A New Deal for New York City

"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," Franklin D. Roosevelt announced while accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1932. Less than a year later, after being elected President of the United States, Roosevelt launched the New Deal. With his election the United States entered a new era of broader government with greater responsibility for managing the economy and meeting the needs of the American people. New "alphabet" programs designed to stimulate growth and put America back to work included the NRA (National Recovery Act), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), WPA (Work Progress Administration), and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).

On the national level, President Obama, faced with an obstructionist Republican Party and a paralyzed legislative branch, has either minimized or abandoned the possibility of new social initiatives that would raise wages and combat unemployment. What few outside of professional historians remember is that FDR did not wait to become President before starting new deal-style welfare and recovery programs. He actually began the initiative while he was Governor of New York State. It is time for New York, at least New York City, to play a similar role again.

New York City's new Mayor Bill de Blasio has received generally good press for articulating a progressive vision for the future, although some of the same newspapers are leery about what they describe as his appointment of "activists" to important city government positions. I am not sure how you can endorse the vision but oppose activists who want to put it into place. However a bigger concern for me is that except for a few cases, notably his endorsement of universal pre-kindergarten, his proposal to provide city identification cards to undocumented immigrants, and a plan to slow traffic and make the streets safer for pedestrians, de Blasio has forwarded very few specific proposals that would make New York a more equal city. Let us not forget the aphorism, "the devil is in the details."

To help the new mayor along the progressive path, I propose a "New Deal for New York City" based on the Great Depression era programs proposed by Franklin Roosevelt and supported by Fiorello LaGuardia, who was mayor of New York City from 1934 - 1945. Under LaGuardia, New York was the model for New Deal municipal welfare and public works construction programs including the West Side Highway, East River Drive, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, LaGuardia Airport, and Floyd Bennett Field.

The New Deal for New York City must have three interlocking prongs that will support and enhance each other. They are Education, Housing, and Jobs.

1. Education. In the United States money pours into pilot urban experimental programs without much of a track record like the much ballyhooed P-Tech in Brooklyn and because of local funding, it also goes disproportionately to suburban schools in affluent communities. We need to redirect and enhance the flow. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigned to close schools he labeled as failing when those were the schools that needed the greatest financial investment. Bloomberg just rerouted students with academic problems from troubled communities to different schools that just led those schools to be labeled failing. Additional money to lower performing schools would make possible smaller classes and extra push-in support staff. The city currently has over a thousand experienced teachers assigned by the Bloomberg administration to an absent teacher reserve (ATR) pool. Why continue to waste their time and experience? They should be assisting teachers who are working with high needs students and students who are performing below level. Currently only students labeled as special education get this type of additional support, but it should be available to every student who needs the help. In addition, the city should hire additional new teachers and assistants to make a real impact on student performance and hire social workers to visit homes and help stabilize families. Good education costs money, but it will also mean good jobs.

2. Jobs. One way to encourage students to work harder in school is to promise that every New York City high school graduate will at a minimum receive a municipal job at a newer higher New York City minimum wage. Among other benefits, this will force low wage employers like McDonald's and big box stores to raise wages if they want to attract and hold onto any employees. Instead of having teenagers get arrested first before they can get a job cleaning highways or go on welfare before they can work cleaning parks, we should bypass the arrests and workfare and make these real jobs at real pay with real benefits. Before the 1970s fiscal crisis, New York City park employees were paid union wages and received benefits, which also meant they had money to shop at stores, pay rent, and take care of their children.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in New York City and we need to hire people to do it. In the short term, after this winter it looks like every street in the city needs to be repaved. In the middle term, the homeless shelters are over-capacity and public housing is plagued by families living in double-and-triple-ups. New Yorkers are desperate for new affordable housing and cannot wait while developers figure out how to do it profitably. If the developers will not build, the city must hire, train, and build. But the long-term is perhaps the most important. After Superstorm Sandy it became clear that the New York City coast line is vulnerable to flooding and that the storms will cause astronomical damage. The city needs to build flood barriers and ocean surge gates and protect its electrical grid and transit system. All of these projects will provide plenty of work.

This municipal jobs program is not radical socialism. It is modeled on the New Deal Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was a major part of Martin Luther King's "Poor People's Campaign." It was actually written into federal law in 1978 as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act that committed the federal government to keeping unemployment below 3% for people over age 20 and under 4% for working teenagers. These programs need to be revived. Everyone who wants to work should be guaranteed a municipal job as a last resort.

3. Housing. The third prong of the New Deal for New York City is adequate housing for all New Yorkers. Not only will it provide homes, but it will stimulate jobs which will stimulate spending and support businesses and communities. It will make it easier for students to stay in school and do homework and with a promised job, it will give them a reason to stay in school.

These programs will not be cheap, at least at the start, but they should promote self-sustaining economic growth - everyone who works will spend money and pay taxes, and the businesses that benefit from improved infrastructure and better prepared employees can pay their fair share as well.

In response to potential critics of the New Deal for New York City, I think Bill de Blasio should resurrect Roosevelt's message to the American people. "The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."