“Racial disadvantage is a fact of current life. Urgent action is needed if it is not to become an endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society.” This is not a quotation from a speech by the head of the Urban League or the NAACP. It is part of the report by Lord Scarman to the British government dealing with the recent Brixton riots. The report concluded that the violence that spread to much of Britain after the Brixton disorders stemmed from decaying urban conditions and the problem of severe unemployment which falls “disproportionately heavily on black people.”
Decaying urban conditions are not, of course, limited to Britain; unfair distribution of burdens and benefits are not a monopoly of the Thatcher government. “The budget cuts are leaving serious and immediate human needs unmet. And, if the budget cuts continue as scheduled, the problem of the poor will worsen intolerably.” This is not a McGovern liberal speaking but a business executive, Richard Munro, president of Time, Inc.
It is impossible to speak of the New York economy without speaking of the national economy, of regional, racial, and industrial problems, of fairness and wealth, of greed and poverty. New York City, once again, faces serious problems; however, this time, they are not problems of its own doing. Quite to the contrary. Whereas the crisis of 1975 was, to a large extent, self-inflicted, the challenges facing the city now are the result of national policies and regional shifts not of our doing.
Since 1975, New York City has probably performed more credibly than any other unit of government in this country (beginning with the federal government) in the managing of its fiscal affairs. From an annual deficit of $1.7 billion in 1975, it went to a $250 million surplus this year. From a level of $6 billion in short-term debt in 1975, it will wind up this fiscal year with zero short-term debt. Wholly excluded from the credit markets in 1975, it returned to the short- and long-term markets this year.
None of this was accomplished by new economic theories. It was accomplished by courageous state and city political leadership and continued cooperation between business, labor, and government. Sacrifice was demanded from all the different elements among our citizens and if, as is inevitable, sacrifice is always greater among our underprivileged, at least an attempt was made to be fair and most people gave up something.
Balancing the city’s budget was not accomplished without paying a price. The price was a reduction of practically every major service. Whether it be police protection, sanitation, education, or mass transit, services have been eroded and, with them, the quality of our city life. The revival of midtown Manhattan, fueled by tourism and a weak dollar, cannot offset the decline in the other boroughs and cure the appalling condition of the South Bronx and of Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, reality dictated that first we had to get our fiscal situation in order; second, we would address…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.