Candidates: What about the Working Poor?

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

It’s time to talk about the needs and concerns of urban America, including the problems of poverty.  We didn’t get much of that during the recent presidential election campaign.  But this November, New York City will elect a new mayor.  The candidates for mayor must discuss issues relevant to New York City, especially to the city’s low-income residents.

Today, at the Corinthian Baptist Church, we are holding the first of two forums where candidates for mayor address the issues affecting low-income New Yorkers.  This forum is sponsored by the Community Service Society, 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.  

New York has the greatest gap between rich and poor of any state in the nation. In New York City, the stark disparity in income is even more pronounced: the top fifth earns an average of $223,000 while the bottom fifth struggles on a median income of $9,000, ratio of more than 24 to 1.

In New York City, 1.6 million people live below the federal poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four).  There are about 177,000 young people, ages 16 to 24, who are neither worker nor in school.  And there are 1.3 million New Yorkers (18 and older) without a high school diploma.

Low-Wage Opinions

The Community Service Society conducts an annual survey of opinion of low-income New Yorkers.  In our latest survey, we asked about the upcoming mayoral election.  We found that New Yorkers of all income levels want the next mayor to support policies that help families get ahead, raise wages and benefits, expand affordable housing, and create jobs that provide a path to the middle class.

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 tons 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.

There is strong support from low-income New Yorkers — and broad agreement from those across the income spectrum — for a set of policies that everyone sees moving the city in a positive direction of growing and shared prosperity.

Policy Agenda

  • 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
  • Pursuing strategies to bring more middle-skilled jobs to the city to broaden the economic and tax base and complement initiatives that promise to make the city a world class center for high tech industries
  • Investing 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.

  • Filling the pipeline to better-paying jobs with well-educated graduates.  New Yorkers want to put more resources into schools serving our poorest students so they can receive a first-rate education and the support they need to learn. 

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.  And New Yorkers want to put at least as much effort into persuading young people about the importance of finishing high school as we do persuading them not to smoke.

  • Making a new commitment to affordable housing, on the scale needed so those who work here can afford to live here.

These are the issues we believe the 2013 elections should be about.  Let’s hear from the candidates themselves on these and other issues of concern to low-income New Yorkers.

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