Bill de Blasio. (AP images)
In our recent special issue, “The Gilded City,” we described New York as “a city of dazzling resurrection and official neglect…remarkable wealth and even more inequality.” As reported by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of New York City’s wage earners took in nearly 39 percent of the wealth. Between 2000 and 2010, family income in New York City’s wealthiest neighborhoods increased by over 55 percent in spite of the recession, while family income in the city’s poorest neighborhoods actually decreased by 0.2 percent. As reported by the US Census Bureau and cited recently in The New Yorker, if the borough of Manhattan were a country, the income gap between the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent would be equal to that in countries including Sierra Leone, Namibia and Lesotho.
The human cost of this staggering inequality in America’s largest city cannot be understated: neighborhoods without daycare, grocery stores, quality schools or equal access to transit. Residents in one New York City housing complex, in the shadow of the wealthy DUMBO neighborhood, have to walk more than a mile to clean their clothes. The inspiring movement of low-wage workers to organize and fight for higher wages is promising, as is the city’s recent hard-won passage of paid sick days for most (but still not all) New Yorkers. But as The Nation has reported extensively over the last five years, income inequality remains a foundational issue that plagues New York, and many of America’s largest cities.
I was excited to see then, in a speech delivered in late May at The New School, New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio address income inequality head on, describing New York as a “gilded city where the privileged few prosper and millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle just to keep their heads above water,” and declaring an “Inequality Crisis.” In his speech, de Blasio decried “caviar pizza and edible gold” in a city beset by poverty and stagnating wages for the working and middle class. These rhetorical flourishes drew attention, but most promising to me is that de Blasio backed up his words with a plan and a way to pay for it. In presenting an agenda that The Observer said would “drastically shift the city’s priorities,” DeBlasio released a substantive package of thirty policy proposals to tackle income inequality, “Jobs For All New Yorkers, Growth for All Neighborhoods.”