6 Ways the 7th Richest Man in America Has Screwed the Poor
The following piece is part of AlterNet's series on poverty, Hard Times, USA.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg perfectly described a day in the life of your average homeless New Yorker. “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we've got to give you shelter," he said on his radio show, addressing the record rate of homelessness in the city.
50,000 people, including 21,000 children, are currently crowded into the city's emergency shelters, a 61 percent rise from when the Mayor took office, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Last month, the Mayor had assured reporters that "Nobody's sleeping on the streets," a claim easily refuted by a look at the city's homelessness statistics and/or going outside in New York. As it turns out, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) had recently suspended a program making it easier for homeless families to get into shelters when the temperature dips below freezing. The DHS did not share this information widely; it came to light after a New York Daily News report highlighted the case of 23 year-old Junior Clarke, who told the News that he, his wife, and 4 year-old daughter were turned away from the city's intake center on a freezing day. When they refused to leave, staff threatened to call the police.
“They tried to make us leave and we refused,” Clarke told the Daily News. “You know some people leave, walk away and go sleep on the train with their families.”
As the 7th richest man in America finishes his final term in office, he leaves behind one of the biggest wealth gaps in the country: income inequality in Manhattan is the second worst in the US, according to the New York Times. New York's poverty rate has risen to the highest level in a decade, the Times also noted. 1 in 3 New York kids live below the poverty line. In parts of the Bronx, two thirds of residents live in areas of extreme poverty.
At the start of his second term, the Mayor raised the hopes of advocates for the poor by expanding the definition of poverty to account for the high cost of living in the city. But as sociologist Francis Fox Piven told the Gotham Gazette, "If we thought a new measure would mean more generous policies, we were wrong."
In fact, many Mayoral actions have significantly worsened the lives of the poor. Here's a look at some of his greatest hits.
1. Booting Homeless Families from Priority Access to Housing Aid
At the start of his second term, the Mayor promised to reduce the rate of individual and family homelessness in the city by two-thirds in 5 years. Today, there are as many homeless New Yorkers as during the height of the Great Depression, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The Mayor blames the recession and, strangely, the Coalition for the Homeless itself, but homelessness advocates point to a series of ill-advised policy decisions that separated homeless families from the government aid that had kept many of them housed.
In 2005, the administration cut homeless families' priority access to Section 8 federal housing aid. In its place, DHS came up with Housing Stability Plus, a program designed to fire up homeless families' magic bootstrap powers by making aid temporary and contingent on work requirements. Families were only eligible if they were on Public Assistance but they also had to work, which counterproductively meant that if one parent got a full-time job they could lose their housing. A 2007 Coalition report found that families were being funneled into slumlord properties, where kids could build character by overcoming hardships like rat infestations and lead in the walls. The Advantage program, another impermanent rental subsidy that restricted rental help to 2 years, followed. Despite the administration's efforts, the rate of homelessness continued to climb as families ran out of Advantage subsidies without substantially improving their economic situation and had no choice but to return to shelter.
Half of the program's costs were paid by New York state. When Governor Cuomo cut off funds, the Bloomberg administration scrapped the whole thing, leaving the city with no permanent housing plan for the city's neediest families.
2. No Plan to Address Homelessness
That didn't go well! This week, a report by Coalition for the Homeless found that as of November, 2,818 former Advantage families had returned to a shelter. A quarter of the families going into the city's shelters are former Advantage users, which explains, in part, why the rate of homelessness is high as during the 1930s.
The Mayor's current plan seems to consist of saying out-of-touch-rich-guy things (" ... it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before," Bloomberg said when asked why homeless families were staying in shelters so long), and opening up emergency shelters. Spending on temporary shelter has jumped 30 percent since 2008, according to the Independent Budget Office.
If the Mayor had his way though, the best strategy for lowering the cost of shelter is to let fewer people stay in them. At a press conference defending his large soda ban, the Mayor philosophized about the responsibility we have to take care of one another. Minutes later he warned that the city's policy of housing the homeless threatened to set off mass unrest.
"You're gonna see an uprising here," he said. "The public cannot afford to continue to do what we've been doing with homeless where everybody has a right to shelter, whether they need it or not. The public at some point is going to say to their elected officials: 'I don't want to pay anymore," he said.
Although the Department of Homeless services can deny families shelter -- only 35 percent of families that apply for shelter are accepted -- they don't have the same luck with homeless individuals because of various state and city laws that require the city to house any individual who asks for shelter.
Meanwhile, a plan by City Council members Christine Quinn and Annabel Palma to move homeless families into permanent housing instead of putting them in expensive emergency shelters is gathering dust. They suggest re-prioritizing shelter residents in the allocation of federal housing subsidies, and adding a rental assistance program similar to Advantage. So far, the administration seems intent to leave the problem to the next guy.
3. Crushing the Living Wage Laws
Contrary to nasty stereotypes, many people without permanent housing have jobs; they just don't earn enough to support life in one of the costliest American cities.
The campaign for a living wage in New York famously united clergy, antipoverty advocates, and unions. A large majority of City Council members stood behind the two bills. The widespread support was not surprising, since it's pretty hard to come up with a convincing opposition to the measures, which simply demanded that development projects that receive more than $1 million in taxpayer subsidies pay their workers a decent wage: 10 dollars an hour with health insurance, or $11.50 without.
Advocates pointed out that developers who underpaid their workers were being subsidized by taxpayers twice: once when they got the initial public money and again when their workers were forced to resort to food stamps, housing aid, and other social services in order to survive on their measly earnings. The city had already been more than kind to developers, with business tax subsidies growing by 180 percent in the past decade, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.
While the Mayor enthusiastically supported that government intrusion into the market, he deemed the living wage to be an unacceptable government overreach. The measures were "a throwback to the era when government viewed the private sector as a cash cow to be milked, rather than a garden to be cultivated," the Mayor mused poetically. But things were serious. "The last time we really had a big managed economy was the USSR and that didn't work out so well," he warned on his radio show.
When the City Council overwhelmingly passed the legislation, the Mayor vetoed it. When the Council overrode his veto, the Mayor actually sued the City Council to prevent the measures from taking effect. In the meantime, Council member Christine Quinn got busy weakening the measure. In the end, the legislation applied to only 400 or 500 workers, reported the New York Times, allowing companies like Fresh Direct, which was about to receive a $100-million package of tax breaks for moving to the Bronx, to underpay their workers in peace.
4. Budget Cuts
At the start of his second term, the Mayor launched an anti-poverty initiative that consisted of a series of pilot programs, many of them privately funded. They included job training and teaching poor families how to save money. The administration also introduced conditional cash transfers, rewarding families that met goals like going to the doctor, school attendance for the kids or even getting a library card. The money could certainly make a short-term difference for families that participated but antipoverty advocates argued that the cash transfers and other programs were too small to address the root causes of poverty like high rates of unemployment, skyrocketing rents and low wages. (Cash transfer was abandoned when it showed little impact on the behavior of participants.)
At the same time that the Mayor was introducing and then giving up on untested programs, the administration's proposed budget cuts ended up primarily impacting public services that helped the poor. An analysis by the Gotham Gazette found that programs aiding the city's poor and working class residents -- including those providing child care, health, education and homeless services "have lost a disproportionate number of workers -- 6 percent to more than 26 percent of their staffs." They point out that at the same time the police department "lost fewer than 3 percent of its uniformed officers, and the corrections department has actually increased its uniformed staffing by 2 percent."
Every year, like clockwork, the Mayor's proposed budget contains massive proposed cuts to programs that help poor kids and parents, like child care and after school programs. Between 2007 and 2011 more than 40,000 subsidized child services spots were canned, according to the Center for New York City Affairs. "This year, the slots face the guillotine once again, with a $60 million cut to afterschool programs in Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget, and another $77 million to child care services," writes Abigail Kramer Child Welfare Watch.
5. Affordable Housing for Rich People
One area the administration has been willing to spend money is in building affordable housing in the city. The New Housing Marketplace Plan, a multi-billion dollar investment, is expected to produce up to 140,000 housing units (the initial goal was 165,000). Small snag: many will only be affordable for upper-income people. A new report prepared by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development found that two thirds of the new spaces cost too much for most neighborhood residents. In half of the districts surveyed, the majority of units are too expensive for residents that make the neighborhood's median income (the administration disputes their conclusions). "The typical Bronx household would have to make 1.5 times its income in order to be able to afford the majority of the affordable housing built in the Bronx," they write. As Eric Jaffe points out in Atlantic Cities, "In general terms, the affordable housing plan did create low-income housing, but it was upper-low-income housing."
For example, an "affordable housing" apartment built in Central Harlem costs $1,492, most likely to be rented by a relatively high income person. In contrast, the report points to another 3 bedroom apartment in the neighborhood, built in collaboration with a non-profit, which rents for $531.
The plan certainly isn't ideal for poor residents being priced out of their neighborhoods. As Alyssa Katz points out in the American Prospect, even if the housing units provided by the initiative served low-income people, they would not make up for the impact of gentrification. "New York is losing far more than it's building to deregulation and gentrification. According to the Community Service Society, every year nearly 60,000 apartments become too expensive for the poorest two-fifths of city residents to afford. "
While gentrification is often seen as being inevitable, it's strongly shaped by city policy, and the Bloomberg administration has been an especially ardent advocate of redevelopment. In the past decade the city has rezoned a record number of neighborhoods, which allows developers to come in and build expensive new apartments or fill a street with H&Ms and Old Navys. While in many cases neighborhood change can be positive, advocates for lower-income people and protestors of gentrification say that despite big promises made at city meetings, development is rarely met with matching measures that ensure residents can stay in the neighborhood.
6. Stop and frisk
The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy essentially makes it a crime to be a poor black or Latino person in New York (the policy is currently the target of a large class action lawsuit). The shocking stats have become familiar: 5 million stops in the last decade, close to 90% of them minorities. Only 1 in 1,000 stops yields a gun, undermining the Mayor's contention that the policy plays an essential role in keeping guns off the streets. But as AlterNet's Kristen Gwynne has reported, stats somberly repeated by the New York Times mask the horrific on-the-ground experience of the department's violent policing: the cold numbers obscure what it's like to have a cop touch your penis while your girlfriend watches.
Gwynne has also documented how aggressive enforcement of so-called "quality of life laws" in poor neighborhoods -- like riding your bike on the sidewalk -- sucks kids into the criminal justice system:
A “Quality of life” summons for disorderly conduct may seem like no big deal, but young people in the South Bronx told me that misdemeanor summonses are so often handed to them that they “lose track” and miss a court date. Next thing they know, a stop-and-frisk turns up a warrant for arrest, and they are hauled down to the precinct. The $25 fine quickly turns into $100, stacking up to exorbitant fees for crimes prosecuted almost exclusively in low-income neighborhoods of color.
One can see how fining low-income people hundreds of dollars for riding their bikes on the sidewalk doesn't ease their path out of poverty. Also, probably pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is more complicated when going to school or work involves being yelled at, fondled, cited, or arrested by police.