More than Black and White in NYC

When Bill de Blasio was sworn in as the mayor of New York City, the ceremony was filled with celebrities, political leaders and other members of New York City’s community.

I noticed a few themes constantly repeated as I listened in the audience on that bitterly cold day.

The first was the theme of inequality. Concerns about the vast distance between the richest and poorest were echoed throughout most of the speeches. The thousands of children sleeping in homeless shelters and the terrible challenges those children face were highlighted.

Inequality is a critical issue globally, nationally and locally. It was the single defining issue of candidate de Blasio, although more than one observer noted that his campaign was strong on rhetoric and short on plans.

There is no question that education is a key to improving socio-economic mobility and addressing the inequality of opportunity. For example, a study of American poverty persistence showed that of the adults who grew up in low-income families but earned college degrees, only 16 percent stayed in the lowest income quintile. Of the adults who started in the lowest income quintile and failed to earn a college degree, 46 percent stayed there.

The Mayor has proposed a tax increase on the rich to increase funding for pre-K and after-school programs. The plan seems simple, too simple. Questions raised by the plan include:

• Is this plan sufficient to address inequality of opportunity? Of course not. Far more needs to be done to address inequality than simply providing universal pre-K and more after-school programs but this may be a positive start.

• What quality controls will be in place for the pre-K and after-school programs? Programs of insufficient quality may serve as babysitting programs but are not effective educational programs.

• Is the plan financially feasible? After all, wealthy people are usually skilled at tax avoidance, capital is fungible and capital travels very quickly. What is to prevent top earners from declaring residency in a lower-tax area? Renting a second apartment in a lower income area may be the right financial decision if the tax increase is substantial enough. After accounting for the potential for residency-shifting, will the proposed tax hike fund the program?

Besides inequality, another issue that was heard repeatedly was race. As with the inequality discussion, the dialog was too simple.

New York City cannot be divided into two races. Rather it is one of the most racially, culturally and linguistically diverse cities in the world. In the 2010 Census, 33.3 percent of residents were identified as White, 22.8 percent as Black or African-American, 28.6 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 12.6 percent as Asian (other races and combinations were identified as well). There are more Chinese people in New York City than in any other city outside of Asia. New York City has the largest Puerto Rican and second-largest Dominican population of any city in the world. More than one-third of New York City residents were born outside the United States and hundreds of languages are spoken both on our streets and in our homes. New York City’s diversity is a source of strength and further evidence of the attraction that the Big Apple continues to have on the rest of the world.

I strongly support the Mayor’s stated goals of reducing the inequality of opportunity and for promoting socio-economic mobility. It is critically important to ensure that society leverages the talent of its entire population, not just a special few. Local policies and plans are inherently limited in the impact they can have on American society’s inequalities. That said, in order for policies to have impact, they need reflect the real world realities and not a simplified vision of the world where there are only two groups, whether they be rich and poor, good and bad, privileged and disadvantaged or black and white.

New York City’s strengths and challenges are not simple. The strengths cannot be leveraged nor can the challenges be addressed with quick sound bites, excessive simplicity or empty political rhetoric.