A few weeks ago, when Bill de Blasio met with Barack Obama, his campaign against inequality seemed to have reached a crescendo. The incoming mayor was putting the rest of America on notice: The egalitarian movement on whose shoulders he rode to power is coming to a city near you. There he was in a White House conference room, towering above a gathering of fellow mayors, to herald “a progressive movement in this country that’s having a real effect.”
The progressive movement organizing around the issue of inequality is real enough. And the uniqueness of Bloombergian New York—the new luxury apartments rising against the backdrop of the Great Recession, the holding of office by an actual plutocrat—has lent a visceral power to class resentment in this city. But running a mayoral race to reduce inequality turns out to be far easier than running City Hall to reduce inequality.
The most vexing dilemma De Blasio will face is the difference between salving the middle class’s sense of dislocation and addressing the plight of the many desperately poor New Yorkers, a distinction papered over by the incoming mayor’s broad populist strokes. The lowest-earning fifth of city residents—1.7 million people—earn a median annual income of $8,900 a year. These mostly aren’t people who are feeling priced out of enviable neighborhoods; they are people who are struggling to stave off destitution. In many segments of the city, the arrival of gentrifying yuppies remains a distant rumor.
De Blasio has highlighted one way in which the interests of these two groups mostly align: his small but worthy prekindergarten plan, benefiting both the poor and the middle class and funded by higher taxes on the wealthy. In other ways, though, the class dynamic cuts right through De Blasio’s coalition. City employees are demanding retroactive raises, a wildly expensive undertaking that would crowd out funding for the services the poor rely upon. De Blasio could do more to help the poor by accelerating the private-sector building boom undertaken during Bloomberg’s tenure—a great number of buildings increases the supply of housing, thereby increasing affordability, even if the shiny new buildings aren’t themselves affordable. Plus, Bloomberg is right that the arrival of more rich New Yorkers expands the tax base to fund effective public transportation, social services, and other public needs. But the strongest currents of populist, or faux-populist, agitation run against expanded construction. Selling the rich more penthouse suites hardly satisfies middle-class New Yorkers’ yearnings for fairness or assuages their fears that the city is being taken away from them. But it would help.
Assuming De Blasio does prioritize the needs of the very poor over the needs of those who feel less rich than they’d like to, he still has limited powers. A Democratic city may be a polity where a full-throated economic populist can win, but the mayor’s office is not an office that lends itself to populism. City government is inherently managerial. The great battles of political economy—in particular, decisions to spend money on the poor—play out in state capitals and in Washington. De Blasio knows this, which is why he drove home the depressingly prosaic limits of his office when he told reporters he hoped “to slowly but surely turn the congressional focus in particular back to investments in education, infrastructure, mass transit, housing, the kinds of things that would change New York City so fundamentally.”
But even this poignant little prayer to patience and gradualism casts the situation in unjustifiably rosy terms. The trouble is not that Congress has lost its focus on public investment, like a distractible child wandering away from his chores. The trouble is that Congress is controlled by archconservatives fanatically opposed to public investment. Republicans in Congress are not entertaining any proposals to reduce joblessness or even alleviate widespread deprivation. They are proposing to deepen the pain by throwing unemployed workers off unemployment benefits and off food stamps and, in states they control, denying them health insurance. President Obama is waging a rearguard action to prevent further suffering. To that effort, De Blasio can lend nothing more than moral support. But as mayor of New York, he’ll be trying to prove he is capable of more.