Photo by: Alex Proimos

On July 21, five candidates for mayor of New York left their usual beds to spend the night in a public housing project in Harlem. The sleepover made for good photo opportunities and sound bites––Council Speaker Christine Quinn likened the mold she saw in a bathroom to a horror movie––but it also helped signal that the two New Yorks of Fernando Ferrer’s failed mayoral campaigns have returned to center stage in New York politics.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s recent emergence as leader in the polls has confirmed that. “Bill de Blasio’s Surge is All About Inequality,” blared a recent headline in the New Republic.

While de Blasio has made New York’s “tale of two cities” a centerpiece of his campaign, other candidates also have targeted income inequality, and even many moderates and conservatives see the issue as an important one. “It’s a barbell economy. That’s definitely true,” says Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Sharp differences exist, however, about how New York should confront this problem and whether anything a New York City mayor can do will make a difference.

Why now

During his first term, it’s said, the word poverty passed through Michael Bloomberg’s lips once or twice. It didn’t seem to hurt him.

Now the problem has emerged as the elephant in the room. Figures released last year found the percentage of New Yorkers living in poverty had increased for three consecutive years, reaching 20.9 percent in 2011. The Economist recently noted that in New York City in 2012 “the richest 1 percent took home close to 39 percent of the income earned in the city, more than double the national figure of 19 percent.” While some of this is due to New York’s status as the home to a lot of really rich people, it also points to a decline in the middle class, as jobs paying less than $35,000 replaced the jobs the recession stripped away.

Given this, income inequality not being an issue in this year’s election “would be like terrorism not being an issue on Sept.12, 2001,” says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. A report by the Community Service Society (which owns City Limits) found that 70 percent of all New Yorkers––and 74 percent of those with moderate or high incomes––are somewhat worried or very worried about widening inequality in the city.

Organizing around issues such as the living wage and paid sick leave and the message of Occupy Wall Street also helped push the issue forward, as has Bloomberg’s fading presence. “People are reckoning with what New York has become on his watch, and he’s not spending $100 million to pump out an alternative message,” says Andrew Freidman, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.

De Blasio and City Comptroller John Liu have been most vocal on the issue. “Addressing the crisis of income inequality isn’t a small task. But if we are to thrive as a city, it must be at the very center of our vision for the next four years,” de Blasio said in the introduction to his position book.

“Economic inequality is ruining our chance for economic recovery,” Liu said in an Aug. 21 debate.

But all the Democratic candidates have acknowledged the problem. “As New York gets more expensive and incomes fail to keep up, millions of New Yorkers are at risk of being pushed out of the city. That’s horrible for them––and it’s bad for all of New York,” former City Comptroller Bill Thompson said in April. While keeping to his 2005 theme of fighting for those in the middle class or “struggling to make it there,” former Rep. Anthony Weiner, now calls for “an oligarch tax.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has tried to address the concerns of liberal Democrats concerned about the income gap without forfeiting support from the man many blame for it, in February issued a plan aimed at addressing inequality. “We will keep New York City what it has always been, a place where opportunity is given, not just to those who can afford to buy it, but to those willing to work for it,” she has said.

The discussion has given rise to a cautious optimism among some who would like to see the city government shift direction. “There are a lot of good ideas out there, and I hope some of them make it into the playbook of the eventual winner,” says James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute.

“There’s very little that the Democratic candidates have proposed … that I don’t agree with,” says Berg. But, he added, the question is what their priorities turns out to be and whether they can “mobilize the base without scaring off the middle.”

The limits of power

What, though, can the mayor, any mayor, do? Many of the conditions that have contributed to a rising wealth gap in New York––loss of manufacturing jobs, reduced clout for unions, increasing globalization, the rise of technology––affect the entire nation.

“We’ve seen statistics that show that New York is not any different or any worse in equality than what’s happening in the United States of America,” Republican candidate Joe Lhota said in March. In light of that, he said he did not see any short-term, New York City solutions to the problem.

After largely ignoring poverty in his first term, Bloomberg in his second term began shifting gears a bit. In 2006, he established the Center for Economic Opportunity to look at how poverty is measured and to launch programs to fight it. He followed up with an initiative aimed at young black and Latino men in his third term. While some of these efforts have won praise, overall they have not made any real dent in the percentage of New Yorkers at or near poverty.

The mayor––who undoubtedly would take credit if income inequality abated on his watch––has blamed larger forces for the fact that it hasn’t. After the release of income figures in 2012, a spokesperson for him said the “numbers reflect a national challenge: the U.S. economy has shifted and too many people are getting left behind without the skills they need to compete and succeed … That’s why the mayor believes we need a new national approach to job creation and education.”

But many see that as an easy way out. For one thing, they say, Bloomberg could have done less harm. “Some of the Bloomberg policies have been so wrongheaded,” says Parrott, citing the administration’s opposition to living wage measures and its undermining of contracts for school bus drivers and day care workers. “It’s taking what should be good working class jobs and making them poverty jobs.”

Beyond doing no harm, a mayor can advocate for policies to help the poor, much as Bloomberg has done for gun control. And some say that the mayor of New York is so powerful that many specific policy changes fall well with his or her grasp. The mayor controls a $70 billion budget, Friedman points out and so, he says, “I can think of 100 things the mayor could do.”

In Gelinas’ view, the city can help its low income resident by doing what we expect municipal government to do––enforce laws, protect the streets. “No matter how much you make, you have the right to live in a safe, quiet neighborhood,” she says. “That’s more the city’s job than to make sure everyone earns $80,000 a year.”

Tax breaks for some, hikes for others

No plan for dealing with income inequality has attracted as much attention as de Blasio’s proposal to increase taxes on those earning $500,000 or more to fund early childhood and after-school programs. Most of the Democrats, though, have embraced some changes in the tax system. Liu also calls for a tax on high-earning New Yorkers, saying the money would fund a variety of services, including early childhood education, police and housing for the homeless. Weiner has advocated making the transfer tax on home sales more progressive and upping the tax on homes that are not primary residences. Quinn would try to end the tax on low-income New Yorkers getting the earned income tax credit and, has had said that, if she had to raise taxes, she would do so “progressively.”

Certainly taking money from affluent New Yorkers ––a kind of Robin Hood approach––would reduce income equality in an immediate sense. Many of the proposed changes would require state approval, which could prove dicey. Beyond that, experts disagree over the longer-term impact of any tax hikes.

John Tepper Marlin, who served as chief economist with the city comptroller’s office for 14 years, says he believes the tax system is stacked against those in the lower middle class, the people most experts see at risk of slipping into poverty. Yet he thinks the problem would be best addressed on a national level.

“An attempt to tax the rich will fail because they’ll get away. … You can make a lot of mistakes in New York City and not kill the city, but other cities have been killed,” Marlin says. While he does not think the de Blasio tax hike is high enough to scare people away, he fears some will view it as “an opening wedge for a confiscatory tax.”

Others doubt that, noting that federal income tax rates on high earners inched over 80 percent in 1941 and stayed over 90 percent until the early 1960s. “The national conversation around taxes has become incredibly one-sided,” says Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. “If we can have a leader that shows some courage and raises taxes, I highly doubt it will affect the flow” of creative energetic people to New York.

Rather than raising taxes, Gelinas says, the city could get money for programs to address the income gap by confronting its long-standing budget problem, particularly the high cost of pensions for many city workers. The Republican candidates have indicated a willingness to do this, she says, and even the Democrats appear to recognize the current system is “not sustainable.”

Where the money goes

The question, though, is not only how to raise money but how to spend it. In targeting the money for early childhood education, de Blasio puts himself squarely alongside education experts who believe early childhood education can have a huge effect on outcomes farther down the road. “For our kids to compete and become the workforce we need, our mantra has to be learning earlier and learning longer,” he said in a speech before the Association for a Better New York.

Berg says the plan would not only provide education but also give poor children two free meals a day under the federal WIC program and help parents with child care. But while Parrot says early childhood education helps “make sure there’s starting gate equality,” he cautions it “is not going to show results right away in terms of reversing income inequality.”

Candidates have proposed other investments in education that they say also will better prepare students for better jobs and incomes. Thompson, who has the endorsement of the teachers union, has called for increased funding of schools and establishing additional pathways for students to graduate from high school prepared for college or careers. He also supports expansion of pre-K.

Quinn envisions “cradle to career” technical education, as well as increased computer training–notably, a technical school for girls in every borough. She would provide more time for high-needs students to learn by extending the school day and launching summer programs, and create so-called community schools that provide an array of social and health services as well as classroom teaching.

Lhota sees education as one of the few areas where the city can make a difference. “The city’s responsibility toward educating its children is the first and foremost thing that we need to do to make sure that inequality goes in a different direction,” he has said. “Our children need to be properly trained so they can work in a global economy.”

Lhota’s Republican rival, John Catsimatidis, has proposed a plan that would create stronger links between vocational education programs and corporations. It would include tax credits and incentives for those companies that invest in career training programs.

But while no one disputes the need for quality education, some question whether increased investment in schools will affect the income gap. After all, they note, Bloomberg already has dramatically hiked spending on schools.

Berg says that Bloomberg has put forth a contradictory narrative, saying on the one hand that education is the best cure for poverty and, on the other hand, that his many education changes have been a success. “Either he’s wrong about education being the only answer” or he’s wrong in saying his education programs worked, Berg adds.

The key, others say, would be in the type of investment in education and the quality of the programs. Fernandez says training often has been too rudimentary, preparing students for low-level jobs. “There’s been a lack of vision and an underestimation of the young people of our city,” she says. Fernandez would like the city to take money from a small increase in taxes and invest it in education to prepare people for high-end jobs: not home health aide, perhaps, but registered nurse.

Freidman believes investing in immigrants, particularly in English classes for them, would have a big payback.

Raising the floor

After peaking before the recession the average annual wage in New York’s private sector, fell sharply and, at the end of 2011, remained below where its 2007 level. In the state as a whole, low-wage jobs—those paying less than $45,000—accounted for 35.6 percent of all jobs in New York State; by June 2013, lower paying jobs accounted for 38.4 percent of the state total. Meanwhile, living in New York City has gotten more expensive, making it difficult for working families to pay the rent and put food on the table. “People see a job as the road out of poverty into the middle class, and it’s not getting them up there now,” says Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy, research and advocacy at the Community Service Society.

With this in mind, the Democratic candidates have all supported hikes in the minimum wage, including the increase to $9 an hour over three years approved by the state this year. Liu has called for the wage to go up to $11.65.

As to whether such policies might cost cities jobs in the long run, that, says policy consultant John Petro will “be an eternal debate.” Gelinas says higher wages prompt employers to replace workers with technology.

On economic development

The decline of manufacturing has left government across the country looking for other sources of good jobs. Bloomberg has joined the search, trying to diversify the city beyond Wall Street. To some extent he has succeeded, boosting tourism, for one, and working to make New York more of a tech center.

Some think he has not gone far enough. “Everybody is excited about high tech, but we have to remember UPS creates jobs too,” Petro says. He would like the city to invest in the kinds of blue-collar jobs currently at Willets Points but threatened by development there as well as white-collar jobs destined for Hudson Yards.

Billionaire businessman Catsimatidis has said his experience crating jobs would transfer to generating more jobs for the city as mayor, though specifics of his plan are scarce. Quinn offers a particularly detailed plan for branching out, calling for 2,000 new manufacturing jobs in Sunset Park, developing “world-class food markets” to spur food manufacturing in the city, building a green mechanics industry in the South Bronx and so on. In some cases, this effort would involve government subsidies and other incentives.

Some question the idea of subsidies to business. Others say that if the city is to hand out money to businesses and rich institutions, it should get a better return on its investment. “We have had an economic development policy that has really amounted to making the rich filthy rich,” Liu has said.

In particular, Liu and other critics fault the Bloomberg administration for not requiring recipients of city subsidies to pay a so-called living wage. The mayor vetoed and, after the Council overrode him, went to court to block a watered-down living wage bill that passed last year; the measure requires the developers receiving certain kinds of subsidies above a high-dollar threshold pay their own employees a living wage—but does not address the larger workforces of the tenant companies who occupy, say, a city-subsidized mall. Quinn, who brokered the compromise for that legislation, has said she would “work to ensure that more of those publicly funded developments are required to provide workers with a living wage and benefits, so working New Yorkers can pull themselves up to the middle class.” De Blasio says any business receiving a city subsidy would have to have “a clear plan” for providing health care to its workers.

Parrott, for one, says such policies are vital: “They can make a real difference right away.”

Friedman would link economic subsidies to “job quality,” giving preference to businesses that don’t oppose unionizing efforts, for example, or that hire workers on a full-time basis.

Some say the city also needs to get more in return for the aid it and the state provides developers, including tax breaks and favorable zoning. This could help solve one of the major problems facing low-income New Yorkers: the lack of affordable housing.

Quinn has pledged to build 40,000 units of middle-income––though not low-income––housing units over the next 10 years. Thompson has called for 70,000 new units and the preservation of 50,000 new ones. De Blasio is promising an even more ambitious plan.

Beyond housing, the candidates have addressed other issues that impact income inequality, such as transportation, making the city more energy efficient, improving access to broadband and making the city better able to withstand another storm like Sandy. Such projects would both make the city a better place and provide jobs.

Mending the safety net

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