If Bill de Blasio had built his mayoral campaign around a promise to reduce crime, we’d simply tally up the number of murders, rapes, assaults and other offenses in a year or two to see whether he was succeeding or not. If he’d campaigned on a vow to improve schools, we could (with caution) look at test scores or graduation rates.
As it turns out, de Blasio chose a bigger, more amorphous target: inequality. Unlike former Mayor Bloomberg, who committed to reducing homelessness by two-thirds and to substantially reducing poverty (he failed on both counts), de Blasio never made a specific promise of how much he would reduce inequality. But he did vow to reduce it, and to hold him accountable, we need to come up with a consistent way to measure progress against inequality. So I asked a group of policy experts—some of whom are involved in the transition and couldn’t be quoted by name—to suggest how to track de Blasio’s impact.
The most common and compelling way to measure inequality is to look at how much income flows to the top 1 percent, or how income is divided among income quintiles—the top fifth, the bottom fifth and the three fifths in between. These measures capture the incredible concentration of wealth at the top of the the income scale over recent decades. Statistics in this vein provided the talking points for the Occupy movement and the sentiments into which de Blasio’s campaign tapped.
But interestingly, none of the experts I surveyed thought these measures were the best ones to judge de Blasio by. Reporting lags were one reason. Another was that those statistics can reflect social changes other than the interplay between the haves and have-nots. For instance, Detroit has less income inequality than New York, but that’s not because it’s a workers’ paradise. Furthermore, while redistribution through the tax system can have some effect, city policy is unlikely to do much about the share of income the top 1 percent gets; Wall Street bonuses and corporate compensation packages are what moves that needle.
But here are some other ways we can measure whether de Blasio’s mayoralty measures up:
1. Number of workers earning a living wage. Across the political spectrum in New York there is a consensus that the economy has generated a huge number of low-wage jobs over the past decade, and that that’s a problem. There’s a lot of disagreement about how to address that problem, but a measure that looked at how many of the city’s workers are earning enough to get by would capture how much progress de Blasio made at reversing this signature trend of the Bloomberg years. Related measures could look at the evolution of after-tax household income, because this would encompass the impact of tax credits.