What New Yorkers Want Mayor de Blasio to Do

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The election is over.  Now comes the hard part.  Bill de Blasio will face a number of tough issues when he takes office in January.  To determine what New Yorkers want Mayor de Blasio to concentrate on, we asked them, using our annual survey of New Yorkers, “The Unheard Third.”  Here are some of the highlights.

Nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers are worried about the widening economic inequality in the city.  More than a third – including 43 percent of low-income blacks - are very worried.  What can be done to reverse this course?

Jobs with a Future

New Yorkers want jobs with upward mobility.  Across income and party lines, they overwhelmingly want the next mayor to focus on growing middle-income jobs (58%), rather than low-wage (19%) or high wage/professional jobs (13%).  Since the start of the recent recession, the city has suffered a net loss of high and middle-wage jobs, with job growth concentrated in low-wage industries, mostly in dead-end jobs with few benefits.

In fact, a majority of New Yorkers (52%) across all income groups 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.

An overwhelming 82 percent of New Yorkers favor making a large investment in infrastructure to create jobs.  Two-thirds of respondents – including 69 percent of low-income blacks - strongly favor a large public works program.  But New Yorkers are divided on giving large businesses tax breaks and zoning changes to spur development – 48 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed.  When tax breaks are linked to better wages, hiring local workers, and affordable housing, however, total support jumps to 70 percent.

Black New Yorkers see the importance of aiding education and training for youths.  Seventy-six percent of low-income blacks are willing to pay a little more in taxes to connect out-of-school and out-of-work youth to jobs.  Eighty-one percent are willing to pay a little more  taxes to expand and improve high school career and technical education.

The new mayor will face serious fiscal challenges in negotiating long overdue labor contracts covering all municipal unions, from teachers to uniformed services.  Given that reality, it is important to note that many of the proposals that draw widespread support and could make a real difference for low-income New Yorkers can be accomplished without any additional city spending.

With rent burdens now eating up a staggering two-thirds of income, on average, for poor New Yorkers in unsubsidized units, eight-year waiting lists for public housing, and a record number of over 50,000 people living in homeless shelters, 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 new mayor can help cut the public housing deficit by quickly ending the annual $75 million that the New York City Housing Authority pays for special police services that the NYPD provides free to private landlords under “Operation Clean Halls,” and the $23 million that goes for PILOT payments in lieu of taxes from which many nonprofit housing providers are exempt. 

As for family-sustaining jobs, developments given multi-million dollar tax breaks can be required to hire locally and pay living wages.  Paid sick days can be expanded to cover all workers.  Existing business incentives can be redirected to attract more middle-wage industries and launch public works projects.  The new mayor should expand the network of high schools focused on trades and link them to apprenticeships and jobs in selected industries.

He could raise wages and provide benefits to low-wage workers by supporting paid family leave, a local minimum wage, and a living wage law.  He should drop the city’s lawsuit on stop and frisk, which violates the constitutional rights of people of color.  And he should end the use of a single test score as the only criterion for admission to the city’s elite high schools.

Crucial Choices

These are issues that we have advanced long before the current race for mayor.  Mayor de Blasio must grapple with most of these issues.  What will be crucial are the choices he makes when confronted by them.  This agenda is not without challenges, but much of it can be accomplished without additional expenditures.  And where new money is required, our survey finds that New Yorkers are willing to make the investment needed to rebuild a strong middle class and create broad pathways into it for those who have been stuck for far too long in dead-end jobs at the bottom. 

“The Unheard Third” is the only public opinion poll in the nation to regularly chronicle issues facing low-income individuals and families.  The survey tracks the concerns and hardships of New York City’s low-income residents and their views on what programs and policies would help them get ahead.  Major findings from “The Unheard Third” are available online.

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