Bill de Blasio rode to office in 2013 on a sweeping critique of social inequality, and quickly implemented a number of initiatives to address it, most notably the universal prekindergarten program. As he sought and gained reelection four years later, his rhetoric grew less sweeping and his policy proposals less grand: He offered, for instance, not to solve the homelessness problem but to manage it better.
On Thursday, in his annual State of the City address, de Blasio returned to lofty rhetoric and commanding vision, outlining a set of ambitious ideas that would—alongside concrete policy goals—help to make the city not just fairer but also, in his word, happier.
De Blasio spent the earlier part of this week outlining plans to offer better health-care access to 600,000 people—including 300,000 undocumented immigrants not eligible for existing public-health coverage—at a cost of $100 million a year. He also pledged to make New York City the first in the nation to require that all but the smallest companies allow their workers to earn up to 10 days of paid vacation time.
In Thursday’s speech, the mayor further promised to create a “universal retirement system” and a new Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, and he announced new expansions of the ferry system and the 3-K early education program. In a dramatic flourish, de Blasio paused at the podium to sign an executive order creating a new Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants that will “hold every city agency accountable for protecting tenants,” and—he warned—seize buildings from the worst landlords, handing them off to nonprofit entities to manage.
De Blasio barely hit upon some of the biggest policy challenges that have dogged his administration. He offered only glancing remarks about the public-housing system—which a federal judge and the federal housing secretary are both considering putting under new external oversight—or the homelessness crisis, which saw nearly 61,000 people in city shelters as of Tuesday night.
He did speak at length about the transit system, indicating that April 1 was the moment of truth for New York State to come up with an adequate funding plan for subways and buses. The mayor rattled off a long wish list of legislative changes in Albany, which includes eliminating vacancy decontrol in rent regulations; mandating speedy trials and reforming the bail system; and legalizing marijuana “in the right way,” which, de Blasio explained, meant expunging arrest records and “making sure the grassroots—not the big corporations—run this new business.”
But what was most striking about the speech was the way de Blasio connected the tensions and frustrations of working New Yorkers—including not being able to spend enough time with one’s children, or to go out with your partner on a date—to post-Reagan American capitalism. While the latter has long been a target of the mayor, who was elected in 2013 on a pledge to address gaping income inequality, the quality-of-life stuff is new. “Life in the fairest big city in America should never feel impossible,” de Blasio said. “There’s plenty of money in the world. There’s plenty of money in this city. It’s just in the wrong hands.”
Previous mayors—notably, Rudy Giuliani—have spent a lot of time talking about “quality of life,” but the phrase was usually deployed in the service of a hard-nosed (and, frankly, racist) agenda: Quality of life meant not having someone urinate on your sidewalk or sit on a park bench with an open container of beer. De Blasio sought to put a different spin on the phrase: He means happiness.
“That word, ‘happiness,’ it means something in this nation. It’s in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. It’s what this nation was founded for,” he said. “Living in this city shouldn’t be surviving. You deserve better.” Referring specifically to his plan to require paid personal days, he said, “It’s not just time off. It’s time to live the right way.”
There have been two streams of criticism of de Blasio over the past year or more.
The first is that the mayor is disengaged from running the city and has not committed the necessary political capital or personal time to grunt work like fixing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
The second is that, dating to his 2017 reelection campaign, the mayor has put few compelling, ambitious ideas on the table, leading to an impression that his administration has been adrift.
De Blasio is faulted, in other words, both for failing to pay attention to the old stuff and for failing to come up with anything new.
Thursday’s speech did nothing to reassure critics who want to see de Blasio concentrate his attention on tasks like reducing homelessness or desegregating schools or saving public housing, where 400,000 people live and a federal takeover is theoretically possible. De Blasio clearly doesn’t want his mayoralty defined by a crisis in NYCHA, which is primarily driven by federal funding shortfalls, and which—even before the lead-paint crisis exploded—de Blasio had made historically huge investments to try to address. But local management lapses have also contributed mightily to NYCHA’s plight, and whatever the mix of blame, it’s de Blasio’s problem to solve. His efforts so far have been overshadowed by the gravity of the crisis, and also undercut by his lack of face-time for the topic. With a plan released late last year, City Hall says it has put NYCHA on track for the systemic repairs its aging housing stock needs, and the administration apparently wasn’t going to spend any of the spotlight this week on that issue.
This was, instead, the week for some of those new, ambitious initiatives. Universal health coverage, universal retirement support, mandatory paid leave, seizing buildings from bad landlords—these are indeed big ideas. And de Blasio is right that the modern American social contract has frayed, driven by changes to the way work is done and paid for, resulting in less time for family and less confidence in our ability to have a decent life as we age. Neoliberal economics isn’t the only reason why life in the city is hard, but it’s a factor, for sure. And targeting quality of life in the broadest sense is an embrace of the progressive article of faith that government has the power to improve all lives.
Making “happiness” a goal, however, is a daunting leap. Ever since the Declaration of Independence, people have debated what Thomas Jefferson meant by the H-word. What does it mean to be happy? Can everyone be happy at once? De Blasio is not the first to suggest happiness as a target for public action, and he was not explicit about what kind of expectations for happiness New Yorkers should have. But linking policy to happiness drives public policy right to the border of the soul. Maybe that’s exactly where it needs to be. But it doesn’t get much more ambitious than that.