Economic Inequality and Social Immobility

As our nation's political and economic upheavals play out in policy choices, it is clear that our country has not yet come to terms with what I believe is our most existential threat: economic inequality and social immobility. The 2010 Census revealed the greatest income disparity between rich and poor Americans since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. Today children are far more likely than they were 30 years ago to remain in the socioeconomic class into which they were born. Despite these distressing facts, the words "poverty" or "poor" were not mentioned by Governor Cuomo or Mayor Bloomberg in each of their 2012 "state of" addresses. Even though the few programs that help residents of America's poorest neighborhoods have significantly high benefits -- most notably for disadvantaged children -- and ultimately help to stimulate the economy, each level of governments' investment in these programs is plummeting.

In late March, New York State adopted its fiscal year 2012 budget where a $10 billion budget shortfall was closed by drastic cuts in education, health, and human services. Most of these cuts will have profoundly negative effects on New York's most vulnerable citizens. Some members of the state legislature and concerned citizens advocated for covering part of the shortfall by extending the "Millionaires Tax" for individuals with the highest income. Yet, the governor and legislature decided that cutting essential services for vulnerable New Yorkers and increasing the overwhelming divide between the wealthiest families and those living in poverty was the most advantageous way to balance the budget.

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg issued his executive budget for fiscal year 2012, which also includes deep cuts to programs that largely benefit our poorest citizens.Early childhood education and after-school programs will bear the brunt of the blow and stand to lose more than $75 million. As a result, 7,000 underprivileged children will be denied early education and more than 16,000 will lose their after-school program throughout the City. If these cuts are adopted, NYC's after-school system -- the largest and most comprehensive in the country -- will be slashed by a quarter. This system, which was built and championed by Mayor Bloomberg, served 85,000 children in New York City in fiscal year 2009 -- that number would be chopped to 45,000 in fiscal year 2012.

After-school programs provide crucial support systems and windows of opportunity for children from low-income families. They have been proven to keep kids off the street, consequently promoting healthy development and preventing crime, substance abuse, and pregnancy among teens. Early childhood education programs are also proven to help prepare children for school. Clearly, these cuts are bad for children.

They're also bad for the economy. These programs promote school success, and when children graduate from high school they earn more, pay more taxes, and rely less on government support. The proposed cuts would also make it extremely challenging for the working poor -- who depend on these programs for childcare -- to make ends meet. Hundreds of the full- and part-time workers serving our most vulnerable populations will also be laid off, contributing to an already distressing unemployment situation. The impact of cutting these programs would be disastrous for families, as well as for the economy of the city, in both the short- and long-terms.

Any budget, whether an individual's, an organization's, or the government's, is a value statement -- it is a reflection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts and what we feel is expendable and not expendable. As budgets are being negotiated, programs that support disadvantaged youth have been disproportionately cut. And the looming federal budget negotiations promise more of the same. The achievement gap between children in poverty and their peers is already far too wide. Our budgets -- our values -- need to reflect a dedication to and investment in all of our citizens, particularly for our children who will be making these decisions for future generations.

The Children's Aid Society's ability to provide high-quality expanded learning opportunities, such as early childhood education and after-school programs, will be profoundly impacted. Cutting these program dollars unfairly diminishes the opportunities for children to break the generational cycle of poverty and any chance of a promising future.

I call on our elected officials to conduct a personal values assessment as they negotiate this year's budget. Shall we continue to lower taxes for the richest as we cut essential programs for already taxed working Americans living in poverty? The America I know values providing opportunities for all of our citizens to succeed and thrive -- please ensure that our government budgets reflect those core values. Let's close the income gap and give our children the chances they deserve to escape the clutches of poverty.