Sometimes when data is released on social conditions the numbers do not surprise. Such is the case with the revelation from Census data that poverty in New York City is on the upswing and that income inequality in the nation’s largest city has widened. A drive through the five boroughs, scan of the city’s dailies or viewing the evening news confirms the dismal reality for New York City’s poor. The fact that the nation has experienced a devastating recession cannot be dismissed but neither can the abysmally benign leadership of its billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has presided like Nero as the city’s poor have been crushed.
Making matters worse has been the impotent response of civic leadership to Mayor Bloomberg; including individuals heading organizations who purportedly are mission-driven to address poverty. In The New York Times, my former boss, David Jones, who heads the Community Service Society, is quoted saying in response to the new poverty data, “It’s not good news.” Huh? Jones further opines, “I don’t think this has to mean an all-out call for class warfare…” It is a reflection of the type of measured, weak and thoroughly fearful response to elected leadership that guarantees little improvement in the lives of the city’s most vulnerable residents. It is also one of the most impersonal reactions to human suffering that I have read in quite some time. The Community Service Society is a 150 year-old, well endowed (to the tune of upwards of $120 million) not-for-profit organization with a mission of fighting poverty. And its response to increasing poverty is “It’s not good news” and a fear of class warfare becomes the primary concerns of its leader. It reveals just how the poor in New York City are pretty much on their own and why the Bloomberg administration has been allowed to experiment the population into dire straits with little or no challenge.
Poor people in New York City have suffered mightily under the Bloomberg reign. In a city where people of color comprise the majority, this means those impacted most are African-American and Latino. Despite the mayor’s much ballyhooed foray into the public education morass, Black and Latino children are still woefully underserved by the city’s schools and remain unprepared for college or the world of work, what little there is of the latter. Young Black and Latino men have become a suspect class, racially profiled by police and subjected to the indignity of “stop and frisk” by the New York City Police Department and in some instances the victims of excessive force by police. The mayor even had the audacity to suggest that not enough Blacks were being stopped by police in response to criticism of the NYPD. Black men are largely discounted and have become a permanent jobless class. Black and Latino families are burdened by poverty and trapped in a vortex of despair.
Still, there has been scant push back to the mayor during his 12 years in office. Despite his rather unremarkable record, few voices spoke out against his abuse of power when he finagled a third term in office. Likewise, as the rights of young, mostly poor, young Black and Latino men were daily violated, there was silence among civic leadership. As homelessness, hunger and poverty re-emerged as visible signs of human need, the mayor was given a pass. At a time when poor New Yorkers need courageous leadership to fight their quest for a better quality of life, those in positions to really fight have been either silent, purposefully measured in fear of the mayor or downright complicit. And the issuance of research reports that do nothing but tell us what we already know is no replacement for a vigorous challenge to power and the status quo. Data without real advocacy is like playing basketball without hoops.
Before I am accused of a personal vendetta against a former employer, let me cite a passage from “Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics,” by journalist and veteran New York Times reporter Joyce Purnick. In citing the influence of the mayor’s personal wealth on advocacy, she interviews CSS’ Jones. He states, “But I think the personal funding has clearly kept the not-for-profit community very pro-Bloomberg. It chills dissent. You are going to watch what you say.” Purnick notes that Jones’ organization gets $50,000 a year in Bloomberg philanthropy, hardly a sum that should sway an organization’s agenda. Yet the author writes:
“I got my bribe,” he [Jones] says with a laugh. “I’ve joked that maybe if I’d gotten more money I wouldn’t have done that article” – an op-ed piece he wrote for the Daily News criticizing Bloomberg’s housing policy. “In fact, I didn’t hit as hard as I might.”
It is the ultimate confession of leadership failure. When a newspaper article is viewed as advocacy and the minimal impact of that critique is further watered down by the acknowledged preference for money over outcomes, it is clear why the new poverty numbers are no real surprise. The status quo is not so much about the mayor, or any mayor, but more so about the absence of any effective opposition. We find ourselves in an era of uncalled for reasonableness and etiquette in response to the suffering and injustices experienced by the “least of these.” The idea that “It’s not good news” is a sufficient response to human misery is bad news for New York City’s poor.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.
Walter Fields was employed by the Community Service Society in 1990-91 and 2005-2010, and was a plaintiff in a retaliation lawsuit against the organization that he lost in federal court in 2013.