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Phantom Austerity

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eye on the news

Phantom Austerity

Progressive claims that insufficient social spending is driving up crime in New York City don’t add up. February 2, 2022
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

The first month of Eric Adams’s mayoralty did not result in a reversal in New York City’s overall crime rate. Though January 2022 saw fewer murders than the previous January, every other category of crime was up sharply. Perhaps most troubling, given the mayor’s insistence that he will target illegal guns and “gun violence,” is the fact that shooting incidents rose by more than 30 percent, and the number of shooting victims was similarly elevated. Every shooting incident that does not result in a murder owes to the bad aim of the shooter, not to the public-safety efforts of police or other government entities.

Elected officials and criminal-justice advocates of the far Left have slammed Adams for vowing to use the police to fight crime, and they continue to demand that the city address the putative root causes of disorder. Newly elected councilmember Shahana Hanif, representing Park Slope, recently penned an op-ed addressing the murder of Michelle Go, an Asian-American woman pushed in front of a train and killed by a deranged criminal. Hanif, arguing for “budget justice” and “divesting from the police,” insists that “the root of anti-Asian violence is not individual acts of hate or even so-called ‘random attacks,’ but rather white supremacy and austerity that seeds systemic violence.”

Hanif’s white-supremacy hypothesis is hard to sustain based on the evidence, which shows that nonwhites commit virtually all anti-Asian violence in New York. But the proposition that “austerity” is also to blame for rising crime demands scrutiny.

The idea that a lack of spending on social services is the answer to the problem of crime arises constantly in progressive circles. “NYC is facing a choice: will our recovery pursue a path of austerity or a path of investment?” tweeted New York city comptroller Brad Lander last March. “What else has a proven track record of preventing violence?” asks Queens councilmember Tiffany Cabán. “Good jobs with decent pay. Guaranteed decent housing. Abundant mental healthcare. Nutritious food.” Harlem councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan—a police “abolitionist” who ran for office on a platform of “radical love,” and who responded to the murder of two police officers in her district by offering prayers for their killer—tweeted, “This is a moment for Harlem to mourn, together. It is also a moment for us to pledge to work towards visions of public safety that do not reproduce the harms they purport to solve. We must unite to support evidence-based solutions that address the root causes of crime & harm.” (Actual evidence for the “evidence-based solutions” to violence is rarely specified.) “Austerity won’t work,” said former mayor Bill de Blasio in 2020. “It never does. The New Deal proved that investment is the only way out.”

But a cursory glance at the New York City budget should inform even the most enthusiastic New Dealer that Gotham has not been pursuing anything resembling austerity for a long time. Spending under de Blasio grew from approximately $73 billion in 2014 to more than $100 billion when he left office—three times faster than the rate of inflation. And while much of this new spending went to prosaic, non-discretionary line items such as debt maintenance and paying for retiree lifetime health-care coverage, a significant amount of it went toward what any self-respecting progressive or socialist would count as addressing the “root causes of violence.”

Spending on homeless services, for instance, more than doubled in the last eight years, as did the budget of the Department of Youth and Community Development. Education spending rose by more than 50 percent, and the budget for Housing Preservation and Development nearly doubled. The Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which Mayor Adams touts as a surefire violence inhibitor, was also a key de Blasio priority. Spending on SYEP tripled between 2014 and 2019, and the number of program participants more than doubled over that same period. None of this counts statewide social spending. New York State spends approximately $75 billion on Medicaid programs, roughly triple what the state of Florida, with a larger population, spends each year.

New York City and State spend about a quarter of a trillion dollars each year, and it’s not as if there’s a military budget in there gobbling up all the resources. Most of the money goes to the usual suspects: schools, health care, pensions, transportation, and so on. The notion that New York is neglecting to spend money on social services simply doesn’t add up.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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