Gov. Cuomo at the New York Stock Exchange (photo: Don Pollard/governor's office)
Income inequality in our state was a crisis before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, but five months into the pandemic, it is now a question of life or death for millions of New Yorkers.
As two individuals sitting on opposite sides of that inequality divide, we are united in our demand to the State of New York: we must tax the rich, and we must do it right now.
One of us, Morris Pearl, is a millionaire. I built my fortune on Wall Street, but I retired from that job after deciding that I wanted to concentrate on making the world a better place.
Now, I make most of my money off passive investments. In the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis those investments are doing better than ever. Investing doesn’t use much of my labor and it barely takes up my time, and yet it’s made me wealthier than millions of other New Yorkers who actually need to work for a living. And thanks to our state lawmakers’ unwillingness to tax folks like me fairly, I pay significantly lower tax rates on what I earn from my investments than most New Yorkers do for what they earn from their hard work.
On the other side of things I, Ajay Puran, lost my job at a roti shop in Richmond Hill back in March as the economy shut down. I’m 16 years old and go to high school. But I’m also the oldest child in a family of six, so I used to work 8-10 hour shifts on weekends to help pay the rent and support my younger brothers and sister. Because of the pandemic, my mom and I both lost our jobs. We became dependent on my dad’s income alone - even though his work wasn’t regular and his job didn’t bring in anywhere near what we need to survive. I recently found another job occasionally cleaning and sanitizing the apartments of rich people in Manhattan who left the city. But our income is still a tiny fraction of what we used to live on.
My family and I are undocumented. No one in my family is eligible for a single dollar in unemployment or any emergency income. When we can find work, my dad and I are working what everyone calls “essential” jobs and we’re getting a lot of thank yous. But no amount of thank yous will put food on our table or help us to pay the rent. As undocumented people we are somehow keeping this country running through our essential work, but then when there is no paid work available, we are excluded from all unemployment assistance and other income to help us survive.
Many families like us have to make a choice between working while sick or becoming homeless. And in a pandemic, everyone else in New York is only as safe and healthy as my family, and all the other undocumented people who live here.
We both agree that this sorry state of affairs is not inevitable.
Millions of New Yorkers are suffering, and the state government can offer more assistance to the people who need it most, including undocumented immigrants. There’s plenty of money available to spend, it’s just in the bank accounts of New York’s wealthy. All we need is for the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to step up and understand that protecting the lifestyles of the rich in the long-term means to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers now, not keeping the wealthy’s taxes low in the short-term.
A bill introduced in the New York Legislature would address this problem by changing the way our state’s billionaires are taxed to provide direct relief to families excluded from unemployment benefits. The proposed billionaires tax would raise an estimated $5.5 billion per year and could provide direct aid to the most vulnerable New Yorkers in a flat amount that matches what other low wage workers receive in unemployment insurance.
While the rest of the state struggles to stay afloat in this crisis, New York’s 119 billionaires have increased their net worth by leaps and bounds since the start of the pandemic, with some estimates reaching $600 billion.
We have more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, and yet they pay lower state and local tax rates than New York’s teachers and truck drivers. This should be an easy call. Our state could finally, after all these years of ignoring the growing problem, start to bridge the gap between the two of us if we just tax those billionaires to fund excluded workers.