Sacrificing the vulnerable

Politicians’ draconian response to New York City economic crisis

A school bus on a New York City street.
Public education is one victim of New York politicians' budget cuts. PHOTO: Stéphane Chadourne / Pixabay
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Everyone from the media to people in the streets agrees that this year is a new time. In the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting economic crash, and the Black-led rebellion against pervasive police violence and systemic racism, there’s a huge movement for deep change. Yet the powerful are once again trying to impose drastic austerity measures on an already emaciated social safety net. The rich and their political hirelings don’t care that racial discrimination, inequality and poverty will intensify.

New York City (NYC) and state are a microcosm of what is happening nationwide. Politicians are cutting or privatizing public services while pretending blindness to the vast wealth of the ruling class that should be taxed to provide essential services.

Other examples include California and Washington state, with $54.3 billion and $8.8 billion budget deficits respectively. Both are cutting state employees’ pay and work hours and slashing the services they provide.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio — both Democrats like the California and Washington officials — are “balancing the budget” with austerity. For example, Cuomo’s budget for fiscal year 2021 aimed to make up a $7.4 billion revenue deficit projected to grow to $13.3 billion by year’s end on the backs of vulnerable low-income communities. He flatly refused to raise taxes on the rich.

Starving public housing. The NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA), seriously underfunded for decades, needs capital repairs upwards of $32 billion. Cuomo refused to include a proposed $3 billion for it in his April 1 budget. The reality for the more than 400,000 tenants living in those apartments is dilapidated conditions such as broken elevators, dangerous lead and mold, rodent infestations, power outages, broken windows and lack of heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Mayor Bill de Blasio axed funding that would have provided 21,000 affordable housing units.

Gabriel Strachota, NYC Lead Organizer of Community Voices Heard, told the Freedom Socialist that environmental racism is why African Americans are three times more likely to die of Covid-19. “In 30-story buildings it’s difficult to social distance and sheltering in place in toxic apartments is a problem.” Strachota advocates defunding police and the military, and many call for a multi-millionaire tax. “NYCHA residents in Community Voices Heard, tenants associations, and other grassroots groups joined a big mobilization in February to the capital, Albany, calling for more money on the state level to replace federal disinvestment.”

Healthcare under attack. In the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, Cuomo was perfectly willing to reduce state Medicaid reimbursements to city hospitals by $400 million. The New York City public health care system is the largest municipal system in the country. Its hospitals serve the city’s most vulnerable: the poor, people of color, immigrants, and the disabled. It provides services to more than one million New Yorkers yearly.

Other Medicaid cuts included tightening eligibility and reducing elder services.

Meanwhile, overworked doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers were putting their lives on the line daily. Some, like the nurses at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, were forced to demonstrate over the lack of personal protective equipment.

Sean Petty, Southern Regional Director of the New York State Nurses Association, participated. His rank-and-file-led union fought for better pandemic preparedness. They are fighting for state and federal Medicare for All.

Education degraded. The NYC school system, largest in the nation, is already skeletal. It was cut 3 percent by Mayor DeBlasio. Governor Cuomo zeroed out $716.9 million in federal stimulus aid by cutting exactly that amount from state funding to city schools. The money would have mainly helped the most impoverished districts. This translates to larger class sizes, cuts to enrichment and recreational programs, and a hiring freeze. It disproportionately puts Black and brown children at a disadvantage. Instead of quality education, they get a curriculum built around high stakes testing.

Cuomo is using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to “reimagine” schools in collaboration with the Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, like the governor, is a proponent of charter schools. Charters are privately run, publicly funded schools that bust unions and are exempt from public school board control.

They not only siphon money from public schools, they often fail. The Network for Public Education found that 37 percent of charter schools receiving taxpayer-financed grants from the U.S. Department of Education Charter Schools Program from 2006 to 2014 either never opened or have shut down.

New York State Allies for Public Education, Class Size Matters, and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy have protested Gates’ involvement. Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the social justice caucus of the teachers union, has organized and demanded millionaires’ taxes for education.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta commented to, “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure … taxes on the ultra-wealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. Let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.”

Unity in struggle. The Covid-19-caused economic crisis underscores the injustices inherent in capitalism. It is a constant battle to keep public property out of the hands of the few. In this unprecedented time, working people are standing shoulder to shoulder against austerity, especially unionists and vulnerable communities. The pushback is inspiring.

Many are taking to the streets in the movement to defund and take community control of police and fight for social equality, not just in the U.S., but globally. The oppressed greatly outnumber the owning class. Together we can turn rebellion into revolution.

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