I remember when, growing up in the outer boroughs of New York City, taking a cab was a rare treat. The one time I hailed a cab as a teenager, it was because I had returned home from a school trip in the wee hours of the morning, and my parents gave me special dispensation to do so. Alas, the cabdriver I flagged down refused to take me deep into the heart of Brooklyn, on the grounds that it would take him too far from the night time revelers who were his bread and butter. I’ll admit that this rejection stung. The neighborhood I grew up in was home to many taxi drivers, and it occurred to me that there was a decent chance he didn’t live far from me. Still, I could see his point. With my father’s war stories about driving a livery cab in the 1970s in mind, I was more sympathetic to the man who booted me out of his cab than I might have been otherwise. Yes, I needed to get home. But he needed to make a living.
Since then, much has changed. For one, the competition among professional drivers in New York City has intensified. Whereas the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) was responsible for overseeing 97,000 licensed taxi drivers and drivers of other for-hire vehicles in 1999, not long after my abortive cab journey, the number now stands at 180,000. Of course, that is not all that has changed. New York City is more affluent than ever, and neighborhoods that were once very much off the map are now bustling with affluent young professionals, many of whom can afford an Uber or Lyft when the prospect of taking public transportation seems too demoralizing. Their dollars have swelled demand for drivers, which in turn has stimulated supply.
Notably, the drivers who’ve heeded the call are almost all immigrants, like my father, who was himself a driver long ago, and the man who turned me away a little over 20 years ago. Indeed, the story of professional drivers in New York City arguably makes the case for low-skill immigration. Rather than competing with well-off native-born New Yorkers, immigrant drivers are complementing them by ferrying them from their well-appointed lofts to their spacious offices to their favorite ethnic restaurants. As of 2016, 91 percent of the city’s professional drivers were immigrants, many of whom hail from the world’s poorest countries. Half of all drivers of non-app-based for-hire vehicles, traditionally the most lucrative slice of the market, hail from the Dominican Republic. Almost a quarter of taxi drivers, meanwhile, are originally from Bangladesh. Together, the marriage of new technology and the globalization of New York City’s low-wage labor market has left consumers much better off. Finding someone to drive you home for money has never been easier, and no doubt many of the women and (mostly) men doing the driving are delighted to have found remunerative work. What we have here, certainly at first glance, is a classic free-market success story. Recently, though, the dark side of the story has been growing rather conspicuous.
Since December, there has been a rash of apparent suicides among the city’s taxi drivers. And if their advocates are to be believed, and I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, these few deaths speak to the despair experienced by thousands of other drivers. Sensing an opportunity to make their voices heard, taxi drivers and their champions are pointing to the rise of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft as the source of their woes. That is, the same disruptive force that has so enriched consumers and drivers has also, according to this line of argument, immiserated taxi drivers, especially those who’ve invested their life’s savings in purchasing taxi medallions. Once prized as a virtual guarantee of financial security, these medallions, which grant their owners the right to operate a taxi and to lease it to someone else, have plummeted in value as the rise of app-based services has given New Yorkers a convenient alternative to hailing a yellow cab. One libertarian scholar, Peter Van Doren, has argued, “the medallion market was like a fairly priced lottery ticket that took into account the possibility of deregulation,” and he makes a compelling case. But that is small comfort for the people who’ve been financially ruined in the crash, such as Yu Mein Chow, the most recent of the taxi drivers said to have taken his own life.
In an interview with Vincent Barone of am New York, Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, insisted that something must be done about the resulting labor glut: “We now have a saturation of tens of thousands of workers, even after working 10-, 12-, 14-hour shifts, [who] are talking about hunger and poverty, and that’s not acceptable.” With this in mind, Desai has called for imposing more stringent regulations on the ride-hailing sector, to create a more level playing field and, presumably, to desaturate the pool of drivers. The end result would undoubtedly be better for the immigrant taxi drivers she represents, many of whom have been in the country for a little while, and who don’t want to toil for poverty-level wages for the rest of their lives.
But what about the newcomers with whom they’re competing, the ones who are at risk of being desaturated out of the industry? Consider that there is a reason so many people are clamoring to sign up to drive with Uber, Lyft, and their various competitors and clones: Simply put, the poverty-level wages on offer are the best available option for thousands of foreign-born New Yorkers. If there were legions of employers willing to hire low-skill workers at wages that would afford them anything like a dignified middle-class life, we wouldn’t be contemplating the quiet desperation of New York City’s taxi drivers, who are crying out for relief. They wouldn’t fear competition from leaner and hungrier new arrivals who haven’t been in America long enough to know how easy it is for low-skill workers to find themselves trapped in dead-end jobs. They’d have long since moved on to bigger and better things.
Usually, the notion that new low-skill immigrants represent competition for those who already live among us is airily dismissed on the grounds that the labor market is dynamic, and so too are low-skill workers. When faced with new competition, New York City’s immigrant drivers are supposed to learn new skills—they’re supposed to enroll in their local coding academy at night, or enroll in master’s programs in social-media marketing or food-truck management—and allow newcomers to take their place on the bottom rung. But what if climbing the ladder isn’t quite as easy as it sounds?
One of the reasons younger Americans are so optimistic about immigration, I suspect, is that many of us are the children of newcomers who, in earlier eras, were fortunate enough to make the transition from working-class service jobs to jobs that offered a bit more pay, status, and stability. I count myself among them. To allow for the possibility that low-skill immigration has different implications today, when the prospects for upward mobility among low-skill workers are almost universally acknowledged to be bleaker than in years past, before a cavalcade of social and technological changes greatly reduced their power, seems almost sacrilegious. It smacks of dishonoring one’s parents or grandparents. And so piety wins out. We badly want to believe that we still live in a non-zero-sum nation, in which good-paying jobs for low-skill workers are abundant, and opportunities for advancement are always just around the corner. Instead we have taxi drivers who are being driven to suicide because they can’t bear the competition from slightly more desperate people who want the little that they now have. And all this is unfolding at a moment when the labor market is the tightest it has been since the turn of the century, and before the potential of labor-displacing automation is close to being fully realized.
What we are seeing in certain corners of New York City is not a story pitting scrappy immigrants against hateful nativists who resent their rivals for being culturally different or for the color of their skin. It is more like a desperate contest between people who are trying and failing to escape the pull of American poverty and others for whom American poverty still feels like deliverance from something much worse. This story does not compute for those who worship at the altar of Emma Lazarus, and who congratulate themselves for tipping their immigrant drivers generously or, better still, who deign to praise them for their marvelous work ethic. What they won’t do is stop to consider that we as a country are creating a new underclass for their convenience, and that the desperation of this new underclass might one day cause serious ructions that they won’t be able to ignore.
I hope that the recent suicides of New York City’s taxi drivers are nothing more than a tragic coincidence. I fear they are a warning.