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William C. Thompson, Jr.

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Tackling the Growing Poverty Gap

Posted: 10/01/2012 7:30 pm

The Census Bureau just released sobering statistics on income last week. While the national poverty rate held steady at 15 percent, New York City suffered an increase of 4.5 percent in those living below the poverty line. Presently, nearly 1.7 million people or 21 percent of New Yorkers live in poverty.

In the Bronx the poverty rate crossed 30 percent and in Brooklyn it is approaching a quarter of the population, while unemployment in both boroughs exceeds 13 percent. Worst of all, 750,000 New Yorkers subsist on less than half the poverty income level, illustrating a distressingly large number of very poor. These are staggering and utterly unacceptable statistics that demand leadership and action.

The Census statistics also reveal that the increase in poverty mirrors the economic plight of the city's middle class, as median household income declined by $821 in New York City to $49,461. In the daily struggle to make ends meet, both our poor and our middle class find themselves losing ground.

The macroeconomic reality is that New York City is facing an affordability gap that threatens diminished opportunity for too many and fiscal peril for the City as a whole. We must act now to identify solutions and make smart policy choices to lessen this affordability gap.

The first step is to develop a master plan combining city and state resources that leverage private sector dollars, to steadily expand our affordable housing stock. Greater supply could yield a better cost curve in housing and would provide an economic shot in the arm for construction sector jobs. Let's begin by not making the problem worse. That means not enacting City Council Intro 730, which mandates adding a massive red-tape burden on companies constructing affordable housing, with no prospect for improving either wages or the production of housing units.

Second, let's master what the economists call our demand-driven economy. New York City's government can play an active role in matching the skills and degrees held by prospective employees entering the job market, with the actual needs of employers.

Associate degree programs geared to high graduation rates in the jobs skills demanded by employers, especially for skilled blue-collar work, is now a necessity not a luxury. This requires public-private partnerships ensuring a well-trained and highly educated work force for the new economy.

Third, let's nurture growth industries. Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit for building the engineering based high tech center with Cornell on Roosevelt Island. Let's go beyond that, by acting upon the New York State Business Council's recent Public Policy Institute report, making the case for growing the bioscience industry. New York City can focus its economic development resources on these projects, aiding in the pursuit of high paying local jobs with strong multiplier ratios.

Fourth, the best trampoline for fighting poverty remains educational excellence. We must demand more from the city's public schools than having only 21 percent graduate high school with college ready skills, while the remaining 79 percent require remediation help if they intend to continue studies on the college level. That means not allowing children to fall behind, especially those for whom English is a second language and it means a focus on the critical thinking that is required in an ever more sophisticated work place of the future. We must mandate better bottom-line results from our schools while replacing a failed culture of standardized testing at ever younger ages.

Fifth, let's recognize that low income workers need our help. It was a travesty that State Senate Republicans balked at increasing the minimum wage. Let's use the remaining weeks of the campaign season to take that issue to the voters, demanding action on a minimum wage hike in Albany's post-election special session.

Finally, whether the cost escalator comes from the systematic evasion of property taxes, leaving those that do pay their taxes with higher bills, nuisance fines or needlessly inflated water bills, let's demand that City Hall do its part to stem the rise in the cost of living in here. Let's insist on a package of cost savings for all New Yorkers, lowering the costs and fees government imposes on our working families.

The Census Bureau statistics quantify New Yorker's current misery. Let's respond with a pragmatic sense of purpose and persistence that confirms Bill Clinton's principle that "we're all in this together."

 
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