New York City's new budget, which went into effect July 1st, has real goodies for kids in it, for the first time in years. Some examples:
- $20 million to the Board of Education to put gym classes back into elementary schools for the first time in 25 years, when they were eliminated during the 1975 fiscal crisis.
- $25 million for construction of new day care centers
- $34 million to expand, by 15 percent, the Department of Health's Early Intervention program for at-risk infants.
"We started in the seventh circle of hell and six or seven years later we're in a city that has a completely different view of its obligation to children and families," says Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children, a group that lobbies City Hall on behalf of kids. "There's still a long way to go - it's not a perfect situation, but it's significantly better than it was for children and the people who care for them."
New York City children can thank the robust economy. A large percentage of the $2.9 billion surplus in city coffers comes from income taxes on Wall Street bonuses. Overall, the new City expense budget, which runs from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001, increases City spending by $1.3 billion, to over $26 billion, according to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office, a government agency that provides non-partisan information on the City budget to the public. And a sizable portion of the budget is going to children's programs. According to figures provided by the Independent Budget Office and the Citizens' Committee for Children, nearly 20% of the increase, or about $256 million of the City's money, is earmarked for programs that directly benefit children, including tens of millions for summer school, for extended-day programs at the City's lowest performing schools, for new health initiatives and for child welfare services. This tally omits major institutions that kids use extensively but not exclusively, such as the Department of Parks and Recreation, the libraries, and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Kids also come out ahead in the City's four-year capital plan. The plan calls for $24.9 billion in investments over Fiscal Years 2001 - 2004. A whopping 22% of this budget is devoted to school construction. Only a package of environmental protection projects claims a larger share of the capital budget. For all the good news, the budget still contains major disappointments for frontline child advocates. Mike Arsham, for one, wishes the City had done something to address the huge disparity at the Administration for Children's Services between the amount spent on removing children from their homes and the amount spent on services to make removals unnecessary. The City added only $4.4 million for preventive services to a $2 billion child welfare budget. Arsham, director of the Child Welfare Organizing project, says, "Time and time again what we're saying to families is we know what you need, but all we have to offer is foster care placements." And Nayowith was happier before the New York State legislature got its hands on the City budget in late June. The City Council and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wanted to give low-income New Yorkers a $73 million package of earned income and child care tax credits, but the legislature, which has final say on such matters, rejected the plan. "That would have been the best case scenario," Nayowith says of the budget before the legislature killed the tax package. "You would have seen strategic investment, and then you would have seen, through the tax system, some very enterprising ways of helping families. We're now in the next best scenario, where the mayor and the City Council did a very god job of thinking about the best way to take care of kids."Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio.