“Today I want to outline a Working People’s Agenda,” proclaimed New York City mayor Eric Adams, beginning his second State of the City address.
It sounded for a moment as if the mayor had joined the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA). Not only was he proudly pledging allegiance to the working class, he also said, “We want to move forward into a new era of abundance,” exactly the same words that NYC-DSA spokesperson Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus used in his interview with Jacobin last week.
The mayor has a working-class background and credibly speaks about working-class experiences. He was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and raised in Jamaica, Queens. His mother was a house cleaner, and he was beaten up by cops at fifteen. And he’s right to suggest that a working-class agenda and an “era of abundance” is exactly what’s needed after decades of plutocratic rule in this city — and this country. But the mayor’s proposed budget, unfortunately, does not serve working people. Far from inaugurating an era of abundance, it looks like austerity as usual.
Abundance for working people would not entail cuts to the public schools that their children attend, which are struggling to function through the ongoing disruption of the pandemic and its aftereffects, which include a worsening youth mental health crisis and a dramatic increase in homelessness. Facing objections from parents, teachers, and activists — as well as some city councilmembers — Adams backed away from some of his planned school cuts. Yet he is still gutting the school budget by more than $200 million, imperiling vital programs, including a planned expansion of 3K (a preschool program for three-year-olds).
A mayor committed to abundance for working people would not cut the budget for the city’s public university system, the City University of New York (CUNY) by $168 million, as Adams is doing. CUNY is already badly underfunded and the shortfalls will inevitably lead to tuition increases, as well as cuts to needed faculty and programs. Nor would a real tribune of the working class cut the public library system budget by $41.6 million, as Adams is proposing to do.
A budget of abundance would not consist of hundreds of millions in cuts for housing, health care, youth development, and many other services vital to the working class, as the mayor’s budget does: true abundance would improve and strengthen all these public goods.
An era of abundance would include an abundance of public sector jobs. That’s because when a city is understaffed, working-class residents are the first to suffer — New Yorkers are going hungry right now because there are not enough workers to process food stamps accounts — and because the public sector is a source of unionized jobs for working-class people. Such jobs are great for the people who have them, but their presence also puts labor market pressure on private employers to offer better wages and benefits. Adams is cutting some fifty-five hundred jobs from public hospitals, schools, and social service agencies. A champion of the working class would not do this.
Adams has particularly weak justification for his austerity budget since the city’s revenues are up even from last year. NYC-DSA has rightly called the budget “a disaster.”
Adams’s proposed budget does make a few genuine improvements to working-class New Yorkers’ lives. He added thirty thousand positions to an apprenticeship program, a move that will expand low-income young people’s access to unionized jobs in industries like the building trades as well as computer science and tech. He is also expanding the city’s composting program to include all New York City boroughs.
Those policies are good, and Adams is right to boast about them, but other priorities the mayor touted in his State of the City speech are undermined by the realities of his budget. He inveighed against his least sympathetic antagonists — rats — and rightly argued that composting will help mitigate that problem, but the city’s murine population will benefit overall from Adams’s cuts to the sanitation budget. The mayor talked up some new affordable housing — also good, but he’s cutting the housing budget. He gave a shoutout to young people’s mental health, but with this budget, many schools will certainly lose social workers, and the city will also lose funding for many youth programs that improve well-being. It seems unlikely that the mayor’s scattershot proposed telehealth scheme will make up for all that.
Some centrists, rightly alarmed that the Democratic Party isn’t consistently able to take working-class voters for granted, look upon Mayor Adams with admiration. Last year, Politico asked, “Can the time-bending, crime fighting, club-hopping, veggie munching mayor of New York bridge the schism in the Democratic Party?” Adams has called himself the new “face of the Democratic Party.” But it’s a pretty familiar routine: talking working-class while governing for the bosses is nothing new.
Like Joe Biden talking up his Scranton roots while siding with bosses against the railway workers’ strike, Adams — who may in fact be more conservative than Biden, though the two men are friendly and reportedly shared a humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the president’s motorcade — uses working-classness as an identity while pursuing a political agenda for the elites. The working class needs representation in American politics, but that’s not enough: working people also need policies of redistribution and, yes, true abundance.