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A Once Generous City

New York City has been a city of progressive thought and provider of generous social services for its citizens beginning with the Great Depression of 1929. The Great Depression was the opportunity for progressive elected officials to construct a safety net of social services for citizens. New York City did so by embracing redistributive policies. During the Depression, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, with financial support from President Franklin Roosevelt, established extensive governmental services for city residents – public housing, new public schools, rent control, expansion of public health services and public hospitals, to name some of the most important actions. The Great Depression brought substantial progressive services for citizens of the city for over 40 years until the fiscal crises of the 1970s unraveled the progressive social services safety net of that earlier period.[1] Today, the city retains a semblance of rent control, to the consternation of the powerful real estate lobby, and is one of the few remaining cities to do so. It supports 11 public hospitals, the only city in the nation to do so. It also has the largest public housing authority in the country. It retains the third largest public university in the country which, until 1975, required no tuition.[2] Nevertheless, the city has also lost a great deal. The 1975 fiscal crisis sparked the end of an era in the history of New York City and in the history of America. In 1975 the city had a $1.5 billion deficit out of a $12 billion budget as well as $11.3 billion in debt of which $4.5 billion was in short term notes maturing within a year.[3] There is no question that the city needed rescue. The city, in effect, would run out of cash, unless the banks bought their bonds, and this, in 1975, was what the banks refused to do. They declined to buy any more NYC bonds. “The terms of the financial rescue put the city in a budgetary straitjacket that made it impossible to sustain the high level of social activism and income redistribution that had characterized the Lindsay and Beame mayoral years.”[4] In secret meetings with Mayor Abraham Beame, the Financial Community Liaison Group (FCLG), consisting of officials from the largest New York banks, insisted the Mayor slash services and end free tuition at the City University system.[5] Faced with the worst fiscal crisis since the Depression and under enormous pressure from the combined forces of Governor Carey and the FCLG, Mayor Beame agreed to charge tuition at the City University system (CUNY) and to lay off 40,000 workers, disrupting vital city services. The cutbacks were devastating. The schools were in chaos as over 10,000 teachers were laid off; park maintenance was abandoned; crime increased as the police force was reduced; fire stations and health clinics were closed, and a third of CUNY’s faculty were terminated. Tuition was established which has now increased dramatically to $2,000 a semester. The schools were beleaguered. Over a two-year period, 1975 to 1977, over 5,700 classroom teachers were lost in the elementary schools; over 2,000 in the junior high schools, and over 1,800 in the high schools. The impact of these layoffs was a loss of 1 in 5 teachers in elementary schools and about 1 in 6 on the upper levels. [6] It was not simply teachers -assistant principals were gone; guidance counselors were lost – 1 out of every 2 at the elementary school level, school secretaries were laid off, thousands of paraprofessionals lost their jobs, as well as school crossing guards and security guards. The schools were in chaos from loss of staff resources and from teacher transfers as seniority rights of teachers took precedent, and teachers were transferred all over the city in recognition of their seniority. Public health was compromised for years to come. In 1977, the NYC Department of Health (DOH) lost 1,700 staff members, 28% of its 1974 workforce.[7] The agency lost seven of its district health centers, dramatically cut its methadone program, terminated the employment of 14 of 19 health educators, and closed 20 of 75 child health centers (responsible for TB screening and diagnosis). At the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), the city payroll was cut by 17% between 1975 and 1978. In 1975, HHC cut all of its 50 community-based clinics. John Holloman, president of HHC from 1974 to 1976, fought the cuts and was fired. These budget cuts played an important role in the resurgence of TB in the 1980s and the city’s lack of preparation to deal with the AIDS crisis.[8] The Parks Department lost 1,440 employees in those two years. The green lawn in Sheeps Meadow became a dust bowl. The Parks Department has never recovered from the drastic cutbacks in 1975-77. NYC now spends the least dollars for parks of all high density cities. Chicago spends more on its parks than NYC with only one-third of the people. Among high density cities, NYC ranks last in the number of swimming pools and recreation centers. Philadelphia has twice as many pools than NYC and four times as many recreation centers for a population one fifth NYC’s size.[9] The housing stock was equally devastated. NYC had “the first program in the United States which transferred ownership of privately held buildings to low-income tenants. The program expanded rapidly so that by 1973 there were 136 properties, which included a total of 286 buildings, at various stages of the process. However, only 42 of these properties had completed rehabilitation and conversion when the program was aborted as a result of the New York City fiscal crisis in 1975.” [10] The subway system underwent radical reduction in services and a rapid increase in crime. The subway fare was increased 43%. Ridership dropped 27 percent between 1965 and 1982. Unmanageable graffiti, track fires and frequent train breakdowns became nationally recognized symbols of the degradation of a once-great transit system.[11] And the Second Avenue subway dig was stopped. Public safety suffered the devastating loss by the Police Department of 20% of its workforce. In 1972, the NYC police force numbered 31,000; by 1980 it had shrunk to 22,000. Robberies increased by 15% by 1983 while murders saw a slight rise of 2%. The Fire Department had undergone cuts before the fiscal crisis which were exacerbated during the fiscal crisis. Ladder companies were reduced from six to five people; engines were reduced from five to four people in 1975. “By 1976, and in rapid succession, some 35 fire companies had been removed from primarily high fire-incidence areas and fire department personnel had decreased from about 14,700 in 1970 to about 10,200 in 1976.”[12] The “burning of the Bronx” was found to be closely related to the reduction in fire protection in the 1970s. Another disappointing trend was the migration out. Whites fled the city – almost two million left between 1975 and 1983. Although the methodology counting ethnicity changed somewhat between 1970 and 1980, still the drop in the white population was quite serious. Both African-Americans and Hispanics had slight increases, but New York City’s population was in serious decline from 7.9 million to 7.1 million by 1983.[13] In addition, the median family income dropped from $43,952 in 1969 to $38,593 in 1979 as the more educated left for the suburbs. The percent of households with low income increased by almost 10% while medium and high income households decreased 3.3% and 5.4% respectively.[14] New York City was no longer perceived as an attractive place to live. City residents were infuriated at the ravaging of city services. Abe Beame, a former NYC Comptroller, who had won his job on a platform of financial responsibility, lost all credibility with the voters and became a one-term mayor. No one denies that the city spent more than its revenues. What is open for interpretation was why the only solution was drastic cutbacks that created miserable living conditions in the city, resulting in, for those who could afford it, a mass exodus to the suburbs. Why did conservative forces demand cutbacks before helping the city regain its financial stability? Could Mayor Beame have adopted different strategies to avoid this devastation? Could anyone? The fiscal crisis did not end with Mayor Beame’s tenure - the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB), and the NYS Special Deputy Comptroller for New York City, all institutions created by the combined forces of New York State officials and bankers during the fiscal crisis - constrained the fiscal policy choices of subsequent mayors to this day, more than thirty years after the fiscal crisis. Each subsequent mayor underwent sizeable fiscal crises. From 1975 to the present, New York City has undergone cycles of economic strength and decline - fat surpluses followed by huge deficits breaking over the city. These cycles are closely related to national and regional economic trends.[15] And in each of these subsequent crises, the financial structures established during the 1975 fiscal crisis dominated New York City fiscal policy. These institutions call upon the city to reduce taxes and cut back government services based upon the theory that private business will be stimulated by the tax reductions and that less government spending means more capital for the private sector. However, at some point fewer government services works against the city being attractive enough for business. Through this case study of New York City’s fiscal crises, we consider the strength of the financial elites in their relationships with elected officials. Is it possible for mayors to oppose business interests, or is the influence of the financial elites indomitable? If states are in close alliance with financial elites, what kinds of options do urban mayors have in developing local fiscal policy? Elkin maintains that “political leaders have choices in how to respond to this economic context.”[16] As the world center of financial services, New York City is an informative case study of the power financial elites exert over the political leadership, and how mayors can push back to assert their own political agendas. In the final analysis, although some mayors do achieve their own policy initiatives, their choices are significantly limited by the powers of the financial interests. [1] Inman (1995) defines crisis as anytime when the city is unable to raise sufficient revenues to cover the city’s expenditures. Also see Wolff, G. B. 2004. [2] The City University of New York (CUNY) is third in population behind the State University of New York (SUNY) and California State University system. [3] Shalala & Bellamy, 1976, page 1125. [4] Rockefeller 2003, 196. [5] Ibid. [6] Weikart, 1983, page.167. [7] Freudenberg, etc. 2006, p. 425. [8] Ibid. p. 416. [9] Croft, 2006, page.2. [10] Lawson, 1998, page 61. [11] Schaller, 2003, page 1. [12] Wallace, 1981, page 433. [13] New York Times, 1983, B1. [14] U.S. Census SOCDS Data. [15] Forsythe, 1997, 15. [16] Elkin 1987, 8.


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