Opinion: Why Would Mayor de Blasio Cut Literacy Funding For Immigrants?

Many of us are now familiar with the story of Jing Ren, the nail salon employee profiled in a recent New York Times exposé that highlights the abuse and exploitation many of these workers encounter every day on the job.

Like almost all of the salon workers interviewed for the Times story, Ren spoke only limited English—a barrier that prevents many workers, especially immigrants, from understanding their rights. Limited English proficiency also makes it harder for parents to support their children academically, and it can make communication with the police, health care workers and other professionals feel impossible. 

So why is the de Blasio administration seeking to cut funding in adult literacy programs that directly benefit this population?

Two years ago, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg adopted an $18 million program aimed at helping immigrants and others with limited English language and literacy skills. We fully expected that de Blasio—an outspoken fighter for immigrants—would support the program moving forward.

Yet de Blasio's proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 reduces funding for the program by 68 percent. It has also eliminated investment in an adult literacy program at CUNY, and has not directed any new resources to meet the needs of non-English speakers.

These cuts mean the loss of thousands of classroom seats across New York City, and represent a missed opportunity for many undocumented immigrants seeking temporary protection under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which requires a certain level of English language proficiency for in order to qualify, and which both city programs are meant to address.

At the same time, city funding for community-based adult literacy programs that was slashed during the recent recession has not been fully restored to meet demand. In a city where some 1.7 million residents over the age of 18 lack English language proficiency, a high school diploma, or both, existing community-based programs are stretched beyond capacity, with classes filling as soon as registration opens.  

We know investment in adult education benefits the learners, their families, our economy and society as a whole. Median wages are 25 percent higher for adults who complete high school or earn an equivalency diploma than their counterparts with no degree at all. And for many New Yorkers, the pathway to higher education, which is increasingly necessary for individual and economic security, has to start with basic education, English language literacy, and High School Equivalency preparation. 

These investments benefit the public as well: every high school credential earned generates $324,000 in net benefits for the city, through reduced reliance on public benefits and increased tax revenue from higher earnings.

My outrage, and the outrage of so many New Yorkers, over these proposed cuts has to do with the reality that literacy is a tool for empowerment and enfranchisement, a proven road out of the poverty cycle. Our collective cry is for the hundreds of thousands in our city who are anxiously awaiting the next step in their lives.

A solution to this glaring resource gap requires real partnership between the City Council and the de Blasio administration. I know our priorities are still aligned, and that we will both come to the table as good-faith stakeholders, and as stewards on behalf of all New Yorkers.

Like so many residents of our city, Jing and her coworkers had to rely on translators—in this instance supplied by the Times—to tell their stories and have their voices heard.  Maybe it’s time that we make the investments that will allow them to tell their own success stories.


New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Committee on Immigration and a member of the LGBT Caucus.