CSS crusader David Jones spells out how to reduce poverty in NYC
David R. Jones, 64, is president and chief executive of the Community Service Society, one of the oldest charities devoted to abolishing poverty in America, that turns 170 years old this year. The father of two grown children, he lives in Prospect Heights with his wife, the psychologist Valerie King.
Q What would you most like to see accomplished or changed in NYC?
A We have to keep up the housing provided to 600,000 people by NYCHA. Our homeless population is heading toward 49,000 and if NYCHA were to implode, it would go into the hundreds of thousands. Its failure to spend money in a timely fashion is a legitimate point, but NYCHA is the only institution in the city that has to pay for its own police presence -- about $73 million -- and then payments in lieu of taxes of about $20 million. For starters, we can stop charging NYCHA what no other institution public or private is charged for policing. Battery Park -- which is not for the low income -- was created with all sorts of subsidies and those excess profits were supposed to support NYCHA, but no one has ever enforced that. Mitchell Lama is under siege as well. Owners are able to buy out of Mitchell Lama. As the influence of major developers continues to grow, there is the temptation to forget the original intent of the subsidies and to maintain these units in perpetuity. We can also change the leadership group at NYCHA and increase tenant involvement. At the very least, they should have an operational group to look just at capital expenditures. Yes, NYCHA has money for capital expenditures, but it's starved operationally.
Q What kind of ideas do you have to increase the supply of low and moderate income housing in NYC?
A We should give landlords who are willing to maintain units at a certain level of rent rebates on their sewage and water costs and taxes. It's not appropriate that a family wins the lottery for a rent controlled unit and gets to keep it forever. People who have accelerated into a high income should not be part of a rent control deal, so rent control should become needs-based. We've even been in favor of letting NYCHA rents rise. It's not right when trying to serve hundreds of thousands of people to allow rents to be determined based on the political power of different groups rather than the realities on the ground.
Q How has the face of poverty changed in NYC?
A Ever since welfare reform, we have reduced the number of people receiving cash benefits. Everyone hoped that when people got jobs, it would lead them out of poverty, but that's not happening. Now, people are working two, three and four jobs -- but they're still poor.
Q Will the decision by the Supreme Court mandating the purchase of private health care insurance help the working poor or further impoverish them?
A We're a big supporter. Health care costs are now the biggest reason for personal bankruptcies in the country. We have one million uninsured New Yorkers who should be able to get some kind of a plan they can afford. Yes, it will cost them something, but it will be only 8% of their incomes as opposed to 22%. There are systems in place to force insurers to provide minimum coverage and preventive care. We get 100s of calls each month by people who have been denied things by their insurers. The law has provided intermediaries to fight things out for them and we're among them: We take all comers.
Q So what are the most promising poverty-fighting initiatives out there?
A Food stamps are one of the greatest anti-poverty programs of all time! Three million New Yorkers are getting food stamps now. It helps people make it through each month by getting them food and it supports jobs in NYC. The Earned Income Tax Credit promulgated in the Nixon administration has also had a great impact.
Q What legislation is most crying out to be passed?
A We need to pass the Paid Sick Days legislation for low wage workers before the City Council. Sixty percent or more don't have paid sick leave. They go to work sick and when their children are sick because they're afraid of losing a day's pay or of being fired. The legislation permits five days a year for companies with 20 employees or more. This is not a major lift for New York, which should be taking the lead on this, particularly with our public health agenda. A lot of these workers are in food service. Do you want them coming in sick and coughing in the kitchens?
Q There are so many micro and macro causes of poverty. What percentage is due to an individual's own choices, drive and abilities and what percentage is due to variables beyond their control and which are not their fault?
A Some percentage has to do with a person's get up and go. But more and more the family in which you're born and your access to education and resources determines where you wind up. This was not always the case. CUNY has an avalanche of applications and is now raising the floor of the SAT scores it will accept. The kid in Brownsville will not be able to afford the $45 an hour for a private tutor to help him get in. Harvard has a better ratio of Black and Latino students than Baruch does now. Texas has a scholarship program that allows the top 10% of every high school graduating class to attend a Texas College. New York should do that too: Allow the conditional admission to college of the top 10% of students in all city high schools.
Q Are there other ways to fix the educational disparities between the poor and the people paying for $45 an hour tutors?
A We have an appalling drop out rate. Across the board for Black and Latino kids, it's 45%: Adjust for gender and the rate for boys gets worse. And we are dead last in the country in the passage rate for the GED. Without certain protections, certain mistakes become life mistakes. We need to create opportunities for these kids to get on board later, when they get out of "the stupid season." We've invested nothing in vocational educational programs. Yet we focus a lot of educational resources on our top tier high schools, like Stuyvesant. We're creating a group of the permanently unemployed that will drag down a lot of the city. Other parts of the country are looking at the role of community colleges, but NYC hasn't done much in this regard.
Q Will increasing vocational/educational programs solve all the alienation, though?
A I think we should have a national service program for every youngster. What the Israelis do -- requiring a public service engagement that does something constructive for the city and locality -- would be extraordinarily useful in the U.S. It would give them work experience and give other people exposure to these kids so they can't generalize about groups and where they come from. The young people who went down in the aftermath of Katrina are still talking about it. We should not stereotype or give up on kids from the South Bronx or Bed Stuy without knowing their challenges and abilities.
Q You wrote an opinion piece supporting the mayor's ban on the sale of sodas of more than 16 ounces, an unpopular stance in both liberal and conservative quarters.
A When I turned 60, I began to get really rigid. I don't think food stamps should be allowed to be used for foods with no nutritive value, either. I see so many overweight teens! It's one thing to face discrimination based on color, but to be so overweight, too, makes life even more difficult. The toll of all these cheap calories is unbelievable. I'm more interested in the reaction of the beverage companies to this proposal. You'll notice they're suddenly coming up with dozens of zero calorie and low calorie beverages. I don't have any trouble with diet sodas (being sold in large sizes).
Q Isn't decreeing what people can buy with their food stamps micromanaging the lives of people who are poor?
A I don't want to sound like one of those people complaining about colored TVs in welfare homes. But there's a legitimate issue: Should we subsidize sodas and foods that have no nutritive value at all? We have a legitimate interest in promoting health. And we should have more open debate because the toll of obesity is absolutely overwhelming.
Q What would you most like people to know about the struggles of poor New Yorkers?
A To be more informed about their struggles and what they're up against. The federal poverty line is about $18,000 (actually, $19,090) for a family of three. That's nuts! In New York City, we use a measure that is 200% of that -- and that's a third of New York.
Q In some poor neighborhoods, the out of wedlock birthrate is 70%. These moms are overwhelmingly undereducated and unlikely to have the resources to give their kids a good life without intensive public supports. What can be done about this?
A The human drive to have a family is innate. It's almost atavistic -- the need to have someone to love and the deep seated yearning to feel important. But there are limited options available for many Black and Latina women who want to feel important or to create a family. We're not going to have a lot of success waving moral fingers but if we increase their options and choices, we'll see a decrease in the out of wedlock pregnancy rates. They are not making insane choices.
Q What makes someone a true New Yorker?
A Someone who doesn't react when they see something bizarre. Not jaded, necessarily -- just a sense that, 'oh. Another New York oddity.' It's part of the richness we allow in this city.