Growing income inequality is a threat to the economic and social viability of New York City. More than half of the 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. The idea of economic mobility is being lost.
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 discussed the city’s economy and social justice, and the intersection of those two vital issues.
The number of New Yorkers living in poverty continues to increase even as the recovery from the recent recession moves forward. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and the gap between the rich and poor is higher than ever.
There is no silver bullet to fix what is broken in our city. But here are some good ideas to get us moving in the right direction voiced by the panelists: better wages and benefits for low-wage workers; city contracts that pay workers middle income 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.
We have been told that such measures are financially implausible. They are not. For instance, 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. Both mayoral candidates support this policy. The city can afford to pay better wages to those it contracts with if 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 these tax breaks were extorted so that the companies wouldn’t carry out a threat to leave the city.
That $3 billion could have gone toward improving schools, public safety, or transportation. It could have been used to provide tax relief for small businesses. There is no reason why we should be subsidizing wealthy corporations.
There are realistic ways to make New York City a better, fairer place to live. But for that to happen, our public officials have to be on board.
That means scrutiny of elected officials by the city’s voters. 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 voters to ensure that our City Council is filled with members fighting for the communities they represent.
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, 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 discussed, but are actually implemented by our public officials.