About a decade ago, it became increasingly common to hear public school parents in New York talk about carting rolls of paper towels, boxes of crayons and dry erasers into classrooms because teachers lacked basic supplies. Manhattan private schools were planning greenhouses and displaying cafeteria menus on flat-screen televisions, but in a new Dickensian era of public education, there would be neither magic nor Magic Markers.
We might trace the origin of this decline specifically to the spring of 2011, during Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first year in office, when he persuaded the State Legislature to cut year-to-year expenditure on education and health care by more than $2 billion, refusing to consider a millionaire’s tax to offset the reductions. This was the first time in more than 10 years that the state had cut overall annual spending.
Among the many other consequences was that housing stability now also seemed less and less assured. The cuts pushed New York City to eliminate an important rental assistance program, sending record numbers of people into homelessness. By the summer of 2012, nearly 300 families a month were seeking shelter after their subsidies had run out. When he announced that budget, the governor declared “a new day in New York.” It was a new day of a kind — the morning of a long, aggressive period of austerity.
That era effectively came to a close this week with a deal between Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers that at long last did not genuflect to the blanket interests of the very wealthy. The $212 billion dollar budget for the coming fiscal year — $79 billion larger than the governor’s first budget — relies on federal stimulus money but also on tax increases levied on those who have done exceedingly well.
Even if it has come at personal advantage to the governor, redirecting attention away from his multiplying scandals, it signifies a major step toward equity in a place long distinguished by economic divisions made all the more awful by Covid. It is important to recognize, though, that we did not get here by default — not solely by way of Mr. Cuomo’s diminished authority or his loosened grip on things.
That narrative misses the impact of years of activism on the part of political progressives, labor unions, immigrant organizations and so many others. Groups like the Working Families Party successfully campaigned for a more left-leaning State Legislature and in recent months made a relentless effort to deliver the message that the state needed to spend more on improving the lives of average people and less on kowtowing to a population whose greatest pandemic agony was the inability to find an available contractor when it seemed like the pool house needed some shaking up.
In addition to funneling a record $29.5 billion into schools, the new budget delivers billions of dollars in rent relief and aid to small businesses and arts groups, as well as $2.1 billion to undocumented immigrants — so many of whom have made the delivery of consumable goods possible during this time of affluent seclusion. A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute indicates that this will help 290,000 people — 213,000 of them in New York City and virtually all of whom had been excluded from most forms of Covid-related economic relief.
Among the many protests, marches and actions that called attention to the need for this measure, about 80 undocumented workers went on a hunger strike around the state. One of the strikers, Veronica Leal, a Mexican immigrant and single mother living in Washington Heights, lost 14 pounds in 18 days. She last worked as a housekeeper on March 26, 2020, she told me. She used her savings to pay rent until that savings ran out.
On Wednesday, the hunger strikers broke their fast with a rally in Washington Square, celebrating what they perceived as a newfound sense of dignity after so many years of neglect at the hands of the social safety net.
In January, 170 grass roots organizations along with dozens of legislators formed the Invest in Our New York coalition, which in the subsequent months made close to one million calls to lawmakers, sent more than 260,000 texts to residents across the state, held 100 teach-ins and placed hanging cards declaring “Tax the Rich” on 120,000 doors. The coalition spent a lot of time explaining how tax cuts for the wealthy played out. In 2012, for example, New Yorkers earning between $500,000 and $2 million a year received the largest tax cuts of any income-bracketed group; two years later came corporate tax cuts.
Although progressives did not receive all of the tax changes they sought, they struck a victory in the hike to state income-tax rates on top earners. Anyone making more than one million dollars a year will now see an increase from 8.82 percent a year to 9.65 percent. Leaving federal and local taxes out of the equation, what it means, for example, is that a couple earning $2 million a year will now see their state income-tax burden rise from $176,00 a year to $193,000. The highest tax bracket would reach 10.9 percent and affect only incomes over $25 million.
Opponents of tax increases on the wealthy have forever argued that even the slightest incremental change will send New Yorkers fleeing to income-tax-free Florida. Now we will have an opportunity to see how many people making $2 million a year will really move from the Upper East Side to South Beach — a location where climate models predict two feet or more of sea-level rise by 2060 — for a savings equal to the cost of a five-year-old Chevy Malibu. These are people who essentially require grief counseling when their children are forced to go to Vassar. Are they really going to pull their children out of elite private schools that have fed the Ivy League for hundreds of years to settle down in a place with a diet named after it?
In his annual letter to shareholders this week, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, predicted a post-pandemic economic boom — a “euphoria” built on excess savings and pent-up demand — that, he said, could easily last into 2023. He also pointed out that there were tax loopholes — breaks for owners of private jets, for example — that the country could do away with.
Only a few days earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported that March residential real estate sales in Manhattan had climbed to their highest level in 14 years. What lobbyists who have reflexively fought higher taxes for years never understand is that in New York, cash flow is not the only status marker of the rich. So is enlightenment.