The New York City Council hit back this week against Mayor Eric Adams’ sweeping slash to New York City’s budget, focusing on his appalling cuts to services for families: library closures; reduced preschool seats; shrinking afterschool and summer programs for public school children. Taken together, these are the most visible signs of an Administration ready to jettison New York City families at the first hint of fiscal headwinds. Rather than a clear vision to guide us through this moment, we are witnessing blind desperation of a distracted Mayor.
But perhaps most emblematic of the Mayor’s blurry, bleak outlook for New York City is a less visible cut: his quiet elimination of a job training program called the Parks Opportunity Program.
The decades-old Parks Opportunity Program is a workforce development initiative for New Yorkers on public assistance. Under this program, the Department is able to hire more than 2,000 New Yorkers who cleaned our city’s parks and playgrounds each year. Parks Opportunity Program workers constitute 60% of mobile cleaning crews across our city, acting as stewards of our city’s scarcest resource: open, public green space. Their loss will soon be apparent to anyone who strolls, shoots hoops, or plays with their kids in a city park, as litter and debris pile up.
The program costs the public less than one-tenth of one-percent of the City’s $100-billion-plus budget – not an obvious target for anyone serious about reining in fiscal excess.
And with this meager funding, the Parks Department not only cleans our parks, but operates an incredibly lean, efficient machine of economic mobility: in addition to providing a needed service for the city’s green spaces, the Parks Opportunity Program provides participants with career counseling, GED and ESL courses, and even drivers’ education. One domestic violence survivor and single mother recently told TheCity that the program was “redemption” for her, providing a steady income and meaningful work while training her to become an electrician. For three decades, Parks Opportunity Program participants – overwhelmingly young women of color – have had the opportunity to improve our city as they stabilized and improved their own lives.
And this is what is so insidious about the Mayor’s actions: with the stroke of a pen, he has ended the program, extinguishing the ray of hope it gave to thousands of New Yorkers every year. Like his cuts to libraries, the financial savings are modest while the human cost is severe.
This is no way to govern a city’s finances. We cannot cut our way to prosperity. Nor can we navigate difficult economic times with further austerity. Yet the Mayor wrongfully blames recent asylum-seekers as the manufactured rationale for massive spending cuts. Rather than invest in public programs and public works as a way to create stability, opportunity, and economic mobility for people, he has chosen to balance a budget on the backs of low-income New Yorkers and cut the very social services they need to overcome poverty.
To be sure, New York City does face real fiscal challenges. Federal COVID aid is drying up, at the same time that working-class New Yorkers struggle with spiraling costs of housing and other essentials. Choices must be made as to where to deploy public resources.
But City Hall’s numbers don’t add up. In the face of truly shocking public spending – more than $400 million for a scandal-plagued, for-profit firm to provide migrant services; almost $400 million to encrypt police radios; more than $100 million to settle wrongful conviction claims – why choose to terminate, for example, a small, impactful job training program for disadvantaged New Yorkers? Why pay inflated costs for services to asylum seekers, only to later complain that asylum seeker costs are driving the city to bankruptcy? Instead of making hard choices, the Mayor is blindly swinging an axe at services for struggling families, while leaving the largest thickets of municipal waste unexamined and untouched.
And to be clear, we’re far from New York’s bad old days of 1975. Tax revenues are not falling, but rising. Rather than having to beg for a bailout, the City has almost $2 billion in its own rainy day fund. And maybe most importantly, there has been an influx of people into the five boroughs, not an exodus. If integrated swiftly with proper services, newly-arrived asylum seekers – their labor, their spending, their grit – will be a solution to the City’s pre-existing fiscal challenges, not the cause of our so-called demise.
Which brings us back to the Mayor’s disastrous budget for New York City. We need priorities and plans, not scapegoats and across-the-board cuts to essential social services. We need free preschool and the Parks Opportunity Program, not new police radios. We need bold leadership to meet this moment, not this self-fulfilling, depressing vision that throws our families off the fiscal cliff.