Bloomberg's Latest Bargaining Chips? Low-Income Children

After months of threatening New York City’s poorest communities with devastating cuts to after-school and child-care services, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Monday that he would restore funding for those programs rather than eliminating them.  The announcement came at the last hour, with less than a week to spare before the final deadline. Bloomberg’s original Executive Budget, announced in May, would have left as many as 47,000 children without after-school or child care, most of them low-income children of color.

The mayor’s announcement is great news for the children of New York City, who, according to press releases from the mayor’s office, will actually have more after-school spots in 2013 than they did this past school year. But the fact that these programs won’t be destroyed after all shouldn’t let Bloomberg off the hook for what he was about to do. Last week, the Campaign for Children released an utterly damning case study highlighting exactly how disproportionately these cuts would have affected the city’s highest-need children. Looking at those numbers, it’s difficult to imagine how Bloomberg could have, for any amount of time, justified such unapologetic decimation of services for these communities.

Under the original budget, over 200 schools were set to lose after-school programs: 191 elementary and middle schools and 42 high schools. The four neighborhoods that would have experienced the most cuts -- up to a 91% loss in service -- were Washington Heights, Bushwick, Williamsburg/Greenpoint and the Morrisania section of the Bronx. The first three of those neighborhoods have the highest rates of childhood obesity in the city; low-income students, for a litany of reasons, are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, obesity and related health problems, and the after-school programs Bloomberg planned to cut mandate regular physical activity, as well as provide healthy food.  

In Morrisania, well over half of the children live under the federal poverty level, and the three other neighborhoods with the highest child poverty rates (Mott Haven, Brownsville and University Heights) were also bracing for massive losses -- as were the five neighborhoods in the city with the highest unemployment rates. The cuts were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Bronx, in schools where less than 30% of the students are reading at or above grade level and with high populations of English Language Learners.

Now, though, according to the mayor, “Tens of thousands of families can rest assured that the daycare, early childhood education and after-school programs they depend on, will be there for them.” Of course, Bloomberg only declared that parents could “rest assured” after many of the city’s after-school programs had already closed for the year -- after thousands of children were forced to say goodbye to the after-school teachers they have known since kindergarten, thinking there would be nothing to come back to next year. And after parents spent all of May and most of June panicking, worried they would have to quit their jobs in order to care for their small children.

I work as an after-school teacher at an elementary school in the Bronx, where most of the staff has been there for four years or more and where the children return year after year. When my boss, at our End-of-Year Dance and Drama show, announced to parents that we were one of the lucky programs that would survive despite the planned cuts, they lined up immediately to sign their children up. Earlier in the year, we’d been informed that our source of funding had been cut, and we spent the spring unsure of whether we would come back. The day I found out about the cuts, I left my co-worker in the planning room as she cried about the news. I walked out into the hallway and immediately ran into a first-grader, a boy who had been in our program the previous year but wasn’t currently enrolled. 

“I miss you!” he said as he hugged me. “My mommy said I get to be in program again next year. I can’t wait. I love after-school.”

I swear, I thought he was a plant, set up to make me even sadder at the prospect of losing the program.  

That was in February, and in April -- on the day of a student art and poetry show -- the staff found out that an alternate source of funding had come through for our program. My co-workers cheered, hugged and toasted with plastic wine glasses of grape juice we had been serving at the gallery. It was an appropriate way for teachers to celebrate. And last week, as we said goodbye to our crying students (one boy teased his classmate and his teacher for crying and then burst into tears a minute later), we had the great comfort of being able to say to each other, “We’ll see you next year.”  

But in 233 schools around the city, teachers couldn’t say that. They thought they weren’t coming back.  

The fact that there is funding for next year after all is fantastic news, obviously. So far, though, it is unclear whether existing programs will survive intact or be restructured, as neither the mayor nor the city council has yet released any information about where the funding will be allocated. I truly hope that parents in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Washington Heights are indeed “resting assured” now, as Mayor Bloomberg instructed, but I wonder whether the mayor has any idea what it feels like to spend two months fearing, literally, for your children’s future. I wonder if he knows what it’s like to be an after-school teacher in your own neighborhood and fear the loss of your job and the community you’ve been part of for years.

I wonder if he knows what it’s like to be the sixth-grader who approached me outside of school earlier this year. He was a former student of mine, and his third-grade sister had been waitlisted at our program due to a lack of spots.  

“I got into the after-school program at my new school,” he told me, “but I can’t go unless my sister gets into the one here.  What am I supposed to do with her? I can’t let her wander around the neighborhood by herself.”  

Bloomberg was less than five days away from pushing thousands of young children of color out of their schools and away from adult supervision – not to mention academic and arts enrichment, including art galleries, poetry readings and dance shows.  He was ready to send thousands of young boys of color out into the streets of a city that stopped and frisked more young black men last year than there are young black men actually living here. This revised budget is a success only in the sense that it avoids a catastrophe that Bloomberg himself was about to create. The threats to these services are part of a larger landscape in New York City and around the country, where the burden of austerity and “tightening our belts” rests primarily on poor communities and people of color.

Bloomberg had his finger on the button to make the lives of tens of thousands of children and their families exponentially worse, and he didn’t press it. But he was ready to, and those populations were collateral that he was ready to sacrifice. The children who would have suffered may look very little like Mayor Bloomberg’s kids, but they are kids nonetheless -- not bargaining chips. And despite this overwhelming victory for the kids themselves, we must continue to scrutinize just what kind of leader would even think of sacrificing our city’s most vulnerable citizens in the name of a balanced budget.


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