labor to make ends meet. This lifestyle raised suspicion amongst the middle class and bourgeoisie that “immorality and depravity” could be steeping in lower-class communities. Compelled by these sentiments, the city’s upper-echelon sought to ‘save’ these children from their parents through forced removal from their homes (Reich 2012). 

In a circular released in March 1853, founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace, wrote in support of these efforts:

“This society has taken its origin in the deeply settled feeling of our citizens that something must be done to meet the increasing crime and poverty among the destitute children of New York… The class increases: immigration is pouring in its multitudes of poor foreigners who leave these young outcasts everywhere in our midst… They will influence elections; they may shape the policy of the city: they will assuredly, if unreclaimed poison society all around them” (Brace 1971).

Here we see that historically the stigmatization of poverty in NYC adheres to the following progression: (1) The powers that be experience irrational fear; (2) They express this fear in a group of like-powered individuals and work together to address the “social problem”; (3) Members of the carceral state are enlisted in keeping deviance at bay. The MTA’s attempt to “police away” fare evasion is no different.

Theories put forth in Erving Goffman’s 1963 piece Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity serve as a point of departure for persons interested in further understanding this concept of stigma. Goffman defines it as an attribute that is “deeply discrediting.” When the attribute is attached to an individual it has the power to erase their humanity, reducing them  “from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one” (Goffman 1963 in Yang et al.,2007). In this war against fare-beating, the discrediting attribute being operationalized is the state of being without: without coin, and perhaps without options. 

When justifying his decision, Governor Cuomo argued, “There’s a high correlation” between the two where perpetrators of crimes on the subway are also fare-evaders. (Paybarah, 2019). Whether these claims about the correlation between fare-evasion and other subway crimes are substantiated or not, individuals use their power to perpetuate negative evaluations and stereotypes which are internalized among members of the social sphere (Jones et al., 1984 in Major & O’Brien, 2005). One of the ways they do this is through fear-mongering and excessive surveillance.Governor Cuomo recently stated  that “historically, the N.Y.P.D. did the policing in the transit system, but there has been a dramatic increase in crime in the subway system… Felonies are up, assaults are up, robberies are up, and I’ve been talking about this for years” (Fitzsimmons, 2019). However, on an average day, the subway serves about 5.5 million people, during which only approximately seven major crimes occur. When we compare this statistic to the 50 major crimes that occurred each day in train stations in 1990, a time when many New Yorkers were so fearful they avoided the subway outside of rush hour, it is clear something is amiss (Fitzsimmons, 2019). 

All in all, this gross mismatch between Governor Cuomo’s calls for increased policing on the bus and subway and the reality that most New Yorkers encounter using public transportation can best be understood through the lens of what stigma theorists Yang, Kleinman, Link, Phelan, Lee, and Good, describe as a “dialectic of interpretation and response,” or back-and-forth between two parties (Yang et al, 2007). I call these parties the stigmatizers and the stigmatized. In this framework, the stigmatizers and the stigmatized view themselves as “engaged in a similar process of gripping, being gripped by life, holding onto something, preserving what matters and warding off danger” (Yang et al, 2007). For the poor, what is at stake is the preservation of their right to continue to exist in the fullness of their identities within this city. For Cuomo and other proponents of his fare-beating campaign, what is at stake is the tradition of maintaining an infinite degree of separation between the lives of the haves and the survivalist existence of the urban have-nots.

New York City and State has had a lot of progressive social justice victories within the last twenty years including but not exclusive to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of marijuana use in public settings, and a newly relaxed statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. The question that remains is: At what point in New York’s progression will it be legal to simply exist in a state of poverty?


Works Cited

Brace, Charles L. 1971. "The Children's Aid Society of New York. It's History, Plans, and Results" in National Conference of Charities and Correction. History of Child Saving in the United States: 1-36

Desta, Y. (2015, March). 1904 to today: See how New York City subway fare has climbed over 111 years. Mashable.

Fitzsimmons, E. (2019, January). New York City’s Poor Were Promised Half-Priced MetroCards. They’re Still Waiting. The New York Times.

Fitzsimmons, E., Sandoval E. (2019, February). New York Tackled Subway Crime. But Is It Starting to Come Back?. The New York Times.

Fitzsimmons, E. ( 2019, November). The Subway Is in Financial Crisis: Are 500 More Police Officers Needed?. The New York Times.

Furfaro, D., Musumeci, N. ( 2019, February). MTA raising price of weekly and monthly MetroCards. New York Post.

Gelinas, N. (2019, April). Beating the fare-beaters is vital to the MTA and public safety. New York Post.

Guse, C. (2019, September). Fare beaters still take MTA for a ride despite efforts to make riders pay. Daily News.

Major, B., & O'brien, L. T. (2005). The social psychology of stigma. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 56, 393-421.

Paybarah, A. (2019, June). How Cuomo Plans to Crack Down on Subway Fare Evasions. The New York Times.

Reich, J. A. (2012). Fixing families: Parents, power, and the child welfare system. New York; London: Routledge.

Stuber, J., Meyer, I., & Link, B. (2008). Stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and health. Social science & medicine (1982), 67(3), 351.

Surico, J. (2019, March). What’s the Perfect Price for Public Transportation?. CityLab.

Tracy, T., Moynihan, E., & Guse, C. (2019, October). SEE IT: Caught-on-video subway incidents lead advocates to gripe about police enforcement of subway rules and petty crime. Daily News.

Yang, Lawrence Hsin, Arthur Kleinman, Bruce G. Link, Jo C. Phelan, Sing Lee, and Byron Good. 2007. “Culture and Stigma: Adding Moral Experience to Stigma Theory.” Social Science & Medicine 64(7):1524–35.