URBAN AGENDA: What if we spent $1 billion a year on economic justice instead of police injustice?

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 6/22/2020, 4:12 p.m.
George Floyd’s murder has sparked sustained outrage in New York City and across the country. Protesters are calling for reimagining ...
David R. Jones Contributed

George Floyd’s murder has sparked sustained outrage in New York City and across the country. Protesters are calling for reimagining how our cities are policed and reinvesting those dollars in jobs, education, housing and social services to lift up communities of color victimized by police violence.

Even as Mayor de Blasio made draconian cuts to CUNY and eliminated funding for the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) in his proposed budget this year, he left the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget almost untouched, trimming it by less than one percent. Now he’s vowed to shift funding from the NYPD to youth and social services but has not said by how much.

Meanwhile, the City Council has proposed reducing the police budget by $1 billion through slashing overtime, removing school safety from the NYPD’s purview, and shrinking the officer headcount. Where we end up will depend on the outcome of budget negotiations now taking place between the Council and the Mayor.

But just think what one billion dollars a year could do if it were spent on long-term solutions to entrenched economic inequality in our city. Rather than using taxpayer dollars to over-police black and brown New Yorkers, we could offer a summer job to every high school student who wanted one, subsidize high-quality childcare, enable low-income New Yorkers to afford the cost of a CUNY college degree, expand fair housing enforcement, and provide moderate-income tenants facing eviction in housing court with the right to an attorney. The combined price tag for all these proposals adds up to about $1 billion annually.

Our communities need this assist. The brunt of the economic fallout has been and will be shouldered by black and brown New Yorkers, who were much less likely than white residents to have a financial buffer to cushion the blow of job loss. According to Community Service Society’s 2019 Unheard Third survey, a staggering 40 percent of black New Yorkers have zero or less than $500 in emergency savings, compared to only 16 percent of white residents. Even before the pandemic, black New Yorkers were twice as likely to face three or more hardships such as falling behind on the rent, needing to rely on food pantries and delaying necessary medical care.

Persistent wage gaps contribute to these stark disparities. In 2018, median earnings for blacks in New York City were $37,485 compared to $63,825 earned by white workers. Since 2005, median wages for white workers have grown by 8.2 percent while those for black workers have contracted by one percent, after adjusting for inflation.

A four-year college degree is a key to narrowing the racial wage gap and lifting black New Yorkers into the middle class. The median wages of black workers with a bachelor’s degree are $103,000, over $40,000 more than the median wages of black workers without one. But four-year degrees are out of reach for many, and black students are still underrepresented in our city’s most selective four-year CUNY colleges. Consider this: two decades ago, black students made up 34 percent of incoming freshman at the top tier City College. By 2019, that share had plummeted to 19 percent. For about $300 million a year, the city could cover non-tuition costs for roughly 120,600 low-income students enabling them to graduate debt-free.