The Help New York Needs Now

Joe Biden’s election as president has renewed focus on the desperate need for economic relief and recovery policies. For New York, it comes not a minute too soon. Our city and state were in crisis long before COVID-19 laid the fact bare and magnified it, and we will need bold action at every level of government to get beyond the ill state of affairs that existed before the virus struck.

The stage has been set for it. Like the Great Depression and World War II, COVID has taught a generation that our economic and physical security depends on collective action.

Consider the things that affect quality of life for people and families. We have long had a state and citywide housing affordability crisis. Two-thirds of New York’s students lacked grade-level proficiency in English and math before remote learning requirements upended our education system. Our local and regional transportation networks were already in physical and financial emergencies when riders stopped commuting. Our health-care system has become a leading cause of family bankruptcies. Climate change has loomed.

Our public safety institutions have been in distress for decades, even as crime has fallen and jail populations have declined. Over the years, police killings of unarmed civilians have ripped big holes in the city’s civic fabric. A federal judge ruled the NYPD’s 2002–2013 stop-and-frisk regime unconstitutional, and the Justice Department has forced a federal oversight on the city’s jails in response to persistent, unconscionable conditions.

Then, in a flash, COVID-19 killed more than 33,000 New Yorkers and disrupted the lives of millions. Desperate measures to contain the virus led to 20% unemployment in New York City at its peak, and nearly 16% statewide. Restaurants, small businesses and retail outlets, not-for-profits and cultural institutions, public agencies and local governments have had their finances gutted. Recent reports about vaccine effectiveness are encouraging, but the virus is far from done with us.

The need for a bold government response is clear to most, but we will have missed the chance of a generation if we do not craft it in a way that rights the institutional wrongs that left so many New Yorkers suffering severe financial stress even before the disease struck.

America’s capitalist democracy requires freedom so people can advance economically, and equality so that all have a stake in maintaining a civil society. The two concepts are often at odds. It is government’s job to balance them.

For nearly 50 years after America elected New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt president in 1932, the nation accepted the government’s responsibility to promote equality while protecting our freedoms. For 40 years after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, a four-word tagline — government is the problem — has dominated the public sphere and encouraged conscienceless capitalism. It is time to insist our leaders adopt a renewed commitment to fairness.

The vast majority of New Yorkers, including the wealthy, understand the need. The richest among us can insulate themselves from the problems afflicting people of more modest means, but they know that their privileged lives depend on a social compact textured enough to accommodate New York’s incomparable diversity.

We know how to fix everything that is broken in New York State and New York City.

At different times in our history, we have had the best public housing systems in America, terrific public schools including tuition-free CUNY, and the most expansive and reliable transportation networks. Our health care systems did not used to bankrupt people as a matter of course. The NYPD at its best is second to none. We are a climate change leader.

Bold projects cost money. Some will have to come from New York’s own considerable wealth. Our state and city leaders must produce credible plans and have the nerve to finance them responsibly.

New Yorkers send $35 billion more every year to the federal government than we get in return. President-elect Biden’s campaign promised to “Build Back Better” by investing trillions in the very programs New York needs: a renewed federal commitment to affordable housing, early child education initiatives and free community colleges, mass transit and clean energy infrastructure plans, common sense police reform, and the promise of a widely accessible public health care option.

Reactionaries will say, as they did during the Great Depression, that government should not expand its role and grow its budget. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The United States, New York State and New York City are all vastly richer than they were when President Roosevelt, New York State Gov. Herbert Lehman and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put our people back to work beginning in 1933. A dozen years later, America, New York State and New York City were all stronger. New Yorkers can do it again, if we insist that our leaders dare.

Originally posted as an op-ed on 11/21/20 with the New York Daily News.

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.