We need a living wage
BILL DE BLASIO New York City Public Advocate | 12/22/2011, 3:13 p.m.
New York City is in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis that has battered the middle class, driven down wages and led to unacceptably high rates of unemployment. Underlying these problems is a rising income inequality that threatens our social fabric and economic future. As a city, we must move aggressively to address rising income inequality-and I firmly believe that the living wage bill represents one of the most immediate and important steps our city can take to do this.
The most recent U.S. Census data tells a troubling story. Almost half of Americans are living in or near poverty. In New York, the story is no better. Between 2009 and 2010, a further 75,000 New Yorkers fell below the poverty line. New York City's working class is staring in the face of a profound income crisis.
In light of these facts, we should view the economic state of affairs in New York City as both a failure and a call to action. Over the last decade, we have not done enough to grow the prospects of all New Yorkers. Government must assert itself as a force on the side of the middle class, using all available tools to encourage economic activity that creates jobs while ensuring that workers experience the benefits associated with that economic activity.
This has not been the city's approach to date in its contracting process, pension investments or regulation of businesses. In no place is the potential for that role stronger, and the missed opportunity greater, than in the case of the subsidies that the city dispenses through the Economic Development Corporation.
While we do not have complete control over the economic prospects of all of the workers in our city, we do have the right-and the obligation-to fight for the best possible outcome for those who work in city development projects funded with our tax dollars. By the same token, we must accept a measure of responsibility for those working at projects subsidized by the city who nevertheless earn wages insufficient to provide for themselves and their families.
In Los Angeles, in San Francisco, in Pittsburgh, corporations that accept large public subsidies are required to do more than the minimum by paying a living wage. The provisions have increased the income of workers in the projects, thereby increasing the multiplier effect for the local economy; they have reduced employee turnover, resulting in higher productivity; and they have ensured that workers in city-funded projects are less dependent on social services and place less of a strain on local budgets.
In the months since City Council Members Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma introduced the living wage bill-leadership for which they deserve enormous credit-there has been heated debate. Detractors have made numerous claims of the negative outcomes that would occur if the city adopted a living wage. Some have claimed that such a bill would inhibit future development, citing the city's experience with the Kingsbridge Armory as an example.
I am the first to say that it was a tragedy negotiations were not able to yield a project at the Kingsbridge Armory. I do not subscribe to the notion that no projects are better than imperfect projects. But what killed the Kingsbridge Armory project was brinksmanship in the negotiating process-not the principle of a living wage.
I am heartened by the changes that have already happened to make clear that the bill's intent is not to cover as-of-right subsidies, and by additional amendments that exclude the nonprofit and affordable housing sectors. In addition, I recommend increasing the amount of revenue a business must earn to trigger the living wage requirement in order to exclude all small businesses receiving development aid.
We should leave no tool of government unused in the current economic climate. Where city business, contracts and assets can be leveraged to increase economic activity, improving the quality and quantity of jobs in our city, we must act aggressively. The desperate state of New York City's middle class, the experience of other localities and improvements made to the bill in recent months have collectively convinced me that the time has come to pass a living wage bill that uses the power of our economic development dollars to reduce income inequality.