Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004

Taking Point

We need to make the system work for the working poor

By Gur Tsabar

It used to be that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could earn a decent living. As a society, we used to make sure of that. But now, we’re leaving a generation of working families behind. Today, parents are working longer hours than ever before, while poverty strikes their families, and especially their children, harder than ever before.

The fact is the state of affairs for hard-working New Yorkers is poor. So poor, in fact, that one of three low-income New Yorkers has no safety net to rely upon during hard times, with less than $100 in the bank. Any single mother who works two jobs with no guarantee that she will be able to afford shelter, health insurance or childcare can tell you as much. New Yorkers deserve better.

While working-poor families struggle, bureaucratic inefficiencies stall any potential of the system working for them. Public benefits fail families when the Earned Income Tax Credit can disqualify Medicaid receipts. The result: nongovernmental agencies strain to fill in the gaps and provide the services that make it possible for these families to lift themselves out of poverty — services the government already collects a great deal to provide. As taxpayers, we should not finance a system that works against working families.

But what we should finance are new, creative ideas like the benefits calculator. The benefits calculator enables low-income New Yorkers to quickly determine available city-, state- and federal-level benefits. And the benefits calculator is different than similar existing resources, because it helps residents maximize receipts by identifying conflicting benefits. Using these, many New Yorkers have already accessed thousands of dollars a year in additional critical supports.

Benefits calculators are the first critical step toward responsible, service-driven governance. When benefits continue to clash, the message we send to hard-working families is a humdrum “que sera sera.” And that does a disservice to all New Yorkers. And as New Yorkers, we shouldn’t stand for it. We are all in this together, and our New York City should be a beacon of hope and opportunity. Our New York City should be a place where hard work isn’t just its own reward, but actually finances a better life.

The time has come to identify new, creative ideas. We have to do a better job of sourcing the ingenuity of those outside of government. We owe it to our neighbors, our communities, our New York City.

Tsabar is a candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s Second District

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