Opportunity for All New Yorkers: A Faithful State Budget for the Common Good

Guest blog by Jim Ercolano

“Remember the time of hunger in the time of plenty, poverty and want in the day of wealth.” - Sirach 18:2

“Government means service.  The first love of the authorities should be for those whom they govern.”  - Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko

During Governor Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State address on 01/08/2014, the terms “poor or poverty” were not mentioned.  Aside from proposing a tax credit for renters and announcing that an additional $100 million would be available for affordable housing, there was no comprehensive initiate articulated for reducing poverty and hunger in New York State.  It is sad and ironic that exactly 50 years ago on 01/08/1964, a War on Poverty Program was proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union address.  That program cut poverty/hunger by over 40% before funding cuts began in the Nixon era, and poverty became a condition that even multiple wage earners in a family struggle to overcome. “Every budget…, even our household budget, is a moral document.  How we allocate our resources speaks to what we believe is essential and important.  Who we choose to take care of in our budget speaks to how we view others.  For example, parents always include the needs of… their children in the budget.  No parent would deny the special needs of one of their children simply because it would seem unfair to the other children.  That is the moral dimension of a household budget.  It is the same with the state budget.  The challenge is to not permit the poor and the most vulnerable among us to get lost in the shuffle.”  (Excerpt from St. Pius X News, 2011, No. 61, from Reverend Michael Farano, Vicar General)

Except for the extremely minimal renter tax credit and increase in affordable housing funding mentioned above – no strategy (beyond more largesse to corporations) is articulated for stemming the sharp decline of the middle class.  Over 55,000 families dropped out of the middle class in New York State between 2007 and 2010, and median family income has declined by $ 466 between 2010 and 2011.   Based on US Census Data, New York has the highest income inequality in the nation.  According to a recent study by Martin Prosperity Institute, income inequality in the New York City metro area is roughly equivalent to that of Swaziland, a poor landlocked nation in Southern Africa.

A faithful state budget should work toward reversing trends that have New York leading the country in income inequality and declining social mobility.  A booming Wall Street is not enough to sustain our state economy; absent a steady and sustainable increase in median income, gainful employment, and upward mobility.  Some items to include within a faithful budget to help reverse this downward spiral would include increasing the TANF cash benefit to the poor; increase funding for emergency food programs, passing the proposed Fair Elections Act and NYS Dream Act from 2013, and increase funding for greater enforcement against wage theft - under the 2011 NYS Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA):

  • Cash benefits provided under TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for a poor family is often their only source of support, and they would have no cash income without it.  Even after New York increased the cash benefit from 2009 to 2012, the value of that benefit declined from 53.3% of the Federal Poverty Level in 1996 to 48.5% in 2013.  The current maximum monthly TANF grant for a family of three was $ 789, and for those who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and cash benefits, it’s still only 78% of the Federal Poverty Level.
  • According to Hunger in New York: A 2012 Study of Emergency Food Programs (EFP’s) in NYS by the Hunger Action Network of NYS, increased government funding was urged for the Hunger Prevention Network Assistance Program (HPNAP) at the state, the Emergency Food and Assistance Program (EFAP) in NYC, and increasing availability of healthy foods through programs such as locally grown produce and food recovery from farmers and other sources.  EFP’s need to do a better job of educating donors about promoting healthy foods with nutritional guidelines.
  • In the spirit of campaign finance and ethics reform that was discussed by the Governor during the 2014 State of the State, the proposed Fair Elections Act (A.4980-C) would have established optional public financing for election campaigns that cover all statewide offices and state legislative offices.   It would have created an independent enforcement counsel, appointed by a five member Fair Elections Board, and it would have required expanded disclosure of independent expenditures, electioneering communications, and bundlers of contributions.
  • The proposed New York DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (A.2597/S.2378) would have extended eligibility for State-based financial aid to undocumented college students, thereby easing the path to citizenship (if federal reforms are enacted).  This aid would have increased the likelihood that these college graduates would have obtained better-paying jobs, and that their earnings would have added to the economy and tax base of NYS.  Passage would have made NYS the fourth state to extend such aid to undocumented residents.
  • To more effectivelyenforce the provisions of the 04/09/2011 New York State Wage Theft Prevention Act, increase the resources needed by the NYS Department of Labor to improve compliance, worker wellbeing, and level the playing field so some employers do not have an unfair advantage over others.  When wage law enforcement is lax or infrequent, workers may not get paid for all hours worked, tax revenue is not collected on the unpaid wages, families are deprived of earnings, and the ability of these families to progress economically is impeded.

“The measure of greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”         - Pope Francis

Jim Ercolano is married with two daughters, and is a lay minister from St. Pius X Church in Loudonville, NY.  He’s a graduate of the Albany R. C. Diocese’s Formation for Ministry Program (now The St. Kateri Institute for Lay Ministry Formation), and his ministries include commentary on Catholic social teachings, public policy issues, and adult choir.  Jim has been employed in government and the private sector for 34 years, is a PEF Shop Steward, and voluntarily serves on project panels for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.