Gotham Gazette

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Covid Laid Bare Systemic Disparities. Our City Must Make Bold Changes for an Equitable Recovery

covid now city

BK BP Eric Adams, the author (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

New Yorkers have spent most of 2020 enduring an unprecedented health crisis that threatens us physically and financially like never before. We are also experiencing historic social unrest. People of color are feeling all of that pain far worse than their white neighbors.

There is, however, nothing unprecedented or unusual about that.

Black and brown New Yorkers have suffered from deep health, financial, and criminal justice disparities throughout the history of our city. COVID-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing are just the latest chapters in a long, disgraceful story.

The difference today though is that the world beyond communities of color seems to be paying much more attention to these unforgivable inequities. So if there has ever been a moment for New York’s government and its priorities to fundamentally change, it is now.

Yet, with the New York City budget deadline looming, the proposals for “change” coming out of City Hall look distressingly similar to the status quo that brought us to this terrible place.

There is one exception: the City Council is pushing to move significant funding away from the NYPD toward programs that benefit Black and brown communities.

But, while I believe strongly it is necessary to reallocate those funds to improve policing and the communities police serve, I am disappointed that the police department budget seems to be the extent of the high-level debate at City Hall around how to address the myriad crises faced by people of color.

Overly aggressive policing is not the sum of the problem—it is a symptom of a much larger, endemic, historic issue. Black and brown people have not been prioritized by generations of mayors and City Councils. That inattention has led to racial inequities in our income and our health, as well as our treatment by law enforcement. And those inequities have led to horrible injustices.

You really just need to know two numbers to understand the level of injustice: White New Yorkers, on average, live four years longer and earn nearly twice as much as Black New Yorkers. The COVID-19 crisis is both demonstrating and exacerbating those inequalities as people of color die and lose their jobs at much higher rates. So what are we doing about that?

Instead of just drawing from reserves and moving a few numbers around to deal with a yawning deficit and then calling it a day, it is imperative that we directly address these massive inequality gaps. That means big changes.

I recently released a Real Recovery Plan for New York City. Here are a few examples of how I believe we can make real change right now:

Apply an inequality test. We must immediately institute an agency-by-agency Inequality Impact Test, prioritizing spending that has the best chance of reversing historic financial and health gaps.

Directly invest in people of color. Frontline workers–the majority of whom are people of color–should get more money back on their taxes, period. And those who are struggling with health issues should get a break when they participate in wellness programs. We must also bring the city to the community by opening up job-training storefronts and sending health workers into lower-income areas.

Support M/WBEs. Businesses hired by city government should be asked to commit to hiring 90 percent city-based workers, prioritizing minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs), and ensuring their contractors pay a living wage and certain benefits. Employers who agree to these terms could benefit from tax breaks and special consideration for city contracts.

But how do we pay for a fairer city during a financial crisis? As the old saying goes, budgets are about priorities. It’s not just the police department budget that is bloated. And although all of the ideas in our Real Recovery Plan can be paid for with cost savings from the NYPD, we can also trim fat that has built up in other agencies. After all, the city budget has increased an extraordinary 27 percent since 2010.

We can also find money to reduce inequality with permanent changes to how the city does business. For instance, hundreds of highly paid political appointees fill positions in the mayor’s office, agencies, City Council–and, yes, the Borough Presidents’ offices–that are redundant. We also now know that thousands of city employees can work from home, making millions of square feet of office space unnecessary.

This is a pivotal moment. We can create a fairer future by finally addressing the sins of the past. To thrive, we cannot rearrange deck chairs on a sinking ship. We have to build a new boat—one that can carry every New Yorker above the rising tide.

Eric L. Adams is Brooklyn Borough President. On Twitter @BKBoroHall.

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