To Achieve Equity, We Must Accurately Measure Need
By: Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA)
For so many New Yorkers, economic hardship is an ever-present reality. On top of working full-time jobs, many also work part-time to make ends meet, and yet they still are hard-pressed to cover their bills. Even persons who’ve dedicated their careers to working in human services with individuals and families who are struggling find themselves having trouble staying afloat. Today, the sector continues to suffer from chronically low wages, and pay is so low that 60 percent of those working in the sector utilize or have a family member utilizing some form of public assistance benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps.1 And, because of persisting wage deprivation and occupation segregation, many of these workers, who like their clients are disproportionately people of color, are challenged all the more.
FPWA has been proud to partner with community-based organizations and with the philanthropic community to advance economic equity, and after doing so for 100 years we know all too well that a shared understanding of what it costs to live in any one of the five boroughs is critical for achieving financial security. For example, we know that in the Bronx, a family of four needs $85,507 a year to make ends meet2, but from 2016 to 2020 the average median household income was only $41,895.3
Despite the unwavering commitment of New York City’s human services and philanthropic communities to assist all New Yorkers in need to overcome persisting hardship, race and gender-based inequities embedded in our foundational laws and institutional policies have thwarted our efforts. So often we find ourselves responding to the problems that have either resulted from or been enabled by structural racism and systemic inequity, not their root causes. Only when we change these discriminatory structures and institutional policies and practices can we begin to realize the demonstrative and sustainable opportunities for all New Yorkers.
Fortunately, this fall New York City registered voters have the option of doing something about this. Beginning with early voting on October 29, 2022, and then on Election Day, November 8, 2022, NYC registered voters will have the opportunity to vote yes or no on three proposals that would lay the foundation for all New Yorkers to have equity in power, access, and opportunity, which are inextricably linked to social well-being and economic security. Whereas all three proposals would embed justice and equity in government functioning for the benefit of all New Yorkers, the third proposal specifically speaks to the economics of everyday living and asks New Yorkers to decide if the City of New York should measure the true cost of living. Measuring the True Cost of Living (TCL) entails creating a more realistic picture of the cost of a decent and dignified standard of living beyond bare minimum survival. The TCL factors in the costs associated with living, working, supporting a family, and pursuing economic opportunity in a particular geographic region, as well as changing consumption patterns over time. Given the importance of TCL measurement to setting wages and the administration of public assistance, updating measures to reflect the costs associated with true economic stability is vital to ensuring economic security for all New Yorkers.
If New Yorkers vote to pass it, the City would be required to calculate and publicly report annually the true cost of living. The measure would result in an accurate count of how many people are unable to meet basic needs. And just as current standards including the federal poverty level and supplemental poverty measure are used to measure poverty and set eligibility for public benefits, the true cost of living measurement could also be used to inform program and policy decisions. The TCL measure would include essential needs such as housing, food, childcare, transportation, clothing, and much more without counting public, private, or informal assistance. This more accurate and adequate measure could be used as a meaningful tool to inform wage setting and make more effective poverty alleviation programs.
A TCL measure would also be a first step towards building a fair, inclusive, and equitable recovery from the pandemic and beyond.
Philanthropy New York is hosting a panel discussion on October 18th, Putting Equity at the Heart of Government: 3 Ballot Proposals to Dismantle Structural Racism, where I will be speaking more about the TCL and the two other racial justice proposals that are intended to guide and hold New York City accountable for advancing justice and equity. I hope you will join us for this panel discussion and the Q&A to follow. (ICYMI: Watch the recording here!)