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Economic Might Makes Right? NY City Council's Moral Choice

Posted: 11/24/10 01:33 PM ET

When explaining her reasons for killing paid sick leave legislation earlier this year, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the economic costs associated with the bill would be too great. The bill's opponents--including Mayor Bloomberg--agreed that guaranteeing every worker the right to earn paid sick leave was the right thing to do, but the bill ultimately lived or died by its perceived economic impact.

The city's leading big-business lobbyists estimated how much the bill would cost businesses based on the results of an opinion survey of business owners. The report failed to clearly explain how it calculated these costs and kept all of its supporting evidence secret. No matter. The survey and its dubious findings were embraced by Quinn--after all, she was the one who suggested that the survey be carried out in the first place.

Proponents of the bill, myself included, also debated the bill's economic merits. I authored a report that examined the economic impact of a similar bill in San Francisco and found that it had absolutely no observable impact on the growth of jobs or businesses there. San Francisco's economy was doing just fine after adopting paid sick leave, despite the recession, and there was no reason to believe that New York's economy would be harmed by paid sick leave when San Francisco's had not. Paid sick leave was good economic policy.

But with all this emphasis on economics, something terribly important was lost during this debate: is it fair to deny over one million working New Yorkers the right to take off of work to recover from illness? Is it morally right that children must be sent to school when they're sick because a parent cannot afford to take the day off from work?

No, it is not right, and it is not something that a society rooted in the principles of equality and justice should tolerate. Not only is it acceptable for elected officials to consider the moral implications of their decisions, it is absolutely essential. In the case of paid sick leave, it turned out that the policy was good for New York both in terms of economics and justice, even though it was eventually defeated because of supposed, but unproven, economic harm.

The same can be said of two other bills working their way through the City Council: the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act and the Prevailing Wage bill. These bills would undo an economic injustice: city-subsidized jobs that pay poverty-level wages.

The fastest-growing jobs in New York are low-paying jobs in retail and home health care. As higher-paying manufacturing jobs left New York--squeezed out by real estate pressures--they've largely been replaced with jobs with low pay and no benefits.

The reality is that one-in-three adult working New Yorkers makes less than $24,000 a year. Families must worry where their next meal is coming from, whether they will be able to make rent, and skip basic necessities.

When we're talking about city-subsidized developments, like retail malls that get city tax breaks, the injustice of poverty-level wages is even more pronounced. A meeting of the city's faith leaders last week highlighted the moral imperative.

"If developers and the rich benefit from our tax dollars, they should pay a wage that allows people to live with dignity, be able to feed their family and provide a safe, clean place to live," said Rev. Jesse T. Williams of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. "It is a fundamental issue of social justice."

So the city's elected officials, when considering whether to support these bills, should ask themselves: is it right to give developers tens of millions in city tax breaks only to create poverty-level jobs? Is it fair?

Call me an idealist if you must, but our whole democratic system is the result of centuries of progress in which fairness and justice were advanced in the face of opposition from those with wealth and power. In New York City, where developers wield a tremendous amount of power, we will see whether progress prevails.

 

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