Candidates Must Focus on Low-Income Concerns

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

In New York City, 1.6 million people live below the federal poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four).  There are about 187,000 young people, ages 16 to 24, who are neither working nor in school.  The top fifth earners in the city make an average of $223,000 a year while the bottom fifth struggles on an income of $9,000, ratio of more than 24 to 1.

It’s time for the candidates for mayor to talk about the needs and concerns of low-income New Yorkers, including the problems of poverty.  Last week, the Community Service Society (CSS) co-sponsored the first of two forums for candidates for mayor.  The other sponsors were Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, the Center for Popular Democracy and United New York.

We are holding these forums because we believe it is important for the future of the city that the voices of low-income New Yorkers be heard by the candidates for mayor.  One out of three voting age citizens in New York City — a huge potential bloc — lives in families with incomes below twice the federal poverty level of $47,100 for a family of four.  Their voices are too often ignored by candidates seeking public office.   

CSS conducts an annual survey of opinion of low-income New Yorkers.  In our latest survey, we found that New Yorkers — by more than a three-to-one margin — favor a mayor who supports policies that help working New Yorkers and their families get ahead over a mayor who supports policies that make New York City a good place to do business.

New Yorkers believe that the way for working families to get ahead is by raising the floor for low-paying jobs, attracting more middle-skilled jobs to the city, and ensuring that young people have the education they need to fill those better-paying jobs.

New Yorkers don’t buy the argument put forward by the business elite that putting their interests first is the key to a prosperous city.  Wall Street and the big banks, bailed out by the taxpayers, are making lots of money again.  Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers have gotten nothing since a dime increase in the minimum wage in 2009 and face wealthy corporate and political leaders so mean-spirited they would deny them the right to even five paid sick days a year.

We should be raising the floor for low-wage workers with a higher minimum wage, indexed to inflation and requiring employers to provide at least five paid sick days to their workers.

The next administration should invest in infrastructure on a massive scale to address the needs made even more apparent by Superstorm Sandy.  Now is exactly the right moment, with a slack labor market, historically low interest rates and post-Sandy rebuilding funds, to upgrade our power and transportation
systems to withstand extreme weather events and meet 21st century needs.

We found almost universal support for creating jobs by upgrading subways, public housing, schools and parks.  These projects can provide good-paying jobs to unemployed skilled tradespeople and create new apprenticeships for low-income New Yorkers and young people with few prospects. 

We should be filling the pipeline to better-paying jobs with well-educated high school graduates.  We found a broad consensus for ramping up the quality and quantity of career and technical education and opening our public senior colleges more widely to groups who have been left out.

These are the issues we believe the 2013 elections should be about.  The next mayoral forum is scheduled for Saturday, April 20.  The topic will be affordable housing – how best to ensure that low-income families have the ability to live in the city where they work.

David R. Jones, Esq., is president and CEO of the Community Service Society (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for 170 years.  For over 10 years he served as a member of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.  The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer.

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