Since the recent recession, there has been a large expansion of low-wage jobs filled by workers who lost good paying jobs and had to settle for low-wage work and those just entering the labor market. Many of them are still living in poverty.
Economic inequality has gotten worse over the past several decades. Workers’ wages are stagnating. Since the major reason for the explosion of income inequality is government policies, income inequality can be reversed to earlier levels by different government policies.
We can close the income gap for low-wage workers by raising the floor of workers’ wages and benefits and by improving the springboards that accelerate upward mobility. We need to concentrate on both of these channels for advancement.
Mayor de Blasio is focusing on policies that lessen income inequality. He has already achieved several milestones in accomplishing this task, including the expansion of paid sick leave and funding for universal pre-k. The long battle to achieve paid sick leave highlights the importance of unionization for low-wage workers.
The mayor recently attempted to get approval from the state Legislature to increase the minimum wage for New York City because of the high cost of living in the city. The minimum wage is now $8.00 an hour. That’s about $16,000 a year for a full time worker. Yet the federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,850. Over 1.7 million city residents live in poverty, many of them holding low-wage jobs.
The city should be expanding its career and technical education (CTE) courses. Last year, over 800 high school students who wanted to enroll in CTE courses were turned away for lack of room. And there should be a pipeline established for CTE graduates to apprenticeships and jobs in expanding local industries.
The city’s specialized public high schools should be judging their admissions on more than one unproven test. In addition, the widespread use of test preps skews admissions, since low-income households can hardly afford to pay $2,500 for prep courses for their children. The result is that while 70 percent of public high school students are black and Latino, Stuyvesant High had 40 black students out of a total of 3,300.
The city also needs to do a much better job in promoting its GED testing. Almost one million New York City workers have neither a high school diploma nor a GED, making it difficult for them to move up to better paying employment. Few workers take the GED exam because it is not well publicized.
Governor Cuomo wanted to fund college courses for prison inmates, which would have helped them to succeed when released into society. Unfortunately, he quickly backtracked when he was attacked as “soft on crime.”
The mayor should be lobbying HUD to enforce Section 3 of the 1968 Housing Act to move the New York City Housing Authority to provide training and employment for low-income workers. And he should be working in Albany to remove barriers to jobs, housing, and health care for people coming out of state prisons.
Some of these proposals are not difficult to achieve. Many would not even cost the city additional funding. But they must be addressed.
In our the latest Community Service Society survey of New Yorkers, a majority of respondents, across all income groups, felt that it is not possible anymore for the poor to make it into the middle class. This is a grim verdict. We must work to reverse this for New York to remain both livable and competitive in the new global economy.