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Bill de Blasio’s New York

by Reihan Salam

It has a lot of poor people, and the rich liberals like it that way

Chances are that Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York City. As the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic metropolis that voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by an 81 percent–to–18 percent margin in last year’s presidential election, de Blasio has a built-in advantage. The question that remains is whether his all-but-inevitable victory represents a new phase in the history of American liberalism.

Some observers, including Peter Beinart (writing in The Daily Beast), have argued that de Blasio is a harbinger of an energized political Left, led by Millennials who, according to data from the Pew Research Center, favor bigger government at much higher levels than the rest of the electorate, and at higher levels than younger voters of earlier eras.

Another, less romantic view is that de Blasio is an amiable charmer who will find it extremely difficult to tame the city’s unruly public finances, and that he and his supporters are in for a rude surprise as his vision of a more equal New York runs into reality.

New York City has been electing Republican (or at least non-Democratic) mayors since 1993, when ex-prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani ousted the uninspiring David Dinkins. But in the last three elections, Michael Bloomberg, a lifelong liberal who signed up as a Republican to do an end run around a crowded Democratic field in 2001, and who changed his party affiliation from Republican to “unaffiliated” in 2007, has been the city’s GOP mayoral nominee. Bloomberg has used the bully pulpit to call for new gun regulations, comprehensive immigration reform, and new restrictions on trans fats, tobacco, and super-sized sodas, and he has been second only to Al Gore in invoking the threat of climate change. By any reasonable standard, he has been a capable and devoted champion of various liberal pieties. Even so, Bloomberg had to spend $102 million of his own money to narrowly defeat a little-known Democratic politician, Bill Thompson, in his 2009 bid for a third term.

Bloomberg has presided over an almost 50 percent increase in inflation-adjusted city-funded spending since first entering office, an increase driven largely by rising pension and benefit costs that he has done little to address. For all his managerial virtues, Bloomberg is not a fiscal conservative. If anything, his fiscal management has created a time bomb for his successor, who will have to negotiate new contracts for tens of thousands of unionized city employees, who have been waiting for a union-friendly Democrat to take office.

The biggest contrast between Bloomberg and de Blasio is that while Bloomberg has celebrated the transformation of much of Manhattan into a Xanadu for the world’s ultra-rich, de Blasio is a self-styled crusader against inequality. He describes Bloomberg’s New York as “a tale of two cities,” in which a rarefied elite has flourished while the poor have languished. He pledges to reverse the tide, and to use the power of government to give poor New Yorkers a hand up.

Interestingly enough, de Blasio’s pitch proved most appealing to relatively affluent Democratic-primary voters, while downscale voters gravitated towards his opponents Thompson and John Liu. This follows a pattern we’ve seen in Democratic presidential primaries, in which upper-middle-income, college-educated liberals embrace the most rhetorically left-wing candidates while voters of modest means gravitate towards centrists.

In fairness to Bill de Blasio, there is no question that poverty is pervasive in New York City. The Census Bureau estimates that 19.4 percent of New York residents live in poverty. What is frustrating about most of the reporting on poverty in New York is that it rarely goes beneath the surface to ask about who is poor and why they are poor. To some extent, the fact that many New Yorkers live in low-income households reflects the fact that New York is a magnet for immigrants, many of whom have only modest skills. Immigrants from Mexico have a 50 percent poverty rate. Brooklyn’s burgeoning Bangladeshi community has a 54 percent poverty rate, the highest rate among the city’s eight largest Asian immigrant groups.

Immigrants are often credited with revitalizing New York’s outer boroughs, and with good reason. As native-born New Yorkers have left the city in search of affordable housing and better schools, immigrants have taken their place. Skilled immigrants often earn high incomes, and some immigrants who arrive in the U.S. as children climb the economic ladder quite quickly as adults. But New York has also attracted large numbers of less-skilled immigrants who work in the low end of the service sector, and who often find it difficult to make their way into the middle class.

Indeed, one of the reasons Bloomberg has loudly called for comprehensive immigration reform is that New York City is home to a large number of unauthorized immigrants. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but a recent article in International Migration Review estimates that there are 750,000 unauthorized immigrants residing in New York State, the vast majority of whom reside in New York City. Jeffrey Passel, of the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project and the Urban Institute, estimated that there were 535,000 unauthorized immigrants in the five boroughs in 2007, a number consistent with the city’s own estimates. This number does not include the U.S.-born children of unauthorized-immigrant parents. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 32 percent of unauthorized-immigrant adults in the U.S. live in households that earn less than the federal poverty level, while the same is true for 51 percent of unauthorized-immigrant children. Legalizing this population would likely lead to somewhat higher earnings, but it wouldn’t change the fact that unauthorized immigrants often speak little English and generally have little education.

Like Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio celebrates New York’s unauthorized-immigrant population. Among other things, he proposes offering city-backed ID cards to unauthorized immigrants and working with the state government to offer them driver’s licenses as well. De Blasio also pledges to end cooperation with the federal government on a number of immigration-enforcement programs. These measures have the potential to attract low-income unauthorized immigrants from other cities and regions. This may or may not be a good idea, but it will almost certainly increase the poverty rate.

In a related vein, the Center for an Urban Future estimates that New York City is home to 463,000 immigrant residents over the age of 65. Many of these older immigrants arrived to care for their grandchildren and have spent little if any time working in the formal economy in the U.S. As a result, only 31 percent are eligible for Social Security benefits, and those who are eligible tend to receive less than their native-born counterparts, since they have worked for shorter periods of time or for relatively low wages.

New York’s poverty story isn’t entirely about immigration, to be sure. According to the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity, the poverty rate for non-elderly adults who worked full time, year-round was 7.5 percent in 2011. The poverty rate for those who did no work, in contrast, was 38.7 percent. For working-age adults with some work, the poverty rate was 24.4 percent. The city’s worklessness problem is concentrated among native-born poor, including large numbers of African Americans and Latinos living in high-poverty neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The central problem facing poor people living in these neighborhoods is that few of them work full time, thanks to a lackluster labor market for less-skilled workers and fragile families that often lack the cultural resources that enrich the lives of even very poor immigrants. There are things New York can and should do to improve life in these communities, from raising school quality to reducing crime, but it’s unlikely that these efforts will pay off in a steep reduction in poverty levels anytime soon. Moreover, the city has already seen a dramatic reduction in crime levels over the past 20 years, and it spends 52.7 percent more on education in inflation-adjusted terms than it did twelve years ago.

It is hard to shake the impression that Bill de Blasio is promising much more than a mayor can realistically deliver. Raging against New York’s rich may appeal to middle-income voters dismayed by rising rents, but those rich people employ, directly and indirectly, the Mexicans and Bangladeshis and other immigrants who are transforming the face of the city, and they pay the taxes that keep the streets safe and the housing projects in good working order. New York’s brand of diversity-friendly, big-government liberalism is ideologically hostile to inequality—but it is a social model that is in a very deep sense built on inequality.

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