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Winter 1996
 
City Journal Winter 1996.
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Street Fight

To the editor:
Kay Hymowitz’s pop-journalistic screed about Sesame Street [“On Sesame Street, It’s All Show,” Autumn 1995] is noteworthy in only one respect: it changes “travesty” to a verb, something your readers should find unspeakably cool, even hip.

The rest of it is full of untruths, inaccuracies, and a relentless malice. One example is typical: her attack on the respected University of Kansas professors Aletha C. Houston and John C. Wright baldly charges bias, implies cronyism, and tries to twist the study to show that wealth, not Sesame Street, is responsible for their findings. Ms. Hymowitz provides no basis for attacking their reputations and ignores the central fact that their study sample was limited to lower-middle-class and poor families, oversampled for minorities.

Ms. Hymowitz; insists that her readers forget about “statistical correlations and control groups” and dismisses more than a thousand academic studies as the product of the “CTW promotion machine.” Indeed, to come to her conclusions about Sesame Street and its founders, it is necessary to get rid of the data, the scholarship, and reason—because they all demonstrate the effectiveness of Sesame Street as one important tool to help pre-schoolers develop cognitive and affective skills.

It is unfortunate that often those who most loudly lament the loss of standards in the society see no need to themselves respect the standards of journalism. City Journal should be ashamed of itself.

David V.B. Britt
President
Children’s Television Workshop
New York, N.Y.

Kay Hymowitz responds:
Mr. Britt accuses me of “untruths, inaccuracies, and a relentless malice.” But in his only specific example, he utterly mischaracterizes my analysis of the 1995 Houston and Wright study. That study, unlike most, purports to find a causal relationship between Sesame Street viewing and school readiness. It also finds that kids who watch Sesame Street instead of cartoons spend more time at “educational activities” such as being read to and going to zoos and museums—activities that reflect a high degree of parental concern for their children’s intellectual development. I argue that Sesame Street is incidental to these findings. Houston and Wright prove merely that kids do better if their parents give them attention and stimulation.

Mr. Britt falsely claims that I attribute the study’s findings to wealth, as if only rich parents were capable of nurturing their children's minds. Needless to say, I believe no such thing. This idea comes not from my article but solely from Mr. Britt’s revealing misreading of it. I must correct a still more fundamental inaccuracy in Mr. Britt’s letter. It’s simply not true that scholarly studies “all demonstrate the effectiveness of Sesame Street.” As Mr. Britt well knows, many of those studies have been skeptical of the claims of the show’s creators. Sesame Street Revisited, for example, is a closely argued, book-length refutation by Thomas Cook et al. of the Educational Testing Service’s 1969 study of the show—a study CTW has nonetheless hyped to this day.

Defending Pataki

To the editor:
William J. Stern’s look at New York State’s huge public sector [“C’mon, Governor Pataki, Lead,” Autumn 19951 was one of the best reports yet on how the nomenklatura and other forces have created our high taxes, a central reason our economy performs so poorly. As Mr. Stern made clear, this year’s spending and tax cuts are only a first step after years of double-digit growth.

Mr. Stern has things backwards, however, in describing Governor Pataki’s tax cuts as “orders of magnitude smaller” than those enacted in New Jersey. Governor Whitman has cut personal income taxes 30 percent-quite a feat and, at first glance, more impressive than Pataki's 20 percent reduction. But a closer look shows personal taxes make up less than one-third of total tax collections flowing into Trenton, while in Albany they represent fully half. Thus the Pataki tax cuts chop off a bigger slice of the entire tax pie than do New Jersey’s. Not only are New York’s tax cuts not “orders of magnitude smaller” than those across the Hudson—they are, in fact, larger.

Governor Pataki achieved those tax cuts despite bitter opposition from many in the opposite party, which controls New York’s Assembly. Governor Whitman, on the other hand, has had the luxury of working with both legislative houses controlled by her own party.

Still more impressive, Governor Pataki is presiding over more than $1 billion in tax cuts for employers at the same time he’s cutting rates for individuals-and his 1996 budget will include even more tax cuts. A recent National Governors Association survey showed New York cut taxes more than any other state in 1995. That's leadership, all right.

Robert B. Ward
Director of Research
Public Policy Institute of New York State
Albany, N.Y.

William J. Stem responds:
True, the personal income tax represents a higher percentage of total taxes in New York than in New Jersey. But this is far too narrow a perspective to serve as a meaningful comparison. Consider another way of looking at things: when Christie Whitman became governor of New Jersey, taxes there were already considerably lower than in New York. New Jersey’s top income tax rate, 7 percent when Governor Whitman took office, didn’t kick in until taxable income reached $150,000 for a married couple. In contrast, a New York couple paid the top tax rate of 7.875 percent for all income over $26,000.

By making deeper cuts in taxes that were already considerably lower than New York’s, I would argue, Governor Whitman accomplished far more than Governor Pataki has in his first year of office. And the tax cuts in Pataki’s fiscal 1997 budget, even more modest than the previous year's, are wildly insufficient to address the state's underlying economic problems.

Mr. Ward echoes my argument that the Legislature is a major obstacle to tax cuts and other reforms. But it is a mistake to view this problem in purely partisan terms. Republicans, after all, controlled the State Senate during Mario Cuomo's entire 12 years in office. They could have blocked the spending binge that took place during that period-but they didn’t. Indeed, Governor Cuomo's predecessor, Hugh Carey, has pointed out that the Republican-dominated Senate fiercely opposed his efforts to control spending. Both houses of the Legislature—under pressure from public-sector unions, local governments, the healthcare industry, the education lobby, and a host of other special interests—have been complicit in the massive growth of state government. If Governor Pataki is to change New York’s course, he must repudiate the tax-and-spend habits of his fellow Republicans as well as the Democrats. Legal Aid Versus the Poor

To the editor:
Sol Stern deserves the gratitude of all New Yorkers for his fine article [“The Legal Aid Follies,” Autumn 19951 exposing the way radical lawyers, using the taxpayers’ money, pursue their own agenda at the expense of both the law-abiding poor and the city. New York City’s Legal Aid Society, a grantee of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation, reveals in microcosm all that is wrong with federally supported programs of legal services for the poor. These programs use taxpayer money to engage in social jujitsu; their target is to transform the law according to their own notions of “social justice.”

Those notions can be strange indeed. For example, in 1993 the Idaho Legal Aid Society brought suit to take a four-year-old boy from Karla and Leland Swenson, the adoptive parents who had been caring for him since he was one day old. Neither of the child’s natural parents wanted him. But the father was a Sioux Indian, and the tribe claimed the child. And so Legal Services, on the grounds that the tribe’s “cultural integrity” took precedence over the interests of the child, sought to take him from the Swensons. The adoptive parents have been forced to sell their home to pay legal fees in the still ongoing suit.

Legal Services has been sold to the public as a means of providing the poor with equal access to justice. In truth, Congress has created a sharply uneven playing field, with ordinary people like the Swensons forced to dig deep into their own pockets to confront a legal juggernaut with the vast power of the public purse behind it.

Rael Jean Isaac
Irvington, N.Y.

To the editor:
Shortly after City Journal published Sol Stern's sharp critique of New York’s Legal Aid Society, Mayor Giuliani announced plans to open the city's contract with Legal Aid to competitive bids from other providers, as Mr. Stern recommended. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., congressional Republicans, led by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, were trying to eliminate federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation altogether.

The question people like Mr. Stern are raising in public is urgently being discussed in private by friends of Legal Services in Congress. What is to be done when legal services organizations at the local level consistently advocate positions that manifestly harm the interests of poor people? Can we reform Legal Aid, or do we have to replace the current System for delivering legal services wholesale?

When Legal Aid was founded, its cases involved defending the poor against exploitation by the greedy and powerful. Today, it often faces a very different problem: choosing between the interests of different groups of the poor. Drug-dealing households want a more lenient eviction policy than do their neighbors who abjure drug money. Violent youthful criminals want a juvenile justice system that hides their records and treats them like wayward children, while their impoverished victims want them off the street. All too often, New York Legal Aid Society lawyers are picking one side in these disputes-and, as Mr. Stern shows, it’s not the side of the dedicated community leaders fighting to make their neighborhoods safe places in which to live and raise children.

Legal services organizations can take the other side of these issues, and many do. Boston Legal Services sued the local housing authority to get rid of drug dealing, and subsequently stopped taking drug-related eviction cases on the grounds of conflict of interest. Law school-based poverty law programs in Washington, D.C., refuse to take clients whose tenancy represents a threat to their neighbors’ right to quiet enjoyment of their homes. John Atlas, director of Camden (New Jersey) Legal Services, has publicly called for greater attention to the interests of law-abiding tenants.

Legal Aid’s original core function is difficult and vitally needed. The board members, foundations, and law firms that support the Legal Aid Society must listen to honest critics like Mr. Stern and must become directly involved in the organization's choices between the majority of law-abiding poor citizens and the small minority of predators. Legal Aid has survived criticism. in the past because of the enormous moral capital it built up over many years—moral capital it is quickly expending. If the current leadership continues to pursue ideology over the interests of poor communities, efforts to slash legal services for the poor will gain momentum—and the poor will be double losers.

Roger Conner
Executive Director
Dennis Saffran
New York Regional Director
American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities
Washington, D.C.

Housing Court Nightmares

To the editor:
When I read Rita Kramer’s article [“Housing Court’s Rough Justice,” Autumn 19951, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ten years ago I bought a dilapidated 50-unit apartment building in Washington Heights. Buying and renovating low-income housing seemed to me an opportunity to combine my 1960s idealism with the possibility of profit.

With a $300,000 low-interest loan from the city and $175,000 of my own money, I fixed up the building: I repainted and put in a new roof, parapets, intercom, doors, bathrooms, kitchens, plumbing, boiler, laundry, security gate, and garden.

Under the provisions of the city loan program, I was entitled to a rent increase upon renovation. But the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, a legal aid and tenant advocacy group, challenged two tenants’ rent increases. The two-year legal battle started in Housing Court, went through the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, to a state appeals court, and back to Housing Court.

I won at every level, but lost tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and unpaid rent. Finally, the tenants moved out, and Northern Manhattan lawyers withdrew the case. By this time, however, the building was in foreclosure. I have entered into forbearance agreements with the mortgagors and the city in order to keep my building.

Having learned my lesson, I have made it a point to advise other investors to shun low-income housing in New York City. If the city and state governments maintain their anti-landlord policies, smart investors will stay away, and neighborhoods will continue to deteriorate.

Stephen Shapiro
Citadel Management Company, Inc.
New York, N.Y.

Where Credit Is Due

To the editor:
Sometimes when I say something quotable, it is because I am quoting. The remark attributed to me in Ms. Kramer’s article—”Why is it that someone who steals $6,000 is called a thief, while someone who steals a $600 apartment for ten months is a member of a protected class whose rights are threatened?”—was my paraphrase of Vincent Castellano’s Real Estate Nightmares column in Real Estate Weekly last March.

Dan Margulies
Executive Director
Community Housing Improvement Program, Inc.
New York, N.Y.

 

 


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