Bush To City: Drop Dead

Bush To City: Drop Dead

The President vows to exploit New York City, not aid it.


The Bush Administration has treated New York City like a battered wife who still gets displayed for photo-ops and state dinners. George Bush and the Republicans who control both houses of Congress have starved New York for three years with fiscal policies that alternate between abuse and neglect. But now Bush will stage his renomination convention in the city he has used and abused–sticking his finger in our eye and exploiting our bereavement. This August, Karl Rove, the kitschy guru of political theater, will try to convert the crematorium of Ground Zero into a re-election billboard.

One of Bush’s first TV ads of the season was another example of his exploitation of New York. It contained footage of New York firefighters carrying the remains of a dead co-worker on a gurney draped with an American flag. The image was an icon of the carnage. Scores of 9/11 widows and firefighters condemned the ad’s poor taste and hypocrisy. As Jimmy Breslin wrote in Newsday, “In his first campaign commercial, George Bush reached down and molested the dead.”

There are many ways in which the Bush Administration has attempted to strangle New York. The most telling has to do with its treatment of the city after the September 11 attacks. But there are others that show the extent of Bush’s contempt not just for New York but, by implication, all of urban America.

In the first round of homeland security funding, in 2003, New York–twice targeted by terrorists, in 1993 and 2001–received 25 percent of the total of $100 million, which was divided among seven cities. In the 2003 supplemental budget, New York’s share had shrunk to 18 percent, and the money was split among thirty cities. By last November, when New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in testimony before Congress that New York was being shortchanged, the city’s share had dwindled to less than 7 percent, and the money was divided among fifty localities.

The most at-risk city in America had been cut by two-thirds. Homeland security money has become another run-of-the-mill pork-barrel patronage operation, like highways. Kelly says, “The credible threat of terrorism is considered a secondary factor in Washington in the way homeland security funding is allocated.”

In February Bush proposed an increase to $1.4 billion in homeland security funding for so-called “high-risk cities.” But fifty cities are still designated as high risk, so New York’s share is only $94 million–a fraction of what is needed. On a per capita basis, New York State ranks forty-ninth among the states in antiterrorist funding, far below rural, sparsely populated Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. According to the New York Daily News, New York is also forty-ninth in per capita funding among cities: $5.87 per person. Compare that with $35.80 for Pittsburgh. But then, Tom Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania. Or look at Florida, where Jeb Bush is governor. Miami gets $52.82 per person. Orlando gets $47.14–as if Disney World is a bigger terrorist target than the New York subway system, the United Nations, the Stock Exchange, Times Square, JFK Airport, Yankee Stadium on opening day, or our reservoirs and water system. What’s the biggest recipient of any US city, at $77.92 per person? New Haven, Connecticut. Is Yale a high-priority target because both Bushes are alumni?

Or consider the Bush Administration’s treatment of first responders. It has recently eliminated its only program providing funds for upgrading police and fire department radio communications. On 9/11 the FDNY’s radios did not function. Warnings over police radios to evacuate the towers immediately were not received by the firefighters trying to rescue trapped office workers. On that one day, 343 New York City firefighters died, and about 120 of these deaths have been attributed to the futile radio transmissions.

Since this catastrophe, New York’s firefighters have emerged as international symbols of bravery, suffering and grief. Tourists still visit firehouses to offer condolences and leave flowers. George Bush famously embraced a firefighter on his visit to Ground Zero right after the attack. Bush has displayed members of the FDNY in the gallery at his speeches, wrapping himself in the glory of first responders.

But now, his Homeland Security Department has killed a federal program to integrate police and fire communications systems; New York will lose $6 million. Bush and Ridge have announced a $200 million cut in similar programs for next year, and a cut of 33 percent in the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.

The FDNY has requested $250 million from the Bush Administration for the next three years for antiterrorist equipment and technology. The NYPD has requested $261 million. But according to NYPD testimony last November, the city has received less than $60 million so far–for all first-responder agencies. Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta says, “We definitely need more federal funding to be adequately prepared for bioterrorism, dirty bombs and radioactivity. We need equipment and training for these new horrors.”

The FDNY has only one dedicated hazardous materials unit for the entire city of 8 million. Meanwhile, the fire department in Zanesville, Ohio (population 25,600), has federally funded thermal imaging technology to find victims in dense smoke and a test kit for lethal nerve gases. The FDNY is still asking for radios that work in a crisis.

New York’s Congressional delegation is now trying to pass legislation to limit to fifteen the number of cities that qualify for homeland security funding. This seems the only way New York will get its fair share.

Before I get to how Bush screwed New York on healthcare, education and housing, let me emphasize: All American cities are getting shortchanged and stiffed. Bush is not just targeting New York; he has no urban policy at all. And make no mistake–New Yorkers are the crash-test dummies; if we survive a crushing budget cut or the elimination of a program, then it is replicated throughout the country.

Every American city began to suffer when the federal government stopped building housing for low- and moderate-income people while Ronald Reagan was President. San Francisco suffers from transportation funding formulas that favor highway construction over subways. Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles suffer from pro-polluter environmental policies. And all cities, all poor people and most middle-class families have been damaged by the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. These tax cuts are the invisible hand driving all budget decisions. They give Bush an excuse for underfunding VA hospitals, Pell Grants for higher education, school lunches, job training and adult literacy. This is what New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “starving the beast”–depleting the federal treasury, because the right wing thinks of the federal government as an enemy beast. The deficit is the politically salable excuse for miserliness.

The tax cuts for the rich rob the treasury of the money all cities need to address what John Edwards called the afflictions of “two Americas”–two public school systems, two healthcare systems, two tax systems. Because New York has such a disproportionate concentration of poor people, we are more vulnerable to Bush’s neglect. New York City has nearly 1.7 million people living in poverty. Thirty percent of children are living in poverty, compared with 16.5 percent nationwide. New York has 966,000 residents on food stamps. A February study by the 156-year-old Community Service Society revealed that in 2003 only 51.8 percent of black men in the city between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed.

But as far as the Bush White House is concerned, every dollar spent on the poor is one less dollar for the deserving rich. In The Price of Loyalty, Ron Suskind quotes Vice President Dick Cheney’s rationale in 2002 for more tax cuts: “We won the midterms. This is our due.”

One example of Bush’s contempt for New York, and all urban areas, is the latest Medicare bill. Passed by the House last November only after the usual fifteen-minute roll-call period had been stretched to almost three hours to allow GOP leaders to whip several members of their party into line, the bill is especially damaging to New York, where poor people depend on teaching hospitals for care. The law’s funding formulas give preferential treatment to rural hospitals and to states with less dense population patterns.

New York State will receive only $480 million from 2004 to 2013, with only $80 million of that going to New York City. In contrast, Texas, home of House majority leader Tom DeLay, will get $1.1 billion, Alabama $738 million, Louisiana $554 million, Tennessee $655 million, North Carolina $576 million and Florida $741 million.

New York City not only has the biggest population in need in the country, and the highest cost of healthcare, but also the most hospitals in economic distress–forty-five. Dozens of cash-starved New York hospitals are now in jeopardy of closing.

One reason for the inequities was that Harlem’s Charles Rangel, New York’s senior Representative, was excluded from the key House-Senate conference that engaged in the final bargaining. “The conference was run like a private club that would not let me in,” Rangel said. Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s leading expert on healthcare, was also exiled from the conference. The only two Senate Democrats in the conference were John Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, both of whom supported Bush on the bill.

Hospital administrators say that New York City should have gotten at least $400 million more if need, cost and population had been fairly taken into account. The bill made a 15 percent cut in payments to teaching hospitals, which are concentrated in New York City. In practice, this is a 15 percent cut in healthcare services for the poor and elderly, who depend on Medicare.

On top of this targeted shot at New York, the Medicare bill also did nothing to lower the cost of prescription drugs, made it harder for citizens to purchase American-made drugs at lower prices in Canada, included a drug benefit that does not cover the middle class and postponed implementation of the new prescription drug program until 2006.

George Bush’s education initiative, No Child Left Behind, exists in the same parallel universe as his Medicare bill. It is a PR scam that actually makes things worse, and disproportionately injures New York. NCLB created higher standards and rigorous testing, and imposes sanctions on those schools that don’t improve. But given all the city’s problems, New York’s schools cannot meet these new federal mandates without the funds they were promised when Bush signed the law. Bush underfunded NCLB by $8 billion in 2003 and 2004–that is, the money was authorized by Congress but never allocated by Bush.

New York City is the biggest recipient of Title I funds in the country–Title I being the largest federal program put under the NCLB umbrella–with 900 out of 1,200 schools eligible. New York City schools were deprived of $1.2 billion by Bush’s miserly manipulations. A study released by New York City Representative Anthony Weiner showed that Title I schools in New York City lost $657 million, disabled pupils lost $513 million and teacher-training programs lost $39 million. There was $17.5 million less for computers in poor communities, and $12 million for programs that include school nurses and counselors.

The combination of tougher standards without adequate funding just sets up poor kids to feel the stigma of failure at an early age. And New York City has more poor kids, more dropouts, lower graduation rates, lower reading scores, more violence and larger class sizes than anywhere else.

On top of all this, New York’s highest court has ruled that the Republican state administration of George Pataki has been shortchanging the city’s schools for years: New York City has 37 percent of the state’s students, but gets nowhere near what it should, relative to its needs. (The court ruled that the state must adjust its funding formulas.)

Randi Weingarten, president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers union, calls Bush’s underfunding of NCLB “devastating for New York’s students and teachers.”

Bush’s proposed budget for 2005 does add (at least on paper) about $1 billion for the poorest schools. But at the same time, in a bit of fiscal flim-flam, his budget cuts or eliminates dozens of other education programs that help all cities. Among the programs being cut are those for drug treatment, guidance counselors, childcare, dropout prevention, increased parental involvement in low-income communities and a national writing project.

Bush is still leaving most poor children behind–while his Education Secretary, Rod Paige, called the nation’s largest teachers union “a terrorist organization.”

Buried in Bush’s $2.4 trillion budget for 2005 is another battering blow: The budget provides $2 billion less than the Congressional Budget Office estimates is needed to fund Section 8 housing vouchers for the 2 million impoverished, elderly or disabled people already enrolled in this rent-subsidy program nationally. With 80,000 New Yorkers now in the Section 8 program, this means up to 10,000 New York families are now in jeopardy of losing their vouchers and their homes.

There are an additional 130,000 applicants in New York on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers–but this waiting list has been closed to most new applicants since December 1994, because the demand is so overwhelming in a city with a permanent shortage of affordable housing. The voucher program provides a rent subsidy averaging $6,500 a year to families generally earning less than $20,000 a year (the vouchers pay the difference between the market rent of an apartment and 30 percent of a household’s income). This cut will annul hope for everyone on the waiting list.

If the Bush budget proposal is approved, this will be the first time in the thirty-one-year history of the HUD-administered voucher program that the number of vouchers would be reduced. Bush tried to cut voucher funding last year, but the money was restored at the last minute by Congress in an omnibus appropriations bill. That cut would have forced 6,100 New Yorkers out of the program, and into almost certain homelessness and destitution.

New York City already has a famine of affordable housing, with rents rising faster than wages and 39,000 homeless people in city shelters, including 16,300 children. Evictions are up. Families are living doubled and tripled up. In Chinatown, I have interviewed immigrants who are renting a bed because they can’t afford a room.

It’s not possible to know with certainty why Bush and his team have treated New York so unfairly, or what Bush says about us in private with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. The Bush team’s economic, cultural, political and regional biases surely work against us. I suspect, but can’t prove, that they want to punish us because so many New Yorkers are Democrats, union members, immigrants, blacks, Latinos, gays, war critics, civil libertarians, feminists, Jews, artists and bohemians. All I know is that we have been their policy piñata.

We do know what another modern Republican President really felt about New York–because it is preserved on tape. The darkest expression of right-wing nativism can be heard coming out of the mouth of Richard Nixon, on a Watergate tape recorded in 1972 and made public in December of 2003. Sounding like John Rocker on steroids, Nixon exclaims, “God damn New York.” Then he whines that New York is filled with “Jews, and Catholics, and blacks and Puerto Ricans.” He said there is “a law of the jungle where some things don’t survive. Maybe New York shouldn’t survive. Maybe it should go through a cycle of destruction.”

The irony is that even Richard Nixon–after he vented–treated New York more equitably in his policies and priorities than George Bush has.

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