Long before the city elected its 109th mayor, the Community Service Society has been using the findings of the Unheard Third to amplify the voices of low-income New Yorkers and influence public policies that reflect the life experiences and ideas of New Yorkers struggling to achieve economic stability. The latest findings showed that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers are worried about the widening economic inequality in the city. Indeed, 52 percent feel it is not possible for the poor to make it into the middle class.
Economic mobility, historically associated with New York City, seems to be fading.
As we know, addressing economic inequality was a centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to be mayor. Not surprisingly, public expectations are very high that he will do more than his predecessor to close the gap between the rich and the poor, and help make the city more prosperous place for all New Yorkers. Toward this end, a top priority of his administration must be creating good jobs with decent pay that offer a pathway out of poverty.
A good place to start would be investing in our labor force. Putting people to work by making vital improvements to our infrastructure would help the long-term unemployed and jobless youth. This is the best type of public policy because it supports the needs of the city’s physical infrastructure as well as the human capital that drives our economy. And New Yorkers, across incomes, seem to agree. Eight-two percent of New Yorkers favor a large public works program to provide good-paying jobs.
Developments given multi-million dollar tax breaks by the city should be required to hire locally and pay living wages. The new mayor could also raise wages and provide benefits to low-wage workers by supporting paid family leave in New York State, a local minimum wage, and expanding the reach of the watered down living wage law passed by the City Council. And as de Blasio has argued throughout his campaign, the recently passed paid sick days law can be expanded to cover all workers, not just those in businesses with more than 15 employees.
Rent burdens now account for a staggering two-thirds of income, on average, for poor New Yorkers in unsubsidized units. So it is hard to think about alleviating poverty in New York City without talking about affordable housing. The city should invest its financial resources in maximizing the use of the federal tax credit and other affordable housing subsidies. And it should lower the income target in new developments to reach the lowest-income tenants possible.
The public housing deficit can be immediately cut by ending the annual $75 million that the New York City Housing Authority pays for special police services that the NYPD provides free to all other housing developments and the $23 million that goes for PILOT payments in lieu of taxes from which many nonprofit housing providers are exempt.
On the education front, 70 percent of New Yorkers favor investing more in schools in poor neighborhoods, as opposed to closing low-performing schools and opening more charters in an attempt to create choice and competition. The new mayor should also expand the portfolio of career and technical education (CTE) high schools that focus on in-demand industries that provide good paying middle-skills jobs. And he should end the use of a single test score as the only criterion for admission to the city’s elite high schools.
Upon entering office, Mayor de Blasio will have to negotiate long overdue labor contracts covering all municipal unions. Given that reality and other revenue constraints, it is important to note that many of the proposals that could make a real difference for low-income New Yorkers can be accomplished without any additional city spending.
In the weeks to come, we will use this space to lay out in detail, strategies the new mayor and Council leadership can pursue to assist the working poor. Jobs paying decent wages, affordable housing, and an educational system that gives every student an equal chance to succeed are the issues New Yorkers are most concerned about. The mayor and City Council will have to work on these issues with tremendous urgency if New York City is to remain a great city for all its residents.