Gotham Gazette

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New Help For the Working Poor?

After years of Republican policies in Albany and in Washington, Democrats are assuming power in both capitals. What difference will this make for the working poor and others struggling to make ends meet?

And what changes do New Yorkers, particularly low-income New Yorkers, want from their new officials? In the Community Service Society’s 2006 annual survey, “The Unheard Third,” both low-income and more affluent New Yorkers put two issues at the top of the list of their priorities for their newly elected officials:

*improving city public schools and decreasing the dropout rate,
*keeping rents down and building more affordable housing.

At the same time, The Unheard Third survey dispels two common myths. Though many things divide the poor and the affluent, at least this year they share a common political agenda. Improving the city’s public schools and creating more affordable housing are the top priorities across all income groups.

The second myth is that voters are uniformly allergic to taxes. While New Yorkers oppose higher state income taxes in the abstract, more than seven out of ten say they would be willing to pay more taxes to increase state aid to city public schools or to provide health care coverage for uninsured New Yorkers. Across the board, New Yorkers want real solutions to problems, and they are willing to pay in order to get results.

During the campaign neither Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer nor many of the congressional Democrats said much about what they would do to help the working poor. But Spitzer did say he would provide more money for New York City schools to comply with the court’s ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit on school funding. When the new governor assumes office, he could immediately make good on his pledge to provide the billions of dollars more to deliver a better education to our public school students.

There are many things that the city could do with this money. Everyone understands that it makes sense to invest in the early grades. But problems exist for older students, as well. And the money from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit could give the city some of the resources it needs to address these issues.

According to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 138,000 New York City public school students are over-age and lack the required number of class credits). An estimated 170,000 disconnected youth 16 to 24 have left school but are not in the labor market. An overwhelming majority of these young people come from economically struggling black and Hispanic families.

To help teenagers still in school, the city could offer more programs and incentives to keep the students in classes and to help them gain the skills they need to graduate. Not every student is college bound. Would upgraded career and technical education give them a reason to finish school? We also need to send students, parents, teachers and school leaders a clear message that every student should earn a diploma. To reinforce that message, the state could raise the legal age for leaving school from 16 to 18.

Young people who have already dropped out of school and are struggling in the labor market need skills, credentials and stipends. Some successful models exist – the Job Corps, transitional jobs, GED programs with mentoring and support services, and apprenticeships. But these programs assist only a few thousand people. And the Campaign for Fiscal Equity money will come too late to help tens of thousands more who were failed by the schools system while the state fought against providing more money to city schools. The state could create a special fund to provide money to create the needed programs to assist these young people now.

Housing is the other problem New Yorkers most want their newly elected leaders to fix. While Mayor Bloomberg is trying to expand and preserve affordable housing, the state and federal governments have been largely inactive. The Spitzer administration could work to preserve the affordability of the state’s Mitchell-Lama rental housing and Congress could adequately fund existing public housing and other rent subsidies. Beyond that, there could be a new commitment of capital for affordable housing from both the state and federal levels. Federal and state tax breaks overwhelmingly favor higher income homeowners and seniors, offering little or nothing to low-income tenants who face the highest rent burdens. The new Democratic majority could address that imbalance with relief for low-income renters, who may not pay property taxes directly, but pay them indirectly as part of their rising rents.

Nancy Rankin is director of research at the Community Service Society and creator of The Unheard Third survey, which is based on telephone interviews with 1,230 lower-income New Yorkers and a sample of 500 moderate and higher income New York City residents.  

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