Candidates Can’t Ignore New York’s Urban Issues

In the last few weeks, the Senate race between Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton has focused on disputes over the Ten Commandments and the lyrics to a Billy Joel song called “Captain Jack.” And as the candidates dash from Commack to Coxsackie, it became clear that suburban voters will receive more than their share of attention in the next eight months. New York City residents have a right to wonder if the concerns of urban residents will be a part of this campaign.

More than 40 percent of the state’s residents live in just six cities: New York, Yonkers, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. But you wouldn’t know it based on the two candidates’ rhetoric. Occasionally, they talk about certain crossover issues like health care and education, which are important to voters, regardless of geography. But specifically, urban issues have been absent.

One might expect that Mr. Giuliani, as the mayor of the biggest city in the country, might have something to say about cities-particularly since his opponent has set up housekeeping in suburban Chappaqua. But so far he has done nothing to change the impression that the dirtiest word in American politics is “city.”

If the candidates won’t talk about urban life, voters will have to raise the issues themselves. Here are just a few issues that ought to find a place on the agenda:

· Living wages. One in four city residents lives in poverty, twice the national average. Lifting the working poor out of poverty will require an increase in the Federal minimum wage to a true living wage. Real hourly wages are lower today than they were in 1973. Today’s minimum wage of $5.15 an hour would have to be at least $7.80 an hour to give low-wage workers the purchasing power they had in 1968. People who work should not be forced to live in poverty.

· Jobs and infrastructure. New York is home to the greatest disparity of wealth in the nation. A recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that the bottom 60 percent of families with incomes under $50,000 a year have seen their real income decline 12 to 16 percent over the last decade. The study also found that the average household income for the bottom 60 percent of city residents is $22,456 a year, compared to $155,485 for the top 20 percent. Providing public-sector job opportunities clearly is a way to bridge this disparity. We need a call for public-works investments in school reconstruction and the repair of sewers and bridges. Federal policy ought to be directed at creating public-sector jobs with living wages. For too long, public works spending has been reduced to slash deficits. Now governments are running surpluses. We ought to invest those revenues.

· Public transportation. Not since before World War II has there been a significant expansion of the city’s subway system. While the overall system is overcrowded, the crunch is felt particularly hard by the 1.4 million daily riders of the Lexington Avenue line. According to Gene Russianoff, senior attorney of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to spend $4.3 billion to bring Long Island commuters into Grand Central Terminal by 2009. These thousands of commuters will use the already overcrowded No. 4, 5 and 6 trains. All the more reason to demand that the state commit to building a full Second Avenue subway, which will not only ease congestion, but will provide decent jobs.

· Subsidies for affordable housing. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city’s lack of affordable housing is the worst in the nation. Housing costs eat up 40 percent of wages-the highest percentage in the nation. We need an expansion of the Federal Government’s Section 8 housing subsidies to cover families with children that spend more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

· Sweatshops. There are some 3,000 sweatshops in New York, exploiting the labor of a new generation of immigrants. The Federal Government must expand labor-standards enforcement, and all levels of government ought to provide economic development to help small companies compete without driving down standards through low wages. Are the candidates willing to stand up against the exploitation of immigrant labor, even as they celebrate the contributions of various ethnic groups?

In these times of unprecedented Dow Jones averages and initial public offerings, New York’s candidates must begin to discuss major economic and philosophical changes that will benefit our state and city. Will the candidates end their complicit silence and voice their views on ways to address the economic divide in cities throughout New York? If so, we ought to be eager to listen to their proposals, to determine who will drive us further apart, and who will bring us closer together.

Terry Golway will return to this space next week.