Nature has a marvelous sense of balance. A rabbit dies, and a fox is fed. The fox decays, and a flower blooms. So with New York, a city itself threatened with decay. For every speech lambasting spending, another bum is thrown off the welfare rolls. Every hike in the interest rate on municipal bonds is matched by a cut in hospital grants, welfare payments, the education budget or housing. For every financial statesman who steps forward to condemn the city’s profligacy, a bureaucrat pops up to tighten the screws on an addiction clinic. In the end, it all balances out.
For a Canadian, after the first fierce joy of seeing wicked old Gotham in trouble, there are two sobering lessons in New York’s plight. The first is obvious—a city that cheats, hides deficits, fiddles the books and goes on spending money it doesn’t have is headed for trouble. Anyone can see that now, though whether it will stop other cities from doing the same is doubtful. The second lesson is subtler, and has implications for every Canadian city. And it is that social services and urban amenities are treated as frills as soon as the economic going gets rough. The poor are always with us, but they are a long way from the pay window.
A major charge against New York today is that it has tried to do a decent job for its citizens. Chicago is solvent, New York is not. Chicago has a city budget about one twelfth the size of New York’s to cover a population 43% the size of the larger city. Chicago has no city university—while New York has 127,000 students in its university system. Chicago supports only one small hospital, while New York, with 18 public hospitals, pours out as much money on this one item as the entire Chicago city budget. Chicago saves money by its niggardly support of schools, courts, correctional services, public transit, parks, museums, theatres and schools.
One of the reasons New York is so burdened with welfare payments (there are 1.1 million cases on the city rolls) is that it has always formed a haven for migrants— from Europe, from the South, from rural America—on whom other cities have simply slammed their doors.
The lesson is sinking in. Just as the fiscal fakery is being dismantled, so is the city’s civilizing apparatus. The budget of the human resources administration has been cut by $245 million, and the education budget by $231 million. There is a plan to freeze all housing starts, and a demand that the city universities, which charge only nominal tuition, should begin to charge “realistic” fees. This single step could save $32 million a year. It could also destroy the educational chances of the blacks, Spanish Americans and poor whites.
Cops are being laid off, firemen fired, school crossing guards dismissed, social workers sacked. The city is trimming its rolls of2,200 teachers, and has already sent pink slips to 1,572 welfare workers, 3,000 policemen, 2,250 crossing guards, 1,434 sanitation workers. Labor greed is commonly accepted here as a major contributing factor to the city’s plight. Perhaps. A gar’oageman in New York can make up to $15,000 a year. Of course, five doctors on staff in a Queens hospital stand to split $552,960 in medical fees this year, and that doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Their boss explained that they work longer hours, and may be called in on weekends.
The city’s finances are to be straightened out by a new deputy mayor, Kenneth Strong Axelson. He will be on leave from his job at J. C. Penney department store, where he gets a $143,000 salary. He should soon put the unions in their place.
Bill Gallagher, 41, who teaches English in Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, says that, “The first thing they cut were night classes to teach English to migrants. You have to ask whether the motives are fiscal or political. It seems to me that we have our priorities backward—we are paying the banks first, and trying to deal with the needs of the people last.”
Well, the banks have to be paid. During the crisis month of September, of the $906 million in cash the city had to raise at once $595 million was required to service city debts. Holders of municipal bonds have to get more, now, because—for the first time since the 1930s—they perceive an element of risk in their investment. They are now drawing 11% interest on New York’s bonds, and, because that money is tax-free, they are getting a 22% return.
It appears to be coming out of the hides, not merely of the unions but of the poor, the blacks, the drug addicts, the winos, the old, the young and the sick. Frank J. Barbaro, a Brooklyn Democrat, rose wrathfully in the state legislature the other day to charge, “In New York city today, children are being burned alive because we don’t have enough firemen ... people are dying because the emergency wards are understaffed ... our streets look like the Burma Road . . . our housing is coming down around our ears.”
It sounded farfetched, and certainly impossible to document. The next day, a nine-year-old girl was hit by a car at a school crossing where the guard had been pulled off to save money.
Dr. John Tepper Marlin, executive director of the Council of Municipal Performance, said, “In Canada, many of the burdens that are crushing New York are removed to the provincial or federal level. You spread the burdens better.” When I replied that the poor of Montreal might not agree, he said, “You’re like Adam and Eve criticizing the floral arrangements in the Garden of Eden.”
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