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Celebrating Progress and Hoping to Revive a Debate
Downtown Express
Margaret Chin and John Magisano

April 6, 2011
View the Original Article

In the spirit of the special section in this issue of Downtown Express, we would like to focus on the progress our Lower Manhattan community has made over the past year. There have been many milestones. After over 40 years, guidelines have been set for the development of Seward Park. This September, the World Trade Center site and Memorial Plaza will open for visitors after ten years of recovery. The small businesses of Chinatown, many family-owned and operated, have joined together to improve their surrounding neighborhood and attract new visitors. The residential redevelopment of Battery Park City and the Financial District has attracted thousands of young, working families.

Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo’s budget is one of the most regressive in decades. It compromises our prospects for progress in the future; forcing New York City to cut social services that disproportionately affect women, minorities, seniors and children. If Governor Cuomo fails to extend rent-regulations by June, rents on one million apartments will rise.

Two million people in the five boroughs rely on food stamps to live. Unemployment benefits have not increased in 12 years — during which the cost living has grown 40 percent — and unemployment will remain above pre-recession levels until 2013. The City’s poverty rate was 21.3 percent in 2009; about 1.8 million people. The hourly median wage in New York City has decreased nearly 9 percent between 1990 and 2007; at the same time average annual salary and bonuses on Wall Street doubled.

New York is the most polarized city by income in the country. The top 1 percent of earners account for nearly 45 percent of the city’s total income. Despite this, lower and middle class families pay a higher share of their income in local taxes than wealthy families pay. As the recent census shows, immigrant and working class neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan experienced zero or negative population growth over the last decade. They can’t afford to stay.

Forty-three years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lost his life fighting for living wages. He message to striking workers was, “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” In honor of Dr. King, elected officials, the religious community, and activists echoed their support for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, to require taxpayer dollars spent on economic development create living wage jobs. This would require developers and companies that benefit from EDC subsidies pay a living wage of $10/hour ($11.50/hour without benefits). Today, 18 percent of New Yorkers make less than $10/hour; this includes 23 percent of non-white men, and 25 percent of non-white women. The bill, introduced to the City Council last year, has majority support, with 29 members in favor and is scheduled for a hearing. Mayor Bloomberg is opposed to the legislation, calling it “a nice idea but poorly thought out.”

The Bloomberg Administration would have us believe that it is better for the economy if workers earn poverty wages. They have entrusted corporations and developers with job creation; claiming the government shouldn’t get involved in setting wages. This is a failed economic policy. There are too many low-wage workers in our city. The current wage structure undermines New York City’s long-term economic stability and makes upward mobility unfeasible. This is not the American Dream. Families existing on poverty level wages battle food and housing insecurity on a daily basis. They cannot save for college or experience the quality of life that every citizen of this country deserves.

The Bloomberg Administration contends if developers had to pay their employees more, they would hire fewer people. They hide behind the argument that Living Wage would unfairly increase the burden on small businesses and hamper investment.

None of these assertions are proven. In the most exhaustive study to date of the 15 cities that have Living Wage laws in place, wage standards had no negative effect on employment levels, local business climate, or a city’s ability to attract investment, reported the Center for American Progress (November 2010). The report concluded that job growth does not have to come at the expense of job quality.

The benefits of Living Wage laws are not abstract. They are not just about money or development or investment. They are about doing what is right, just, and fair. The Living Wage movement demands that we live up our responsibility as citizens to protect the middle and working class and ensure that working New Yorkers can afford to live and thrive in this City. As we are reminded in Jeremiah 22.13, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” It is time the Bloomberg Administration to recognize that progress depends on the entirety of our City moving together towards prosperity.