09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Page One Doesn't Reflect the Times

I'm starting to feel that I don't live in the same New York City as everyone else does. I've read my four newspapers today (New York Times, Daily News , Wall Street Journal, New York Post) and, from their perspective, Jeter's MVP hopes, Madoff's cancer, lobster boat racing (you guess), and Giuliani's political future are all front page news.

The fact that New York City and State have nearly 400,000 people out of work and Black men now have an unemployment rate of 26.7%, greater than the highest rate in the Great Depression, doesn't even get press mention. Plainly, I have my priorities totally out of sync with what the news media think is of primary importance to the vast majority of New Yorkers. I'm starting to understand how Marie Antoinette and the Tsar must have felt when things went south, total shock that their world view could have left them totally unprepared when things went totally wrong.

I'm sure I'm overreacting. I don't expect riots in the street or bonus marches of the unemployed to besiege City Hall. But I can at the very minimum imagine a sharp increase in the very pathologies that we thought were things of the past -- increased reliance on public assistance (forget tax reductions), surges in crime against property, legions of people coming to food pantries, and a general sense that the quality of life for all New Yorkers is slipping.

I also get the sense that New Yorkers live in a world that has more similarity to pre-Mandela South Africa than to the pluralistic America that we imagine. Visit parts of Manhattan where my office is; for instance, near Gramercy Park. The restaurants are jammed with a virtually all-white clientele and the wait staffs are virtually all white as well. Push open the doors to the kitchens, and it's like an invisible color line has been crossed. Suddenly the complexions are different and the wages are minimum and benefits are non-existent.

With unemployment rates like these, we're in totally unexplored territory, and the halfway measures of doing things may not be sufficient. Increasingly, we're hearing that some of the measures that were used during the Great Depression, specifically Works Programs like the WPA, may be necessary to cushion the impact on certain high impact areas around the nation. Whether that's Detroit or Washington, D.C. or Brownsville in Brooklyn, something has to be done to provide safety net employment opportunities for those who won't be able to access jobs because of a lack of skills, regional dislocations, or other problems.

We're exploring two avenues here. The first is a piece of legislation, H.R. 2497, sponsored by Congressman Jerrold Nadler -- with 23 co-sponsors -- to expand and improve transit training programs. It would create a pilot project built on the WPA model to be funded as part of the transportation infrastructure legislation for urban areas. The second is an effort, spearheaded by Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, to enforce a provision called Section 3 that applies to public housing and would strengthen the requirement that work done on public housing give first preference to employing the residents of public housing.

In our recent report, "Making the Connection: Economic Opportunity for Public Housing Residents," we have estimated that as many as 30,000 public housing residents are actively looking for work. With nearly a half a billion dollars in stimulus money coming to the New York City Housing Authority, it doesn't seem too much to ask to mandate employment and training opportunities for at least 3,000 or 4,000 NYCHA residents.

It would be nice to see a discussion in the public space about the serious implications this recession is having on those who aren't six-figure Wall Street types. It would be good for all New Yorkers, and it would make us look more like the leading democracy to which we all too often just give lip service.