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On the tree-lined intersection of Park Avenue and 95th Street in New York’s ritzy Upper East Side, a doorman hails a cab for a Fendi-bag-toting resident of one of the avenue’s many iconic luxury apartment buildings.
Just a few blocks north, the multimillion-dollar co-ops give way to the damp and dreary housing projects of Harlem. Here there are no doormen to help the harried-looking women get their strollers down the subway steps. It’s a no-frills world where simply having a job, even one that barely pays the rent, is considered a vital lifeline.
Marissa, a single mother of three who looks a lot older than her 34 years, took a cigarette break outside a Pathmark store where she works for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Marissa, who declined to give her last name, has to rely on food stamps to keep her children fed, but after having "done time" in the city’s shelter system, she is grateful to at least be able to make rent.
“I never want to go back there,” she said, shuddering at the memory, “but every month it gets harder and harder to get by.”
Marissa has paid little attention to the 2013 mayoral race but a lot of attention has been paid to people like her. Typically, it’s the middle class that hijacks the spotlight during election campaigns, but in the race to become mayor of New York, it’s burgeoning inequality and the alienation of the city’s poor that have become the driving issues and may even decide the outcome.
After 12 years of Michael Bloomberg, family homelessness has increased dramatically, rents skyrocketed and the minimum wage froze for the past six years – all while the city's controverisal "stop-and-frisk" policy has been criticized for being disproportionatly applied on minorities and the poor. Even the affluent are acknowledging the disparity, and mayoral hopefuls are taking notice.
Public advocate Bill de Blasio has made a “Tale of Two Cities” the central theme of his campaign and he currently holds a double-digit lead in polls leading up to Tuesday’s primary over his Democratic rivals, all of whom have been working overtime to boost their inequality credentials.
Back in June, comptroller John Liu and former Congressman Anthony Weiner, of sexting fame, went on a food-stamp diet. Not to be outdone, De Blasio, along with some city council members, then tried to live on minimum wage for a week. In August, all five leading Democratic candidates – council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Comptroller Bill Thompson, along with Weiner, Liu and de Blasio – volunteered for a sleepover in a housing project in Harlem, only to emerge bleary eyed the next morning with horror stories of mold-infested sinks, leaky pipes, broken air conditioners and urine-soaked elevators.
These efforts to try to feel the poor’s pain could easily be dismissed as election stunts, which they may have been, but the inequality the candidates are attempting to highlight is very real.
A recent city report showed that by 2011, nearly 46 percent of New Yorkers were making less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold. Meanwhile the city is now home to more billionaires than any other metropolitan area in the world – not to mention nearly 400,000 millionaires. Given that reality, it seems inevitable that whoever becomes the city’s next mayor will have to take a very different approach to tackling poverty than Bloomberg, under whose stewardship inequality thrived.
“Bloomberg has been great on lifestyle issues, but he’s clueless about class and poverty,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “All his anti-poverty initiatives focused on behavior and not on pay. The only way to not be poor is to be paid more.”
Some of Bloomberg’s pilot schemes, such as the Healthy Bodegas Initiative that expanded access to fresh food in poor neighborhoods and his efforts to educate low-income people on budget management, have earned praise. But his failure to address the systemic issues that lead to poverty and hunger have not. Last year, when he vetoed a watered-down living-wage bill, and more recently a paid sick leave bill, even his so-called protégé Quinn had to distance herself from Bloomberg’s policies.
Almost all the contenders in the race, including some Republicans, have come to accept that no matter how many bags of brown rice a poor family invests in, they’ll never lift themselves out of poverty if they are not paid enough to meet their basic living expenses. Most of the Democratic candidates have proposed increasing the minimum wage by varying degrees and tying it to inflation.
Liu is out front on the issue with a plan to raise it to $11.50 an hour, while Quinn, de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson all support an increase to at least $9 an hour. Among the Republican hopefuls, media magnate Tom Allon and supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis both support a limited wage increase for workers 24 and older.
Increasing wages will surely help level the playing field a little but more so if accompanied by solid plans to bring down rents. According to a report compiled by the Furman Center, rents have increased significantly (PDF) throughout the city since 2007, even as incomes have plummeted and nearly 31 percent of apartment dwellers now spend half their salary on rent. Bloomberg has been heavily criticized for failing to reign in these increases and for being too generous with subsidies to developers of luxury condos at the expense of affordable housing units for the poor.
“The mayor has huge control over how much rent is going to go up on the 1 million rental units in the city that are regulated,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. “The amount he has allowed rent to go up on those units is the highest since Ed Koch.”
Most of the mayor’s would-be successors have pledged to roll back the tax incentives for luxury condos in favor of subsidizing affordable housing units, which may not make them popular among real estate developers, but the homeless may feel differently. Since Bloomberg took office, family homelessness has increased by a whopping 73 percent and it’s getting harder for people to get back on their feet once they land in the city’s shelter system.
“Do you know the kind of money you’re talking? Security, everything, to start the apartment process over again?” said Paul Cooper, a 62-year-old Bronx native. He sat on a Harlem bench on 125th Street and revealed he had been stuck in a homeless shelter since he lost his job as a trailer truck driver last year.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here,” he said.
Wealthy New Yorkers may be called on to do their bit.
Frontrunner de Blasio intends to raise city taxes on New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 a year to fund pre-K and after-school programs. Bloomberg has dismissed this plan as “dumb” and said it will just drive the rich out of town. Some wealthy New Yorkers have called the plan “offensive” but, even among New York’s wealthy, there are some who are willing to pay a little more if the money is put to good use.
“It’s all getting a little ridiculous,” said Thomas E. Willoughby, a lawyer at a Wall Street firm, as he stood outside the legendary – and pricey – Cipriani’s restaurant. “We have an obligation as a society to do more for the people who are struggling. If that means people like me paying higher taxes, so be it.”
James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, who also serves on the governor’s Tax Reform and Fairness Commission, also challenged Bloomberg’s claim that the rich will pack up and leave if their taxes go up.
“We have had the state’s tax policy experts investigate this question and found no evidence of migration from New York in response to higher local income tax rates,” he said.
In the end, a reason New Yorkers of all income brackets may be prepared to do more than Bloomberg has asked of them is that it’s getting ever harder to ignore the effect poverty has on everyone’s quality of life.
“This is the financial capital of the world but even down here on Wall Street you see people sleeping on the street every morning coming to work,” said finance worker Harry Bernstein, as he lunched outside in the financial district last week. “It’s not safe for them and it’s not safe for us.”
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