Public Advocate Bill de Blasio speaks with potential voters on July 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Class politics of the bottom-up sort are back in New York City.
After almost a dozen years of rule by a billionaire technocrat prone to Marie Antoinette eruptions about the lives of the city’s poor (“You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we've got to give you shelter”), a Seinfeldian campaign season that turned on tabloid fodder and a vague sense of Bloomberg fatigue is, in some quarters at least, moving toward something more substantive: a shot at resetting the balance of power between the city’s Haves and Have Nots (and Have Somes, and Have It Alls, etc.).
Several weeks back, five of New York’s Democratic mayoral candidates spent a night at Lincoln Houses in Harlem, emerging in the morning to deplore creeping mold, weak water pressure and repairs long deferred by the city. More recently, one of them, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, together with a host of progressive city councilmembers and a state senator, tried living on a McDonald’s worker’s salary for a week. None made it five days.
City Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district spans parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint and a good swath of the Brownstone Belt, stretched his $77 for food and transportation all of three-and-a-half days before a run-of-the-mill travel SNAFU—he got stuck on a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport—put him over budget.
“To me, it highlights how, if you’re living on minimum wage, catastrophes happen – life still happens, unexpected things that can set you back. And if you’re on minimum wage, you don’t have much of a cushion,” Levin said.
Levin ended up spending around $125 on food and work-related transportation for the week. Even that budget—far more lavish than a minimum-wage worker’s might be—demanded some questionable dietary choices.
“I filled up on carbs,” he said. “I’d have a Cup of Noodles and a Coke for lunch. I needed the sugar and the carbs because I’d skipped breakfast.”
To the children of low-wage workers, a living wage can mean not having to move schools constantly because the family is homeless or on the verge of homelessness, noted Levin, for whom expanding access to free breakfasts and lunches for public school kids has been a focus of City Council work.
It’s easy to be cynical about stuff like this. These are political stunts, after all, in the grand tradition of Jane Byrne (the Chicago mayor whose 1981 stay at the Cabrini-Green housing project, notorious for its uncomfortable proximity to the city’s Gold Coast, went less smoothly). All have solid homes and salaries to return to after their stint in minimum-wage purgatory.
But even in these times of unprecedented inequality, when four out of five Americans will experience severe economic distress at some point in their lives, it’s uncommon for politicians—even true-blue progressive politicians, even in New York City—to bother to appeal to the poor, or to the boutique vote of bleeding heart affluents who care about the yawning gap between themselves and the people who power the service-economy cloud upon which they’re borne aloft.