If you are a believer in the official Manhattan orthodoxy, you regularly congratulate yourself that your high taxes pay for lots of help for the poor. But if you actually look at the policies our politicians have adopted, you will notice multiple examples of policies and programs that have the clear effect of obstructing the ability of poor people to advance and of thereby keeping them poor. Let's take three of the most obvious examples.
It's no secret that New York City public schools badly fail those who need them the most, namely the poor and minority kids. In the face of this ongoing failure, the public school teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, essentially takes the position that no teacher can ever be fired and that all teachers, no matter how bad, are entitled to a lifetime sinecure even as they let the poor kids continue to fail. The Manhattan orthodoxy unquestioningly looks at unionism as a good thing. Is it really a good thing when the union is undermining the futures of poor kids?
There is a current battle going on, where Mayor Bloomberg is attempting to implement a somewhat rigorous teacher evaluation system, and the teachers' union is putting up epic resistance. Within the last two days, the union has launched a television ad campaign accusing Bloomberg of "going after teachers, instead of helping them improve our schools." The "going after teachers" is code for seeking to have some of the worst teachers discharged. The union believes that the public will back it despite its unbelievable history of failure in educating the kids.
If kids basically learned on their own and all the teachers had to do was show up, then maybe it wouldn't really matter. But we all know that good teachers make a huge difference. Of course no evaluation system is perfect, and mistakes will be made. But we're dealing here with a trade-off between teachers' desire for a lifetime job without accountability, and the future of poor kids who need to learn the skills to get ahead in life. I sure know where I stand in that trade-off.
UPDATE: The New York Post has an excellent editorial on this very subject this morning (January 7), entitled "The Schoolyard Bully" (referring to UFT President Michael Mulgrew). The Post describes the UFT's ad campaign as "designed to paint Bloomberg as a bully while deflecting attention from the fact that no teacher is too stupid, lazy or incompetent for the UFT to protect." Also, this quote from Mayor Bloomberg: "Nobody has a right to ruin our kids' lives." As readers here know, I have my differences with Mayor Bloomberg, but not on that.
When New York City and State embarked on their massive program in the 1940s and '50s to clear slums and replace them with public housing, nobody gave much consideration to how the situation would look sixty or seventy years later. Well, here we are. In New York City, we have about 170,000 of housing units in the low income "projects," housing some 500,000 people, or about 6% of the population. When they were built, the projects were brutal, but at least the apartments in them were nicer than the slums they replaced. The New York orthodoxy thinks the projects are a good idea, and are helping the poor. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg continues to build more low income housing, although on a far smaller scale than in the mid-twentieth century heyday.
Trouble is, the incentives were all wrong. If you live in the projects, there's no point to trying to improve your lot in life -- they'll just throw you out, and you'll lose your subsidized rent. Also no point in fixing up your apartment -- the improvements will just belong to the government. Of course, the projects have gradually deteriorated. Today they need all kinds of work, and nobody knows where the money is coming from. Certainly not from the way-below-market rents. Most everybody in the projects is poor or close to it, and the perverse incentives strongly discourage making any effort to change that situation.
Meanwhile, many of these projects are right in the middle of some of the priciest real estate in the country. There are low income projects in the Chelsea neighborhood, just half a mile from where I live, a neighborhood where an ordinary two-bedroom apartment goes for $1 million and up. And there are lots more projects on the Lower East Side. That neighborhood was formerly one of the worst slums but now is gradually being taken over by young "hipsters" -- except for the projects, which are just warehouses for the poor to stay poor.
There is a huge need for an exit strategy to enable the projects to improve and the poor inhabitants to better their lives. The obvious strategy is: give the apartments to the residents. Suddenly those apartments will go from being completely valueless to being worth amounts comparable to the other apartments in these neighborhoods. In the case of many Manhattan apartments, that will mean an average of around $1 million per apartment. The "poor" inhabitants will immediately be rich.
The Manhattan orthodoxy hates this idea. Adopting such a program would pose a challenge to the value of continuing to build "affordable" housing, and would threaten to turn a dependent population into an independent population. What could be worse? For me, I just don't understand why they think it is a good thing to keep the poor poor.
If you are rich like, say, Yoko Ono, it doesn't make a lot of difference to you whether your monthly electric or heating bill is $100 or $300. (Yoko, the head of Artists Against Fracking, undoubtedly already has a bill that is a lot higher than that.) But cheap energy means a lot to a low income person. Needless to say, the official Manhattan orthodoxy is that the cheapest available form of energy must be blocked at all costs.
There currently is under construction beneath the Hudson River a new natural gas pipeline to bring "fracked" gas into the city from Pennsylvania. The pipeline enters Manhattan at about Gansevoort Street, just a few blocks from where I live, and promptly connects into the existing underground gas distribution system. A few weeks ago I went to a neighborhood forum sponsored by a group making a last ditch effort to get a court to block the final piece of the pipeline. Clearly everyone at the forum except for yours truly was unalterably opposed to the pipeline, to fracking, and to natural gas. There was lots of talk about how dangerous natural gas is, and how it can explode. I believe I was the only person at the forum who knew that there are already natural gas pipelines under essentially every street in Manhattan, and that the majority of the buildings are already heated by the natural gas.
Meanwhile, as Pennsylvania enjoys a new energy boom from its discoveries of natural gas, right across the border in New York we have a multi-year moratorium in effect. The gas is beneath a part of the state called the Southern Tier, an extremely economically depressed area. People there are desperate for jobs. Does the right-thinking Manhattanite care? Not that I can notice. Here is our Assemblywoman Deborah Glick channeling proper Manhattan thinking in opposition to "fracked" natural gas: "An ancillary result of the use of natural gas is the release of methane into the
atmosphere when it is burned. The release of methane is only exacerbated if the
gas is obtained through hydrofracking." She doesn't even know that methane and natural gas are the same thing, let alone that most of the buildings in Manhattan are already heated by natural gas. But she is totally willing to throw the poor aside to pursue the environmentalist climate campaign.
So when the Manhattanite claims compassion for the poor, I don't think so. Whether they understand it or not, their program has the effect of keeping the poor poor.