Cracks in the robust New York City economy of the late '90s began to appear months before two hijacked jetliners slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. The Nasdaq Composite Index reached an all-time high of 5,132 on March 10, 2000 — and promptly fell 60 percent, to 2052, over the next twelve months. As investor and business confidence fell along with market indices, wage and job growth in the city began to stagnate and the city's tourism industry experienced the first signs of a slowdown. Then 9/11 happened and, as David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York puts it, "the whole thing came unglued."
In the months after the attacks, the city lost 83,000 actual jobs and an additional 63,000 jobs that would have been created had the attacks not occurred, with job losses spread evenly over a range of industries, including financial services, aviation, apparel manufacturing, retailing, and tourism. Estimates of the negative impact on the city's economic output ranged from $20 billion to $39 billion. And the toll in human terms — beyond the staggering loss of 2,819 lives — was incalculable.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted in December, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with David Jones about the economic impact of 9/11 on the poor and working poor in New York City, his organization's activities in the aftermath of the attacks, welfare reform legislation, and the prospects for economic recovery going forward.
David R. Jones, Esq., has been president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, one of the nation's oldest and largest nonprofit social welfare organizations, since 1986.
The son of a former assemblyman and judge, Jones was born in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in 1948, received his B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1970, and a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School in 1974. In 1975, he joined the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, where he specialized in corporate antitrust cases and contract litigation, and was appointed Special Advisor to the Mayor of the City of New York, with responsibilities in race relations, urban development, immigration reform, and education, in 1979. Prior to joining CSS, Jones served for three years as executive director of the New York City Youth Bureau, where he initiated programs to help homeless young adults and pregnant teens and expanded after-school activities for "latchkey children" of working parents.
From 1993 to 1998, he served on the board of directors of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates twenty-one municipal facilities largely serving poor and immigrant populations of color, and in 1998 he was appointed to the advisory board of the Independent Budget Office, a group that monitors city spending.
Mr. Jones currently serves on the boards of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Homes for the Homeless, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and sits on the advisory boards of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Barnard-Columbia Center for Leadership on Urban Public Policy, and the School of Public Affairs of Baruch College. He is, in addition, a trustee of the New-York Historical Society, a director of the Prospect Park Alliance, and a member of the executive committee of the New York Foundation.
Jones was the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 1970 and holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the City University of New York and an honorary Master of Arts degree from Wesleyan University. A member of the New York State and federal bars, he is married to Dr. Valerie King, a clinical psychologist. They have two children.
Philanthropy News Digest: David, tell us about CSS — when was it founded, what is its mission, and how has that mission changed over the years?
David Jones: Sure. The Community Service Society of New York is about a hundred and fifty-five years old. It was created in the last century by the merger of two prominent not-for-profits, the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which was founded in 1845, and the Charity Organization Society, which was founded in 1882. The founder of the Charity Organization Society was a woman by the name of Josephine Shaw Lowell. She came from a prominent Boston abolitionist family and was the brother of Colonel Robert Shaw, the white commander of black troops in the Civil War whose story was told in the movie Glory. After the war — during which she lost virtually all her male relatives — Shaw Lowell moved to New York and became the leader of what became known as the scientific social work movement. Before Josephine Shaw Lowell, the usual way the poor were dealt with, to the extent that anyone bothered, was through something called street relief. Politicians used it a lot — they'd set up a table in a poor neighborhood and provide coal, turkeys, blankets, and what have you in return for votes. That was the major vehicle for the distribution of charitable relief.
Then, after the Civil War, Shaw Lowell's group came in and, along with other activists linked with prominent figures like Jacob Riis and Thomas Nash, the political cartoonist, began to investigate conditions in the city's tenements and poor neighborhoods using something called "friendly visitors" — nice, middle-class ladies who would go into the tenements and visit with poor families and, based on those visits, determine whether a family was deserving of relief.
More significantly, perhaps, these groups also began to uncover some of the corrupt practices that were helping to keep people in conditions of squalor and poverty. It turned out, for example, that the New York City machine politicians of the time actually owned many of the tenements in which the poor lived, and those kinds of arrangements became one of the first targets of this new breed of social reformer. Another was the widespread practice of mixing ground-up chalk with water and passing it off to poor immigrant families as milk, a practice that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of children a year. Stopping that practice was one of the fights our predecessor agencies took up and eventually succeeded in winning.
We were also instrumental in creating the first new-law tenement. At the time, around the turn of the century, most of the city's poor were crammed into row tenements with no air or light or central sanitation. So we came up with the idea of putting rooms around an air shaft, which at least gave the tenants in those buildings access to ventilation and a little bit of natural light. We also created the first public baths in New York and the first penny lunch. Essentially, what the organization was about back then — and still is about today — was tackling social problems through research and advocacy: You identify a problem, you investigate the root causes of the problem, and then you either provide relief to those who are suffering or you address the causes of the problem. And if you can't get the public or private sector to fix the problem, you go ahead and create a prototype of something that will. That's how the penny lunch came about. We were the ones who established, through research, the link between malnourished kids and poor performance in school. But we didn't sit around and wait for city government to come to the same conclusion — if we had, we might still be waiting. Instead, we did the research that established the link, created a program to address the problem, and then expanded the program citywide.
PND: What percentage of your organization's income and support comes from the public sector and what percentage comes from private sources?
DJ: In terms of private sources, our endowment and contribution-related monies probably run as high as seventy percent of our total income and support, with the other thirty percent coming from public sources. Actually, your question relates to one of my pet peeves. In addition to doing research and providing direct service, CSS is an advocacy organization. We're unusual in that we do all three. And there's a reason for that. More and more, not-for-profits are dependent on government money. But when you take government money, there are strings attached, whether you see them or not. With government funding, you always face the risk of having your money cut off if you offend the wrong person. In other words, if you decide to accept government funding, you run the risk of compromising your effectiveness as an advocate. In my opinion, it's one of the real challenges facing not-for-profits that want to advocate on behalf of the poor, the disabled, or any other group that's disenfranchised.
PND: How did you become involved in anti-poverty work?
DJ: Actually, I'm the third generation of my family that's been involved in this kind of work. My grandfather was a lieutenant for Marcus Garvey — the Garveyite movement, which was all about self-help and self-improvement for blacks, was huge in the black community in the early part of the twentieth century. That's where the issues of self-interest and social mobility for blacks got their first airing. Then, during the 1960s, my father, along with Bobby Kennedy and others, founded something called Bed-Stuy Restoration, one of the first black political groups in Brooklyn. In fact, my father was the first black assemblyman from central Brooklyn.
So even though I'm trained as a lawyer, I recognized early on that I would probably end up being involved in public service and politics on some level. In fact, in college I was a member of the last group of interns that worked for Robert Kennedy before he was assassinated. Then, after I graduated, I went to Yale Law School, where I met a lot of activists who later became prominent national figures, people like the Clintons, [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas, [former Labor Secretary] Bob Reich, and so on. After graduating from Yale, I clerked for Constance Baker Motley, who had worked on Brown v. Board of Education, then joined a large law firm, Cravath Swaine & Moore. But I didn't love corporate law, and in 1976 I took a leave of absence to become Jimmy Carter's deputy campaign director in New York State, which led to me being recruited by Ed Koch's people to become a special adviser to the mayor in the first Koch administration.
After four years in that role, I took a job as head of youth services for the city of New York, and that's where a lot of the issues I was — and still am — interested in started to line up. For example, we were able to increase the agency's budget from something like $15 million a year to approximately $50 million a year — or about two times more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the current administration is spending on youth services. Which is a bad joke, in my opinion.
Be that as it may, my work in youth services for the city brought me to the attention of CSS, which was looking to augment its traditional work, doing research and providing direct service to the poor and indigent, with opportunities to pursue advocacy more aggressively. And eventually they hired me.
|"...Poor people themselves don't have the education, they don't have the resources, they don't have the skills to mobilize and get people to pay attention to their issues and needs. They're politically impotent...."|
That was seventeen years ago, and although it's not exactly the traditional route into anti-poverty work, it was a journey marked by a fair amount of activism. We see that all the time at CSS. We don't think it's enough to just focus on alleviating poverty; we believe that people need to understand the political context that shapes the experiences of the poor in this country. Because you know what? Poor people themselves don't have the education, they don't have the resources, they don't have the skills to mobilize and get people to pay attention to their issues and needs. They're politically impotent. So the question of how you create leverage for the poor — and there are more than two million of them in New York City alone — is one of the critical issues we struggle with here on a daily basis. Obviously, we have to do it in a nonpartisan way — in fact, we've been a major driver of nonpartisan voter registration in the city for at least a decade, registering more than a quarter of a million new voters over that period. But it's surprising what you can do, even within a nonpartisan framework.
PND: I'd like to come back to some of these issues in a minute. But before we do, can you tell us what CSS did in response to the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center?
DJ: September 11 was a major transition point for CSS in a number of ways. Basically, we wanted to take what we were already doing and, in the context of 9/11, make it relevant to our core constituencies. For example, we expanded many of our technical assistance programs, which we had been providing to smaller not-for-profits and church groups, to nonprofits that were directly affected by the collapse of the towers. We also had direct access, through our Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, to roughly ninety-five hundred volunteers. And, of course, we were in a position to provide direct social services to indirect victims of the attacks, particularly in the area of housing.
The other thing we had was an ongoing relationship with the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. In fact, CSS and its predecessor agencies were among the earliest beneficiaries of the Times' philanthropy, going all the way back to 1911, when we received our first donation from the company. But in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the people at the Times decided to create a special fund within the Neediest Cases Fund that was geared to the working poor, and with our help and the help of other not-for-profits in the social-service sector they began to focus on the needs of this group — food-service handlers, baggage handlers at the airports, hotel chambermaids, people downtown who, one by one, lost their jobs in the days and weeks after the towers fell.
In our view, it turned out to be one of the unsung efforts in the immediate post-9/11 period. Obviously, there was an enormous and totally appropriate outpouring of support for the families of first responders and white-collar employees of major companies who lost their lives when the towers came down. It was much more difficult, however, to get assistance if you were the wife of an undocumented food-service handler working at Windows on the World. Those folks had real problems getting adequate support for their families.
Even worse, in terms of job loss and displacement, was what happened to people's benefits. If you were a chambermaid or baggage handler and lost your job in the weeks after 9/11, you had real trouble. Getting money from the government, for example, proved to be uniquely difficult. So, almost from day one, CSS and other organizations began to distribute money to help people with their rent and mortgages, so they wouldn't lose their homes. We secured food vouchers for people, we secured tuition vouchers if their kids were attending parochial school, we did any number of things for poor working families affected by 9/11 that were essential to their well-being and stability.
On the research and advocacy front, we began to lay out for policy makers the broader implications of 9/11 for the working poor in New York City — people who didn't have savings accounts or 401(k)s, who didn't have health or life insurance, who didn't qualify for the various relief funds that had been established in the aftermath of the attacks. And I think our activities in this regard served to reinforce the idea that there were other communities — Chinatown, for instance — that had been devastated economically by 9/11 and were not getting the kind of help and resources they needed to recover from this horrible event.
In addition, we began to work with something called the Windows of Hope Fund, which was set up by the owners of Windows on the World to help the families of those who died in the restaurants in and around the World Trade Center, and eventually became the primary social workers for those families, which are scattered all over the metropolitan region and are likely to need our help for at least the next two to three years.
In a similar vein, we began to talk about what government would have to do in terms of coming up with long-term support for workers who could directly attribute their unemployment to 9/11. That ended up going a couple of different ways. It was the work we did around Disaster Medicaid, where we were one of the primary organizations trying to come up with a streamlined effort to allow people to draw down their Medicaid benefits without getting involved in the cumbersome application process that Medicaid generally requires, that ultimately helped more than 300,000 people qualify for Disaster Medicaid benefits. We also began to talk about increasing and extending people's unemployment benefits, an idea that Congress eventually picked up.
|"...But to have the family of a Windows on the World food-service handler get a pittance while the family of a bond trader gets a huge amount of money suggests that their lives are valued differently and raises questions of equity in society...."|
In other words, we tried to shape our response to 9/11 so that it was consistent with our mission. At the same time, we tried to focus on areas that weren't necessarily fashionable — and I use that word advisedly. What I mean is, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the families of uniformed personnel and the employees of major corporations — appropriately so. But to have the family of a Windows on the World food-service handler get a pittance while the family of a bond trader gets a huge amount of money suggests that their lives are valued differently and raises questions of equity in society. We've tried to raise those questions in a serious but responsible way.
PND: Does that mean you're disappointed with the actions to date of the federal government's Victim Compensation Fund?
DJ: No, not necessarily. Our concern is with the distribution of charitable benefits.
PND: What did you do to coordinate your emergency assistance and volunteer efforts with other relief agencies and charities?
DJ: We were a member almost from the beginning of something called the 9/11 United Services Group, the coordinating agency for second-tier agencies that were providing relief for displaced workers, undocumented aliens, and so on. As I mentioned, the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund also helped to coordinate the activities of many of the charities that were helping displaced workers and the working poor.
In addition, we did a PBS special specifically targeted to low-wage and undocumented workers urging them to come forward to get support for their families, even if their status was somewhat unclear. In fact, we ended up distributing about $6 million on our own to about three thousand individuals in that category.
PND: Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but would you say the philanthropic community in New York is better prepared to respond to a terrorist attack today than it was prior to September 11, 2001?
DJ: No question. September 11 was an unprecedented event — no one could have imagined a catastrophe of that magnitude — and I think some of the criticism of charities and the philanthropic community was unfair. I mean, I've lived in New York City my whole life and I've never seen anything like 9/11 and its aftermath. But yes, I think there were vital lessons learned. For example, there was a kind of reluctance in the early stages of the relief effort where people wanted to do something, and boards of directors and staffs wanted to do something, but people held back because they didn't want to step on other people's toes. We got past that rather quickly, however. Obviously, there were problems at the Red Cross. But everyone fumbled a bit trying to get their programs in place. That was to be expected. Remember, there was an enormous amount of learning going on concerning how you deal with a disaster of this magnitude, how you share resources, and how you use the strengths of different entities to create a comprehensive and appropriate package of services for the full range of victims. So, in retrospect, it wasn't that bad. And I don't think it'll ever be that awkward again — although I hope we never have to find out.
PND: You've already mentioned a couple of things CSS is doing to help economic victims of 9/11 get back on their feet. Are there other 9/11-related needs you plan to address? And if so, how long do you think you'll be dealing with those needs?
DJ: It's interesting. As we both know, New York City was already teetering on the brink of recession before 9/11, and the attack on the World Trade Center pushed it over the edge. As a result, it's become almost impossible for me to meet a low-wage worker who's lost his or her job or who hasn't been able to find a new job, or someone on welfare who has run out their time limits or is trying to make the transition to the low-wage economy and not think that, absent 9/11, his or her situation would be entirely different. In personal-injury law there's something called causation that attempts to link a result, the injury, to a specific cause. And in the case of 9/11, causation becomes more removed from the event itself the further we get away from it, but it's there and we can't ignore it.
So a lot of our work these days has merged with our traditional role as advocates for the working poor and those trying to transition from welfare. And we have some unique products, in this regard. For example, I just co-wrote an article with the head of my direct service staff, David Campbell, that discusses how the sector responded to 9/11. Obviously, Windows of Hope is going to remain a critical priority. We're also trying, as we continue our social work intake, to give priority to workers who lost their jobs as a result of 9/11. But at some point we have to start asking where the money for this is going to come from. I mean, we burned through $5 million in a matter of weeks, and while that may sound like a lot of money, it really isn't when you're dealing with a disaster that indirectly affected tens thousands of people in a region with some of the highest housing, health care, and basic service costs in the country. It's important that the public understands that not-for-profits are not a substitute for government. That's been one of my mantras here. We have to disabuse people of the notion that New York is no different from a small village in Vermont where the local church or community goodwill can do everything. We're talking about a city of eight million. We're talking about an unemployment rate that's hovering around 8 percent for the general population, and is more than 10 percent for blacks, over 9 percent for Latinos, and is almost 16 percent for young people. We're talking about tens of thousands of economic victims of 9/11, and no one charity, or even group of charities, can handle needs on that scale. If we're serious about addressing these problems, government has to step in. The problems we face today, many of them exacerbated if not directly caused by 9/11, are too woven into the local economy and the structure of government benefits to pretend otherwise.
PND: Well, since you brought it up, New York City is looking at a billion-dollar budget shortfall in its current fiscal year and at least a $3 billion gap in the coming fiscal year. What are the implications, in human terms, of those numbers for unskilled and low-income residents of the metropolitan region?
DJ: A couple of things. Again, the budget shortfall is an outcome, in part, of 9/11. But it's also the result of mistakes made by the Giuliani administration, which handed out tax breaks left and right, to the point that we were in structural deficit by the end of his second term, and everyone knew it. I guess Giuliani and his advisors assumed that the new revenues needed to sustain the city's spending at existing levels were going to come from somewhere. But instead, we got two planes crashing into the World Trade Center and everything that followed from that, including the incredibly large deficits that Mayor Bloomberg now faces. The whole situation is made worse by the fact that, even though the city's budget is nearly $40 billion and the deficit is $6 billion, the city carries a heavy burden of what are called as-of-right expenditures, which it has no control over. So when a budget deficit of this size hits, it tends to have a catastrophic effect.
|"...The budget crisis has resulted in serious cuts to services for the poor, youth services, services to the elderly, and education. These are critical areas, and no one should be surprised that we've seen significant jumps in the homeless population in New York...."|
Let me talk about the impact on the not-for-profit sector first. Clearly, the vast majority of not-for-profits, particularly those that deliver human services, are reeling from the budget cuts that have been announced and are facing the dire prospect of additional cuts. We've already seen reductions in city contracts of fifteen to eighteen percent, and we expect 2003 to be even worse. In particular, the budget crisis has resulted in serious cuts to services for the poor, youth services, services to the elderly, and education. These are critical areas, especially for the poor, and no one should be surprised that we've seen significant jumps in the homeless population in New York. For the first time in recent memory, the city is housing nearly forty thousand individuals a night in homeless shelters run by or under contract with the city. That's almost eighty-five hundred families — the highest number in the history of New York City. Many of those are low-wage workers who lost their jobs before 9/11 and had been hanging on by their fingertips. Then 9/11 happened and the whole thing came unglued. From our vantage point, those numbers are likely to increase, not decrease, in the months to come.
To its credit, the Bloomberg administration, after eight years of the previous administration not looking at the issue of low- and moderate-income housing creation, has come up with a long-term strategy for trying to get more low- and moderate-income housing units on the market. Still, because the Giuliani administration failed to do anything in this area, it's going to be some time before Mayor Bloomberg's strategy has an impact.
I don't want to sound overly pessimistic, but I think we're headed for some pretty bleak times in New York City over the next few years. And against that backdrop, I think advocates and providers of direct service have a two-fold responsibility. First, not only to be critics of government, but to work collaboratively with government to come up with solutions to these problems. I mean, this is the kind of schizophrenia that drives any not-for-profit advocate crazy. Nevertheless, the times demand it. It's wonderful to beat up on government — I've done my share of it over the years. But it's not enough for advocates to say, "I don't like how people are being treated in the city's homeless shelters," or "The administration's housing policy is a complete disaster." Instead, we have to talk to and engage with government. We simply cannot afford to walk away from the table or lose sight of the ultimate objective, which is to use our shrinking resources as efficiently and effectively as possible to improve the lives of poor and low-income people.
PND: Many of the policy recommendations your organization has put forward entail an expansion of government paid for by higher taxes. Given the fact that New York already has one of the highest tax burdens in the country, do you think New Yorkers are ready to shoulder a heavier tax burden? And how would you respond to critics of higher taxes who argue that they inevitably lead to job losses and lower tax revenues and thus are counterproductive?
DJ: I would answer those critics in a couple of ways. One of the things we did recently was to commission a survey of six hundred low-income and two hundred moderate-income New Yorkers on a whole range of issues, including taxes. And while people weren't jumping for joy over the prospect of higher taxes, we did find that the majority of respondents were willing to pay higher taxes to maintain vital services. That came through loud and clear — not only among low-income respondents, but also among those who were moderate and middle income.
I'll tell you something else. I think it's somewhat disingenuous when critics of higher taxes say, "Well, we know higher taxes will result in X, Y, and Z," without providing data to support their argument. It's the very thing they always accuse us of doing. But unless I've missed it, the anti-tax crowd has not provided data that proves that higher taxes lead to lower revenues. In that regard, my colleagues and I think that New Yorkers know from experience — just think back to the '70s — that they can't expect critical services to be delivered without somebody paying for them.
That said, we're not just talking about higher taxes; we're talking about taxes that are progressive and don't put an enormous burden on the backs of the very people, the poor and working poor, they're intended to help. In our survey, for example, there was real resistance to proposed increases in the subway fare and much greater interest in things like higher income tax rates. Clearly, the mayor's proposal to reinstate the commuter tax is going to be debated. And we seem to have a mixed verdict on his call for higher property taxes. Because of the way his proposal is written, it could end up being a pretty regressive tax that hits low- and moderate-income people more quickly, in the form of immediate rent increases, than it does property owners and the more affluent, and that could exacerbate the homelessness problem in the city and have a further deleterious effect on poor neighborhoods.
I also think it's important to point out that higher property taxes might actually cost the city money. We did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation here to figure out how much it's costing the city to house forty thousand people in shelters every night, and we came up with a figure of roughly $300 million a year. But if we're not careful and pass a property tax that places an unfair burden on poor people, we'll end up spending even more on services for the homeless.
I'll even take it a step further: I think the notion that taxes can't be increased is a pipe dream. Businesses in New York City have seen windfalls, in the form of tax breaks, over the last decade that have been almost obscene. Just recently, a bank that shall remain nameless received $34 million in tax breaks to stay in the city. Needless to say, it employs virtually no low-wage workers. And yet we can't seem to find money in the city budget to help low-income renters. Don't get me wrong — I think we have to make sure that New York City continues to be a good place to do business and that the private sector continues to drive the New York City economy. But we also need to recognize that if the city's streets are crammed with homeless people, if crime starts to increase — and I'm sorry, but social conservatives who think we have found the secret to controlling crime are kidding themselves — businesses will flee. And the resulting loss of revenue will be a whole lot more serious than anything we're likely to see by raising personal and corporate income taxes by a percentage point or two.
PND: Your organization has described the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as a watershed event in U.S. social policy. Six years after the passage of that legislation, how would you characterize its impact on poor families in New York City?
|"...We have a group of young people entering adolescence and young adulthood in New York today who are as disadvantaged, if not more so, as any group of kids in recent memory...."|
DJ: Well, let me give you the negatives first. Clearly, we have in New York City a large number of people on welfare who are reaching their time limits and have not made a successful transition to work, in part because the low-wage economy in New York, for reasons I've discussed, has been shrinking. As a result, we have not seen a marked decrease in poverty or its consequences in New York. It's been particularly brutal on children. We have a group of young people entering adolescence and young adulthood in New York today who are as disadvantaged, if not more so, as any group of kids in recent memory. Their education has been abysmal, they have limited access to adequate health care, and their job prospects are bleaker than at any time in the last fifty years. Yes, it's true that in the mid- to late-'90s we were able to feed them into a low-wage economy that, fortuitously, was growing, and that allowed many of them, at least temporarily, to get off welfare.
Okay, fast forward to today. Those jobs are disappearing like crazy. The combination of the recession and 9/11 has devastated a service sector that a few years ago was absorbing low-wage workers by the tens of thousands. And as that sector has imploded, the people who had transitioned off welfare and into jobs are suddenly finding themselves unemployed and without a safety net to support themselves or their families. Again, going back to our poll, when we talked to those six hundred low-income people and asked them how they were doing, we found that nearly fifty percent had run into a serious problem of one sort or another. Most involved housing issues — they had been threatened with eviction or actually had been evicted, their utilities had been shut off, and so on. Others had to defer needed health care or suddenly were unable to afford the prescription drugs they needed. Now if those six hundred people — and remember, they were randomly selected — are showing that kind of distress, it surely means there's a lot of suffering out there, even if the press and media haven't reported on it. I mean, people are hurting.
So, as an effort to mitigate and improve the conditions of poor Americans, I have to say that welfare reform has been a failure. It has not raised the living standard of the poor and working poor.
Has it led to anything positive? Yes. For one, it has reshaped the context of the welfare debate — and, I must say, it took a while for advocates like myself to realize that. What I mean by that is that welfare reform changed the public perception of poor people as lazy deadbeats out to game the system — you know, the welfare-queen stereotype that was so successfully planted in people's minds by social conservatives in the 1980s and early '90s — to one of people trapped in low-wage work and struggling desperately to make it for themselves and their families. That image clearly has more resonance with the broad public when we're talking about the problems of the working poor, or the deficiencies in our public education system, or the forty million people in this country without health insurance, or the need to build a broad-based political movement to address those problems. I mean, when we travel upstate and talk to Republicans there, many of them are very concerned about the lack of access to adequate health care that their constituents, especially the working poor and elderly, face. It's a bridge issue. Similarly, I think we can get traction on issues of housing and housing support. As I mentioned earlier, Mayor Bloomberg recently announced the first comprehensive housing policy for low- and moderate-income people in nearly a decade. And I think that was due, in part, to a calculation that housing-policy reform has a broader base of support than it did even a year or two ago.
So we need to stop whining about welfare reform and deal with the realities of the new environment. And one of those realities is the redefinition of the terms of the debate vis-a-vis poor Americans. We should take every opportunity to make the linkage between the problems of the poor and welfare reform and reframe the issue so that it's about what America will do for its working poor, not what America does for its welfare deadbeats.
PND: Where do private foundations fit into the picture? How significant are they in terms of addressing the problems of low-income families and the working poor in New York City?
DJ: Obviously, the foundation world is a critical supporter of much of our research and direct-service work. But I think the foundation world suffers from what, for lack of a better phrase, I'll call the hopscotch mentality. What I mean by that is that foundations have a tendency to jump around a lot at the expense of being consistent. Let me give you an example. We think there hasn't been enough support from the foundation community for policy research and advocacy on issues of importance to the working poor and that foundations have shied away from engaging government and taking tough stands on controversial issues. Now I happen to think foundations have a responsibility to do that. Actually, conservative foundations have been very effective in this regard. But let's face it. We're dealing with fundamental, long-term issues in American society — things like employment and wages and how poor people fit or don't fit into our society — that are going to require years of study and social investment and advocacy. And there has to be a willingness on the part of foundations to put these kinds of issues on their agenda, and to do so with a certain sense of urgency — a willingness, I might add, that has been lacking up to now.
Closer to home, I have to say there's very little energy being put into a thoughtful policy debate about the poor in New York City. In some ways, we're the test case for the rest of urban America. I'm not suggesting that the poor are entitled to live lives of luxury, but they shouldn't have to worry about losing their health insurance, their child supports, or their jobs every time the economy goes into recession. We just have to be more inclusive as a society. And again, while these are tough issues with serious ramifications, I don't sense much energy coming out of the foundation world to try to solve them.
The other thing is consistency. Everyone wants to get a sort of feel-good buzz out of this stuff, but foundations, as a rule, are not particularly connected with the communities they claim to serve. In fact, I've found that corporate law firms often have more racial and ethnic diversity and a better understanding of poor communities than some of the foundations I deal with. It's not that people in the foundation world don't have good hearts; it's just that their understanding of the complexities of poor neighborhoods is sometimes suspect. I mean, I often attend meetings where the issues of the poor are discussed by people who have never spent a night in a poor neighborhood, who have no idea what the strengths and weaknesses of those communities are, and who often make assumptions based on chauvinistic attitudes. Don't get me wrong. It's not just foundations; the same thing can be said of charities. I mean, just because you're poor and live in Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights or the South Bronx doesn't mean you haven't fought, haven't struggled to make a better life for yourself and your family. But too often, in my experience, not-for-profits come into these communities with an attitude of, "Ah, these poor benighted souls..." And that's something that has to be confronted more directly. As a sector, we really need to be vigilant about our prejudices and we need to constantly evaluate how they shape and influence our work and impact its effectiveness.
PND: If you could do three things right now to improve the lives of the working poor in New York City, what would they be?
DJ: It's hard to pick only three, but I'll try. First, I'd secure the safety net to make sure that poor people have complete and unfettered access to the benefits they're entitled to. The safety net of benefits that has been developed in this society since the New Deal is huge. But the problem today is that government frequently and often arbitrarily prevents people from accessing those benefits. We see it in every childcare study. If you're on welfare, you're supposed to get childcare supports. If you're transitioning off welfare, you're supposed to get childcare supports. But every study we see shows the same thing: Only a fraction of the people entitled to those supports are getting them. Health care, same thing. People whose welfare benefits have timed out are not being informed that they still have a right to Medicaid.
The second thing I'd pick would be health insurance for everyone at or below 250 percent of the poverty line. After that, we could start working on some of other things — an increase in the minimum wage, for example. In our survey, more than 90 percent of the people we polled said the minimum wage should be raised. In fact, we've been part of a living-wage coalition that has called for a $10-an-hour minimum for all private and public agencies that receive city funds. We think that would go a long, long way to stabilizing poor and low-income families in the city.
PND: Are you optimistic about the future of New York City? Was 9/11 just a temporary setback on the road to a safer, more just and economically diverse New York? Or was it a harbinger of tough times ahead?
DJ: I hate to say it, but I think we're headed for some fairly tough times, particularly for the poor. Having said that, I think it's important to put it in historical perspective. This is not the worst of times for New York. This city has seen much harder times and survived. It has enormous strengths, and the resilience of poor people in this city is something to behold. We will rebuild, although it won't be easy. And part of that struggle will involve coming up with a new concept of the role New York plays in the overall U.S. economy, as well as a new social contract that can be extended, fairly and equitably, to every New Yorker.
But it's going to be tough, especially for our children and young people, for all the reasons I've mentioned — because we have such a dysfunctional public education system, because we really haven't geared job training and other supports to the poor, because it's going to take time to bring more affordable housing on line. So what I'd like to see is for the mayor and the governor and the leaders of the legislature — city, state, and federal — to start talking with a bit more empathy and acknowledge the fact that times are tough and are likely to get tougher. At the same time, they need to articulate the idea that, in order to get through this, there's going to have to be a certain amount of shared pain. That would go a long way, in my opinion, toward changing the climate of uncertainty and fear that has settled over the city. If, on the other hand, that doesn't happen, I think it will ultimately lead to a level of bitterness among certain New Yorkers that will haunt us for years to come.
PND: Well, thanks again, David, for talking with us this morning.
DJ: You're welcome.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed David Jones in December. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.