By Victor Ordonez
New York City’s underground market economy was analyzed by Fordham students who collected primary data through dumpster diving and witnessing illicit activities this past August.
Starting late August 2016, 20 students participated in a program provided by Fordham’s own sociology department as part of a study on the underground market in New York City.
The project analyzes the underground economy by collecting primary data throughout the city. This primary data consists of discarded litter as well as “systematic social observations.” According to the project’s field manual, these social observations include any illicit activities students could possibly witness.
Marin Kurti, a sociology professor, led the expedition through New York City’s underground market. Kurti said the New York City’s history allows for research efforts like this.
“New York City is the ideal place to study underground markets, given its long history of vice, growing income inequality and the capital of the American Dream,” said Kurti.
Professor Kurti and his team have not yet completed their data analysis. However, the final goal of the project is to present their findings to public health agencies such as the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in the later half of the spring semester.
According to the project’s field manual, research students were prepared to encounter vials, glassine envelopes, marijuana, syringes and other illicit materials as part of their collecting of litter. Some of the students reported other risk and dangers they experienced while exploring the underground market.
Kurti’s team randomly selected 127 blocks that approximate neighborhoods in New York City.
“Our sample is quite heterogeneous in terms of demographics and land use characteristics,” said Kurti. “It is a representative sample of New York City.”
Richard Chao, FCRH ’19, is an active participant in Kurti’s underground market project. He said the group’s research would provide credible statistics thanks to the project’s two-wave system.
The first wave had students walk in pairs on opposite sides of the street where they collected litter and any objects that could have been used illicitly. This information provides Kurti’s team with an accurate depiction of how many cigarettes are bootlegged from other states or the prevalence of illegal substances in given areas based on materials left behind.
“But we didn’t just collect trash,” said Chao. “We counted the number of underground markets. We counted the number of unprofessional businesses.”
Wave two required that students walk through the same areas and record any signs of informal or illegal activity that implied “off-the-books” transactions. These activities included cars-for-sale signs, drug dealing, drug use, garage sales and gambling, according to Kurti.
The project’s field manual also requires that students document situations that hint to prostitution, the unlicensed selling of goods on the street or the prevalence of panhandlers.
Students spoke about the risk that comes with exploring uncharted territory in New York. For instance, Chao has encountered syringes in his field research, and carefully followed procedure to document such illicit substances.
Robert Lis, FCRH ’19, is a Bronx native and a member of Kurti’s research team. Lis recalled an instance in downtown Brooklyn in which he and a friend encountered a group that began to shout at them while waiting for the bus.
“There were definitely some moments that made me feel uneasy” said Lis. “They yelled things like ‘hey white boys’, but Professor Kurti requires we walk with a partner so I never felt like I was in immediate danger.”
Kurti’s team is currently analyzing the data collected by both waves. Wave one’s data will inform government programs regarding public health policy.
“When bootlegged cigarettes appear on the illicit market they may have deleterious impacts on the health of neighborhoods,” said Kurti. “The tax incentives to quit smoking may not be there.”
Kurti added that, according to economic research, a 10 percent increase in cigarette taxes decrease consumption of such substances by roughly four percent.
Although the project is not yet complete, the data collected by the research team will be available and presented to the necessary parties later this spring. Once the analysis is completed, organizations will be presented with an accurate representation of the underground economy thanks to Professor Kurti and his team of student researchers.