The Other 99.63% of Us
If you’re a New Yorker living in one of the 99.63% of households statewide that earned less than $1 million last year, today's top New York Times Metro headline isn’t talking to you. The article is addressed directly to the other less-than-half-a-percent of New York residents: “If you earn a million dollars in New York this year, beware. Albany has its eyes on your money.” I’m sure the multimillionaire set appreciates the friendly tip.
Where was that chummy tone when the Times was breaking other statewide policy news? Last year, for example, 53,000 low-income child care workers in New York – that’s twice as many New Yorkers as there are raking in $1 million annually – won the right to form unions. I can see the article’s first line now: “If you work all day taking care of other people’s children, but don’t make enough money to properly support your own, take heart. Albany is making sure you get the same rights most other workers have.” Well, that’s not quite how the Times reported it.
But I digress.
The fact is, New York is the most unequal state in the country, and our regressive tax system only makes things worse. We’ve been cutting taxes for high-income households for years and now we’ve got a gaping budget shortfall. Raising taxes on the less-than-half-a-percent of New Yorkers who benefited most from the state’s economic good times is the least we can do.
In fact, we should do a lot more.
The Center for Working Families points out that if we levied just a small additional tax on the wealthiest 4% of New Yorkers, local governments throughout the state could reduce unfair property taxes for everyone else. Or, for that matter, we could actually give our schools the money they were promised in the resolution of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Or we could, as the State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has proposed, direct the funds toward transportation. (In my book this would make a great addition to – not replacement for – revenue from congestion pricing). We might even be able to do something about health care.
The problem is that, however lighthearted or tongue-in-cheek the Times was trying to be, it falls into the familiar old trap of identifying with the interests of a tiny portion of wealthy New Yorkers – not the other 96% or 99.63% of us who see a higher proportion of our income taxed while services that we rely on get cut. Once we’re in that frame of mind, it sounds less ludicrous to hear that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s thinks this very modest tax proposal should “send shivers down the spine of every overburdened, hard-working New York taxpayer.” But it is ludicrous. And while Joe Bruno’s days in power may be numbered, this kind of thinking will live on if we don’t act to break the taboo and acknowledge that raising taxes on those who can most afford to pay them actually makes for damn good policy in these fiscally straitened times.