Should we tear down the city's middle class? Or work to turn lousy jobs into good ones? That's the policy choice facing New York's city and state leaders. So far, their decisions aren't encouraging: for years New York has failed to use its economic development programs to promote the creation of good, family-supporting jobs. Now it is welcoming Walmart's industry-decimating low-wages with open arms. The state has so far failed to take a stand against $1 billion a year in wages stolen from New York's lowest-income workers, but instead is spoiling for a fight of a very different sort: vowing to scale back the pay and retirement security of middle-class teachers, transportation workers, and other public employees.
The result? A disappearing middle class amidst the proliferation of lousy, low-wage jobs. It doesn't have to be this way.
For the time being, New York City is getting more lousy jobs. We are gaining retail and restaurant jobs -- positions that often lack benefits and fail to pay a living wage - while losing middle-class jobs in the public sector and manufacturing. To make matters worse, education and health care - among the few bright spots in New York City's recovery over the past year (as well as the state's job growth over the past decade) -- are the very areas Governor-elect Cuomo has vowed to cut.
As a result, the disappearance of New York's middle class is likely to accelerate. We may continue to be home to more millionaires but we're also apt to see more people with jobs showing up at food pantries because they're not earning enough to feed their families.
None of this is inevitable. The economic trends impacting New York today were heavily shaped by past public policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level. Meanwhile the choices made by our political leaders today could redirect (or intensify) the way the city's economy develops. What will New York stand for?
If we're stung by the loss of good jobs, one reaction is to turn our resentment on the folks who still have solid middle-class careers: deplore teachers who still have protection from arbitrary layoffs and insist that the biggest problem New York faces is that parks department workers still have pensions. We could assert the worker protections they enjoy are outdated, trash the compensation these public workers earn, and turn their jobs into lousy jobs too.
While we're at it, we can welcome Walmart into the city and insist that it's perfectly acceptable for people to go to work every day and still need food stamps to feed their children. Maybe the teachers we're laying off can get jobs there.
Or we could try something different.
We could, for example, look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development subsidies the city spends every year and insist that these taxpayer dollars be used to promote jobs that allow working people to support their families. New York could emulate Pittsburgh's decision to stop using subsidies to foster poverty wages. We could pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act to insist that the mega-developments underwritten by our public dollars pay decent wages. These measures won't put an immediate halt to the decline of job quality in New York, but at least they'll put the city's economic muscle on the side of the angels.
We could also work to ensure that the job standards we have now are enforced. New York's minimum wage is an inadequate $7.25 an hour, yet a fifth of the city's low-wage workforce (317,200 working people) are cheated out of even that meager pay or fall victim to other workplace violations in a typical week. The state's Wage Theft Prevention Act, now languishing in Albany because the Assembly and Senate passed slightly different versions, would be a step towards enforcing the laws now on the books to protect New York's lowest paid workers.
It's not too late for New York to take a stand for good jobs, strengthening and expanding the city's middle class rather than tearing it down. But the longer New York waits to reverse course, the more difficult it will be.