By Bobby Tolbert, Member, Board of Directors, VOCAL New York
Posted: February 10, 2011 06:00 PM
(Robert “Bobby” Tolbert is a member of VOCAL New York’s Board of Directors and has been a longtime activist for social justice. He has been HIV-positive since 1995, was formerly homeless in the NYC shelter system, and has worked for much of the past decade as a peer health educator in the Bronx and Brooklyn. He is also a member of the Community Church of Astoria congregation in Queens.)
Governor Cuomo’s first move in office was removing concrete barriers around the capitol in a symbolic move intended to signal his commitment to making state government more open to all New Yorkers.
In the days and weeks since, however, it appears that Cuomo’s agenda is catering primarily to an elite two percent of the richest New Yorkers.
When it comes to his repeated pledge to give tax breaks to millionaires by allowing the existing income surcharge to expire later this year, there has been little concern expressed for the vast majority of New Yorkers who would not only fail to benefit from this tax break, but would actually suffer from fewer hospitals, larger class sizes and scaled-back social services. One upstate elected official reported that the governor told him that “this will be a breathtakingly bad” budget.
When it comes to Governor Cuomo’s agenda, what’s been missing so far? A meaningful jobs agenda, for one. Unemployment remains stubbornly high with no sign of falling, while many, after suffering through long-term unemployment, have simply stopped looking. New York’s communities are not equally affected either, with unemployment rates at least twice as high in the African-American community. People who are formerly incarcerated, in particular, have a difficult time finding work and are at higher risk for landing back in jail if they are unsuccessful.
New York needs jobs, and we need our governor to offer more than tax breaks for the rich. We have a truly massive revenue shortfall this year. But the path forward should make both moral and economic sense.
New York is the most unequal state in the country, with glaring poverty side by side with eye-popping wealth. It is in many of these marginalized communities that VOCAL New York organizes — people with HIV/AIDS, chronic drug users and ex-offenders living in poverty. These communities are tied to families and neighborhoods that represent millions of New Yorkers who have been ignored by the Governor’s agenda so far.
As a former HUD Secretary leading the state during a time of record homelessness and foreclosures, there are few better issues than affordable housing for him to apply his expertise. For example, thousands of homeless people living with HIV/AIDS and their families could be moved into rental units — for less money than we currently spend on hotels — if the state’s affordable housing policy was extended to the HIV/AIDS rental assistance program. It is the only program currently left out.
The governor’s current approach — tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for everyone else — is clearly the wrong path forward.
The glaring income divide in New York is more familiar in third world countries than a country — and a state — with a commitment to shared prosperity and protecting common welfare. But decisions by our state in recent decades do not reflect that commitment.
Our tax system is upside down, leaving working New Yorkers paying a larger share of their overall income in taxes than those at the top.
Proposals to extend the millionaire’s tax, close corporate loopholes and enact temporary taxes on Wall Street would dramatically shrink or even wipe out our state’s revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year and maybe years ahead.
An approach that asks all New Yorkers to pay their fair share isn’t radical. It’s entirely rational when faced with the kind of crisis we’re in, and while Governor Cuomo recently acknowledged with dismay that many New Yorkers feel “abandoned by government, betrayed and isolated,” it seems abandoning investments that give people faith in government’s ability to make their lives better is not an effective way to change it.