On Tuesday, I joined over 200 individuals representing over 50 organizations from New York’s workforce development community gathered in Midtown for the NYC Employment and Training Coalition’s annual policy forum. The event brought together many of New York’s largest social service organizations, community colleges and the city agencies that support job training, skills development and employment programs who aid more than 800,000 New Yorkers each year in finding new jobs, earning promotions, or preparing themselves for new careers.
Typically, the policy forum provides an opportunity for experts to share news of successful new program models, ideas for improving the outcomes of public programs, and announcements from city officials of new visions for high-quality workforce development in New York.
But hanging over this year’s policy forum was a cloud of fear and uncertainty, brought on by a new administration in the White House and rumors that it plans to wipe out federal funding for many social services, including the programs that help Americans find and keep good jobs. Workforce policy experts from national organizations delved into the dangers posed by some of the rumored proposals – leaked text of an executive order to gut programs that help immigrants (including documented immigrants) find jobs, and an even more extreme paper from the Heritage Foundation that proposes zeroing out federal support for all jobseekers.
At this policy forum, additional speakers included local leaders from Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Workforce Development and other branches of city government, and they echoed the concerns of the policy experts, albeit with a dash of hope that some of President Trump’s proposed cuts may prove to be politically impossible to enact or even illegal. And advocates from both inside and outside government called on the community of workforce provider organizations to band together to defend these vital programs and speak up for job seekers.
“If our goal is to help New Yorkers get to the middle class—and remain there—then we must help them access opportunities like meaningful work that pays a living wage,” said Public Advocate Letitia James, one of the event’s keynote speakers. “That’s why we can’t cut back on education or job training just when New Yorkers need them the most.”
Upon reflection after the policy forum, however, I think it’s useful to note that New York’s workforce development providers aren’t totally at the mercy of the new president. On the contrary, here in New York our governor and mayor have a tremendous opportunity to chart an alternative course for the programs and communities threatened by looming cuts from Washington. And it begins by using their own budgets to fund the sorts of programs that Trump may target.
Take for example the mayor’s own blueprint for workforce development in NYC, the 2014 Career Pathways Report, which called for an increase to city investment for jobs programs over the next few years. That report didn’t assume any big increase in federal support for jobseekers, but it proposed that New York itself, with our robust and growing tax base, could increase funding for key programs by over $100 million, and reap the rewards in the form of a healthier local economy. Now, in the face of future cuts in federal support, it makes more sense than ever for New York City (and state) to live up to these promises and fully fund the Career Pathways vision.
One critical need identified by the Career Pathways Report is for an increase in funding to “bridge programs”—hybrid education/job skills programs aimed at New Yorkers who don’t have the level of education necessary to earn an immediate job placement or college enrollment. The mayor’s plan proposed to fund bridge programs at the $60 million level by 2020. Well, that plan is now three years in; if the administration wants to be on track it should include at least $30 million for bridge programs in this year’s final budget.
Examples like this abound – if the mayor or the governor seek to set themselves apart from the new president, they can choose to fund programs like these just as Trump pulls back on federal support for jobseekers.
Over the last several weeks Cuomo and de Blasio have both committed themselves to standing up to Trump on certain matters, such as maintaining New York’s place as a sanctuary for immigrants, but so far neither has committed to counter-acting the budgetary changes that the Trump administration and Ryan Congress are likely to pass in Washington. This is the key test: While Congress and the president can agree to pass tax and spending cuts at the federal level (and likely will), none of their cuts will actually harm New Yorkers unless the governor and mayor carry them through their budgets.
Any spending cuts passed in Washington are likely to be accompanied by equal or greater tax cuts, and because New York pays far more in federal taxes than we get back in federal funding, it would be a straightforward and simple budgetary change to replace any lost federal funds with local and state revenue, supplied if necessary by a surcharge on New York’s wealthier taxpayers to sop up a portion of the tax rebates they’d be getting from Washington. Wealthy taxpayers wouldn’t feel the difference between sending that money to Albany or City Hall instead of Washington, and for them the high value of living and working in the New York area would continue to easily outweigh the marginally higher taxes in this region.
In fact, New York could even come out a net “winner” in this exchange – our high concentration of millionaires and billionaires means that the regressive tax changes expected from Washington are likely to amount to a much larger give-back to New Yorkers than even the largest feared funding cuts. The governor and the mayor could cover the federal funding cuts and still have money left over to pay for as-yet unfulfilled priorities, like the underfunded bridge programs in New York City.
It is understandable that the mayor and governor may feel some trepidation as they navigate this new political moment; certainly their position in this budget cycle would be more comfortable they each knew they had an ally in the White House likely to support their initiatives. But moments like these are when great leaders are made, and if de Blasio or Cuomo wants to spend the coming years modeling the alternative to Trumpism, they must first avoid succumbing to Trump’s austerity agenda.
Jesse Laymon is the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.