Amid the last-minute dealmaking of a budget cycle, it can be hard to remember that setting spending priorities for New York is about more than just pensions—but David Jones doesn’t forget. The longtime head of the Community Service Society of New York, which advocates to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the poor, Jones tries to remind city and state leaders of the human consequences of budget cuts, and the power they have to change them. We spoke with Jones about the process at work this year. What follows is an edited transcript.
City & State: With pension reform, the DNA database and redistricting wrapped into the state budget, it seems there is less discussion about what’s getting cut and what city and state priorities ought to be.
David Jones: We agree. Obviously my issue is people at or near poverty. It is not a central focus of either the city or the state budget. There are some signs that they at least recognize that this is going to be an ongoing problem to the state and city. New York City, at least, has some of the highest concentrations of people who have been out of work for a very long time, from six months to three years. And that’s being confirmed by federal data. We are very concerned what that portends for the City of New York. But we think it’s being replicated throughout the state. And there is not too much research on this, but there is some research that if young people haven’t made the connection to the world of work by the age of 25, they probably never will. We’ve had a perpetual dropout rate among certain categories of young people approaching 50 percent in the city. Having said that, we have been urging the governor’s people—and they did pick up in this last budget—the New York State Youth Works program, which was a tax credit for businesses that were willing to hire certain categories of young people. And we see that as perhaps one of the ways that, if it’s expanded and scaled, might in fact have some impact across the state. The tax credit is $3,000 for six months of employment. We think that we could build on that and start to really institutionalize that kind of tax credit, and start to draw more and more young people who have been out of work for over six months.
C&S: What can government do by throwing money at the problem, especially if it’s only incremental?
DJ: A couple of things. I’m now into the question of what we describe as disconnected youth. When we looked at it years ago, we had 175,000 disconnected youth in New York City alone, ages 16 to 24. What I’m trying to look at is programs that give glimmers of hope to these populations, so people don’t disconnect entirely. I’m really getting concerned about in New York City an ultimate explosion in gang and other antisocial kind of stuff that will go on if people are out of work for much too long. The programs I’m talking about are not what I would like, which is a major subsidized jobs program that would be available as jobs of last resort. But I don’t think I’m going to get it, because of the budget problems. I’m looking at ways we can at least show communities that there are conscious efforts to link a tax credit up to businesses offering to take young people who fit this criteria, and look at GED readiness and try to improve the tradition in terms of credentialing of young people without a high school diploma. This is on the margins. I’m not saying this is going to stop the progression of increasing numbers of long-term unemployed, but if I don’t have anything going here, I think I’m going to accelerate a feeling of total hopelessness in many of these communities. I never thought I’d be here, but that’s what I’m talking about.
C&S: What else are you suggesting?
DJ: Some of them would not require vastly greater sums of money. We have about 60,000 people incarcerated in the state of New York, and 20,000-plus on parole at any one time. When they get out, we have the fifth-highest recidivism rate in the country. So we’re spending billions on keeping large numbers of, basically, young black and Latino males incarcerated, essentially for relatively low-level crime. But what’s worse is they come through the system, and when they come out almost none of them have a credential that’s usable. So we have been talking to probation both in the city and the rest about coming back to the notion that we should start looking at incentivizing educational programs. If you can complete your GED, you could get six months off your sentence. If you get your college associate’s degree, you get a year off your sentence. The best preventative for people coming back from crime is a skill set they can use in the outside world that allows them to compete for a job.
C&S: You’re starting to get a little traction on some issues, with the closing of the prisons upstate, with the city and the state working to try to get juvenile offenders in less restrictive settings and get them back in New York City.
DJ: For the governor and the rest of the Democrats, their right wing is protected on this, because in the closing days of the Bush administration they began coming up with programs focused on education for offenders while in prison to allow them to make a better reentry into society. So they won’t point at you and say it’s soft on crime. On the right wing, Newt Gingrich has become an exponent of education and reentry. Generally people who come back in who can’t find any means of support end up preying on the vulnerable and poor communities, adding all sorts of other costs. They clearly can’t support their own families. They can’t create intact families. They endanger small business through increased crime. There are a lot of benefits now that we’re over the ideological war that we want to hammer offenders into the ground. I don’t get the kind of resistance I would have even gotten on this two years ago.
CS: You talk about getting people involved in innovation, but in the budget process it seems the government is throwing its hands up and saying, “What can we do?”
DJ: I’ve worked at this 25 years. They paint the picture of all these hundreds of thousands in poverty, and people almost use it as an escape hatch and say it’s much too difficult to deal with until we have vast sums of money. What we have to do is get them conditioned. Yes, we have restrictions on the revenue. But there’s a lot of money [being put] into the parts of the system that are not necessarily being used as effectively as they might. I’m starting to sound like a social conservative. I ran youth services for the City of New York. You start doing something and you don’t even remember why it was started being done that way. So there’s a lot that we can do, particularly in a state this large with a private sector this robust, that we just haven’t done effectively because we haven’t put the best minds into this and thought it through. It’s an afterthought. Let’s put a little model program to test. This state and the government, even without their coming up with huge investment, could make a significant difference in leading the nation in terms of innovation of this area. Now I’ve got to convince them.
CS: That’s what politics is all about.
DJ: Obviously we were helpful with the mayor, though it hasn’t led as far as I want, in getting him to put poverty on the map with his poverty commission, which my research actually helped kick off. They came up with some interesting models of ideas. I’m supposed to be going to some event at Gracie Mansion at the end of this month to talk about what of their projects succeeded. My interest is how we scale them. That becomes critical. I’ve seen so many projects that deal with 100 or 150 people, and each year I’m putting out tens of thousands of young people without a high school diploma. It’s like it may not even be a teaspoon we’re trying to bail this ocean out with. The problem is mounting much quicker than any of the kinds of interventions we see.
CS: Why is poverty such a hard sell?
DJ: Especially now, with the latest Supreme Court ruling on super PACs, what kind of money do the poor have to put out there? The not-for-profit sector used to be the primary advocate for the poor of the city. When the Giuliani and, to a lesser extent, the Bloomberg years came along, there was a significant change and chilling of not-for-profits being able to speak out on behalf of their constituents. We didn’t see it coming. Giuliani said, “You disagree with me and you receive city money, I’ll defund you.” And he did. It’s also the Reagan effort to picture the poor. They were able to get in the public mind that these were not deserving poor. When I was first starting out in government, we were still dealing with policymakers and people of wealth in the city who had some recollection of the Great Depression. When I met Mrs. [Brooke] Astor, she knew exactly what I was talking about when we served on the library board. When you met David Rockefeller Sr., he knew what you were talking about, and in some ways he knew it better than I did. Now we have a different generation of powerful political and economic leaders who have no recollection of what this is about or what the common cause is. We have to take on all the cultural attitudes that this is a personal failing as opposed to structural problems that have been building for a long time.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, black, Brooke Astor, Community Service Society, David Jones, David Rockefeller, disconnected youth, employment, GED, jobs, Latino, low income, Mario Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, parole, Poor, Poverty, Prison, Rudolph Giuliani, working poor
Trackback from your site.