Growth with Equity: Meeting the Workforce Development Needs of Latinos in New York City

The growing concern over rising inequality was a central feature in the 2013 mayoral election in New York City. It was a theme that resonated with many New Yorkers, especially Latinos and Blacks, who have disproportionately felt the negative impact of the city’s deepening economic disparity. However, in the election’s aftermath many questioned the power of the city’s executive to reduce inequality in general and its racial and ethnic dimensions in particular.

While concern with unrealistic expectations may be warranted, we believe there is an unprecedented opportunity for the de Blasio administration to work with the New York City Council and other key stakeholders to shift the focus of city policy in the areas of economic development, workforce development and employment in ways that could mitigate, or even reduce, inequality in New York City. Last year Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all agencies to begin aggressively tackling income inequality. In this spirit, the Hispanic Federation presents its 2015 policy paper Growth with Equity: Meeting the Workforce Development Needs of Latinos in New York City. It is a rethinking of the city’s workforce development services as well as a launching pad for ideas on how to economically uplift Latino and other struggling New Yorkers.

Over the last few years the Hispanic Federation has advocated policy reforms designed to address the many challenges faced by Latinos, immigrants and others seeking to connect to the workforce system in order to receive a range of employment, training and placement services. In 2010, HF released Futures in the Balance: Meeting the Workforce Development Needs of Latinos in New York City that included a number of recommendations for improving Latino access to New York City’s Workforce System. In 2013, HF released La Gran Manzana: The Road Ahead for New York City’s Latino Community, which outlined a broad policy agenda including a robust set of reforms aimed at economically empowering Latino New Yorkers. These reports present a vision and policy blueprint that recognizes the importance and contributions of the Latino community and highlight the particular challenges and opportunities faced by this large segment of New York City’s population.

Growth with Equity builds upon our previous reports and lays out key reforms to ensure the city’s workforce and economic development systems are working for Latinos. These include:

  • Expansion of services to serve the wide swath of unemployed, underemployed, disconnected and economically stagnant New Yorkers who are in need of training, education, certifications and other initiatives to move out of poverty and toward jobs that provide livable wages and a more “middle class” standard of living
  • Expansion of initiatives for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are in need of assessments, vocational literacy and GED classes, citizenship services, worker safety and rights training, workplace conduct, sectoral skills training, pre-apprenticeship and certification programs, community education and organizing, and access to higher education
  • Implementation of services and investments aimed at economically empowering New Yorkers, including day laborer training, OSHA health and safety training, financial literacy classes, union membership drives for low-wage workers, sectoral training programs for growth industries, wage and labor law enforcement, and ensuring synergies between economic development and workforce development policies
  • Implementation of broader policies such as expanding youth employment programs, improving failing schools, building and preserving affordable housing
  • Expansion of nonprofit CBO workforce development programs and worker centers to ensure those on the front lines are able to meet the growing needs of economically struggling Latinos. The city should engage in the development and implementation of a multilingual, multimedia community education campaign to inform, educate and empower New Yorkers to take advantage of these expanded services.
  • Enhancing of workforce development system, performance and effectiveness by integrating ESOL, immigration and workforce services, improving coordination among community, government and other providers, using CBOs as the front-line enrollers and assessors, creating universal assessment tools and data systems, offering professional development for job developers and workforce development trainers, and incentivizing effective programs.

A New Philosophy on Economic and Workforce Development

The city’s economic development and workforce development policy over the last twenty years can be characterized by two central features: “Trickle down” and “City Hall out".

The “Trickle Down” approach is based on the notion that what is good for the city’s financial and real estate sectors (FIRE) is necessarily good for the rest of the city. Economic development policies designed to attract, keep, and support wealthy residents, their firms, and their employers became the desired norm. The hope was that the gains produced and the demand generated would filter (or trickle down) into small businesses and, perhaps, workers in the retail, service, and related sectors.

The “City Hall Out” component involved close coordination between city policy makers and planning/development and retail elites to support business friendly planning processes, zoning changes, and a range of subsidies to attract big- box retailers and larger national firms and chains. Growing the demand for mid- to large residential and commercial developments became a principal goal of economic development policy.

A combination of powerful market forces and actors, and a City Hall-led command and control structure, put New York City policy and government at the service of large enterprises, real estate interests, and Manhattan centered elites. This dynamic certainly led to growth among large corporations, the continuing dominance of the financial and real estate sectors, growth in professional support services, and continued expansion in several industries including hospitality, health care, and education.

However the gains from this growth have not been widely shared as wages at the bottom of the labor market remained at all-time lows and salaries for large segments of the city’s workforce have not increased appreciably. Low wages lead to lower demand for goods and services and the many leakages and inefficiencies at the bottom of the City’s labor market have cemented significant inequality and a persistent poverty rate close to 20% with large differences by race and ethnicity (10.8% for whites, 26.1% for blacks and 25.8% for Hispanics with Black and Latinos making up 52% of the population, but 66% of New Yorkers with income below the poverty level).

Recent political changes suggest that New Yorkers have grown tired of “trickle down” policies and approaches that seem to enrich the few but do little to reduce poverty and inequality. Latinos and a clear majority of New Yorkers want growth, but growth tied to the creation of living wage jobs with benefits, the mitigation skyrocketing income inequality, addressing widespread poverty, and the preservation of the rights of long- standing residents to continue to live in their neighborhoods and city.

What is needed at this time is growth with greater equity: a new approach to labor markets, employment, and workforce development policy rooted in the progressive traditions of equitable growth and more broadly shared prosperity. Growth with Equity understands, prioritizes and grows neighborhood economies. It suggests the need to focus not just on a few midtown and downtown zip codes but also on the entire City and the communities where Latinos, African- Americans and others live and work. The city needs to grow not from the center out, or from the top down, but through strategies that support and reinvigorate the many neighborhood economies that make up the City and the region. Brooklyn has the most people and the highest poverty rate in the city and its economic potential at the neighborhood level needs more support and attention. Together with Upper Manhattan and the Bronx there is large potential for continued expansion and investments in healthcare, the food sector, small manufacturing, a range of personal and professional services, arts, and culture. In vast areas of Queens and Staten Island there is a vibrant middle and working class often rooted in unionized jobs and the small business community but these neighborhoods are feeling squeezed by new developments, abandoned by Manhattan centered city policy makers, and under- invested—particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Growth with Equity provides an opportunity for the city’s adult education, workforce development and training policies to work hand in hand with community economic development policies in order to be more effective at reaching and serving low income New Yorkers. And by refocusing city policy and resources on the needs of the various communities, city policy makers will be in a better position to reduce the impact of the forces that cause inequality and reduce its effects.

The emerging Growth with Equity policy framework must put an emphasis on a range of policies designed to plug the leaks at the bottom of the labor market, raise the floor of the economy, and build the ladders to careers and to economic opportunity for all New Yorkers. Growth with Equity also means putting an emphasis on de-centering economic development policy and public investments and incentives and spreading them throughout the various neighborhoods in the city. It also means tying subsidies to local development goals and employment needs, and developing policies and resources to support the local small and medium sized business infrastructure.

Growth with Equity also recognizes the needs for training and adult education, for better connections to the labor market, for access to good jobs, and the importance of developing opportunities to connect workers to career ladders and sustainable wages at the end of every training pathway. It also focuses on strong labor law enforcement and reducing the incentives and rewards that firms may have to not comply with labor regulations, to cut corners, not pay workers fairly, put the safety and health of workers and customers at risk, and engage in unfair competition.

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