Last month, I moderated a panel discussion on income inequality in New York City put on by the Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. The panel featured some of the city’s brightest minds on the city economy, social justice, and the intersection of those two vital issues.
The backdrop of the discussion was simple: the number of New Yorkers living in poverty continues to increase even as the recovery from the Great Recession moves forward. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and the gap between the rich and poor is higher than ever, a situation that puts our city in a perilous position.
The median income for the highest fifth of wage earners is more than 25 times the lowest fifth. This growing inequality is a threat to the economic and social viability of New York City. It is not surprising that 52 percent of respondents in the latest Community Service Society survey said that there is little or no chance of New Yorkers who live in poverty to ascend to the middle class.
There is no silver bullet to fix what is broken in our city, but there are plenty of good ideas to get us moving in the right direction. Many of those ideas were voiced by the panelists, echoing the calls of individuals and organizations around the city: better wages and benefits for low-wage workers; city contracts that pay workers middle class wages; greater investment in children at the earliest ages; development deals tied to more affordable housing; public investment in the city’s infrastructure with local hiring requirements. The list of viable solutions goes on and on.
The naysayers will always point to the financial implausibility of such measures. But the naysayers are proven wrong time and time again. A higher minimum wage and benefits such as paid sick days will not put companies out of business. They will put more money in the pockets of workers to spend and provide a boost to the economy.
We can fund early childhood education for the youngest New Yorkers, an idea that is supported by both mayoral candidates. The city can afford to pay better wages to those it contracts with to provide services – if only it would stop giving unnecessary tax breaks to companies that don’t need them.
In the past decade or so, the city has given away more than $3 billion in tax breaks to over 65 corporations, including some of the largest and wealthiest companies in America. Many times the tax breaks were extorted so that these companies wouldn’t carry out an empty threat to leave the city. As if they were really going somewhere else.
That $3 billion could have gone toward improving schools, public safety, or transportation. It could have been used to provide tax relief for individuals or small businesses. Instead, it was thrown away. There is no reason why we should be subsidizing wealthy corporations.
Put simply, there are reasonable, realistic ways to make New York City a better, fairer place to live. The bigger question is: how do we ensure these things actually get done?
That is where the city’s voters come in. And I am not talking about one vote in one election. Getting the city headed in the right direction will require political organization and a level of accountability that is too often lacking in our democracy. It will require an effort on the part of every voter to ensure that our City Council’s chamber is filled with members fighting every day for the communities they represent. And if our public servants are not up to the task, or worse, abusing their position, they should be sent packing.
I understand that for many low-income New Yorkers, keeping up with issues of politics and public policy simply can’t fit in with the demands of raising children and trying to make ends meet. That is one reason why the Community Service Society released a voter guide to simplify the process of understanding the issues and where the candidates stand.
Voters who have the least time to devote to following the policy debate and the least financial resources available to influence it often have their views and policy preferences go unrepresented on Election Day and beyond. However, taken together, these voters represent a massive bloc. With the proper information and political organization, voices that are traditionally unheard can ensure that the solutions to the city’s problems are not merely spoken about in panels, but actually implemented in City Hall.