An uphill effort to recover in New York (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
As New York City continues to recover and rebuild after the devastation of the COVID-19 outbreak, which had immense health and economic consequences, ideas are being offered to ensure a city that is more inclusive, creative, and responsive.
During a recent event hosted by the Center for an Urban Future, a leading nonprofit think tank offering many ideas for the city’s short- and long-term recovery, panelists offered suggestions for New York City that have been implemented in other cities across the country. Those policies and programs include investments in small businesses, young people, gig workers and freelancers, and others, with a focus on people of color and other often disadvantaged and excluded communities.
Participants included Gary Cunningham of Prosperity Now; Joseph Parilla of Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program; Sarah Treuhaft of PolicyLink; and Winston C. Fisher, co-author of The Opportunity Agenda: A Bold Democratic Plan to Grow the Middle Class. The panelists discussed nine policy ideas that could help New York City create more economic opportunity.
A Service Corps
Parilla said that cities should follow the lead of Birmingham, Alabama’s Bhamstrong initiative, a public-private partnership that provides small businesses with access to technical assistance, loans, and federal aid, as well as hiring displaced workers as paid volunteers, and connects with community businesses to rebuild.
New York City could both connect out-of-work residents and help them learn skills toward moving into higher-paying jobs like “training to be community health coaches or digital health coaches.”
Corporate Community Help for Minority-Owned Businesses
According to Treuhaft, New York City should model Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator program, which helps businesses owned by people of color to grow. As small businesses throughout the city are closing down due ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, related shutdowns, and a lack of activity in certain parts of the city reliant on office workers, the next mayoral administration can call on corporate sectors to provide resources to help minority-owned businesses. She also said the city can do this by working with its Department of Small Business Services to further allocate resources to businesses owned by people of color.
Invest in Babies
Low-income Americans do not have an emergency fund, said Cunningham. By expanding NYC Kids RISE, continuing the Save for College Program, and implementing baby bonds, a program that would set up savings accounts for newborns in families that make under a certain income, the city could help close the racial wealth gap, according to Cunningham. The “bonds” grow until a child reaches the age of 18. When a child reaches that age, they can decide what investments they would like to make with the money set aside for them. “They can go to college because someone invested in them. They can buy a house. They can start a business,” said Cunningham.
Help Freelance and Gig Workers Gain Security Through Portable Benefits
Fisher suggested that both cities and states model themselves off Oregon’s universal portable benefits program to enhance financial security for gig economy workers and freelancers.
New York City should create a system whereby these workers can access and bank benefits tied to their own work, not an employer, such as health care, retirement, worker’s compensation, paid sick leave, and paid parental leave. “Portable benefits would create a strategic advantage over other places,” said Fisher. “It’s not creating one program, it’s creating an ecosystem for low-wage and gig economy workers to thrive so that they can get that safety net that only exists for people working at big companies,” he added.
Retool Economic Development Organizations
In order to build a more inclusive economy, New York City needs leadership from local economic development organizations, said Parilla. He argued that New York City can do this by following San Diego’s ConnectAll program, the goal of which is to “boost startup growth, especially for low to moderate income” groups, according to its website.
“ConnectAll is about finding and scaling minority-owned businesses and (investing in) digital skills training,” said Parilla. “That is the type of coalition that it’s going to take to start to address the problems that we’re talking about today,” he added.
Increased City Support for CDFIs and Federal Spending on Small Businesses
“Before the COVID crisis, the federal government spent about $4 billion on small businesses in this country,” said Cunningham. “That’s enough to buy one nuclear submarine. We need to quadruple that and make sure that that money is getting to businesses of color. We’re going to have to make the critical investments that have left people of color behind, particularly in access to capital for minority businesses,” he added.
Cunningham said that New York City could do this by boosting financial support for community development financial institutions, CDFIs, which are private institutions focused on lending to disadvantaged groups. Although CDIFs have “the strongest track record of helping minority-owned businesses,” according to Center for an Urban Future, the network “lacks sufficient funds to meet the demand for technical assistance or microlending.” Cunningham said cities and states can bring more capital to organizations like CDFIs with municipal bonds. “We need to build on that network because many CDFIs suffer from the same issues that their clients do, which is access to capital. Each one is shopping for capital independently. The city could be that bond,” he said.
Center Equity in Policy-Making
Treuhaft said cities like New York should follow Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit program, which infuses such a focus throughout city government and beyond. Treuhaft said New York must “center racial equity in every aspect of policymaking,” according to a press release about the event. “All of the City’s (Seattle) policies are analyzed through the lens of equity: Who is going to be impacted, what are the root causes, what are the structural barriers, where is systemic racism showing up? And then changing and adapting policies accordingly.”
Enact Universal Child Care
“Access to affordable child care is one of the greatest taxes on families,” said Fisher. “The average cost of early childhood care is $12,000 to $13,000 a year, much more in New York. People drop out [of the workforce because] they can’t afford it. What it does to lifetime earnings is traumatic,” he added.
By implementing a universal child care program, New York City could help provide economic relief to working-class and middle-class families “and expand economic opportunities for women, on whom the burden of childcare typically falls,” according to Center for an Urban Future.
Back a Federal Jobs Guarantee
According to Treuhaft, the federal government should “embrace a federal jobs guarantee." And one way to help New Yorkers survive amid a pandemic fallout or otherwise would be such a guarantee that anyone who needs a job will have a job, Treuhaft said, which could include work in infrastructure, caregiving, community development, or other areas that would help produce public benefits. Treuhaft also said that this would “ensure that everyone who wants a job can have one [with] a living-wage income, and it would dramatically change the quality of work.”