Centering Racial Equity in New York Policymaking: The New York City Racial Justice Ballot Proposals

Guest Post by Melissa Genadri, Health and Economic Mobility Policy Associate, Children’s Defense Fund – New York

During the 2022 Midterm Elections, New York City voters overwhelmingly voted in support of a trio of ballot proposals focused on promoting citywide racial justice and ending systemic racism in City government.  Spearheaded by the New York City Racial Justice Commission, a charter revision commission formed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2021 to combat structural racism within New York City and chaired by FPWA CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Jones Austin, the proposals aim to center racial equity in City government decision-making – and also set a strong precedent for action that can be taken at the State level to create a more equitable New York for our children, young people, and families and, in particular, our communities of color.

By voting in favor of three racial justice ballot measures, New Yorkers approved several changes to the New York City Charter, the City’s Constitution.  These measures were convincingly backed by New York City voters with wide margins, with each proposal receiving at least 70 percent of voter support.  The first ballot measure, Add a Statement of Values to Guide Government, will add a preamble to the City Charter intended to guide City government in fulfilling its duties.  The preamble will consist of a statement of foundational values and a vision aspiring towards “a just and equitable city for all” New Yorkers in such areas as housing, education, health care, economic mobility, and child and youth supports.  The statement will also include an Indigenous land acknowledgment and a vow that the City must strive to remedy “past and continuing harms and to reconstruct, revise, and reimagine our foundations, structures, institutions, and laws to promote justice and equity for all New Yorkers.”

              The second ballot measure will amend the City Charter to Establish a Racial Equity Office, Plan, and Commission.  This measure creates both a new City agency, the Office of Racial Equity, and a Commission on Racial Equity that will be appointed by City elected officials to lead a citywide racial equity planning process.  Part of this process entails creating Racial Equity Plans every two years which stipulate intended strategies and goals to improve racial equity in New York City and to reduce or eliminate racial disparities.

The third ballot measure, Measure the True Cost of Living, requires the city to develop and annually measure, beginning in 2024, a new ‘true cost of living’ metric which tracks the actual cost of meeting essential needs in New York City without consideration of public, private, or informal assistance and “is intended to focus on dignity rather than poverty.”  The proposed measurement aims to shift the City away from the federal and local measures of poverty and will account for a wide range of expenses including costs associated with housing, childcare, transportation, healthcare, household items, and telephone and internet service.

The passage of the New York City racial justice ballot measures sets a strong precedent for our State to take urgent and decisive action to bolster racial justice and end systemic racial inequities.  A critical way of doing so is through embedding racial impact analysis into our State’s legislative and rulemaking processes by no longer passing legislation or adopting rules without first examining whether or not these policies hold the potential to eliminate, perpetuate or create racial and ethnic disparities – and prohibiting the adoption of bills and rules that could increase such disparities.  New York must thereby act swiftly to join the growing list of states who create racial and ethnic impact statements for proposed legislation and rules.

Furthermore, the overwhelming success of the racial justice ballot measures illustrates the importance of organizing and intentionally engaging community throughout the process of conceptualizing and refining racial equity policy.  As detailed in their NYC for Racial Justice Final Report, the Racial Justice Commission conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with community-based organizations, held issue-specific panels with thought leaders, hosted virtual and in-person public input and listening sessions and solicited the submission of online comments as they worked to develop the ballot measures and gain community buy-in.  The Commission also worked to spread word about the proposals to over 1,000 New Yorkers – with an emphasis on reaching communities of color – through presentations to community boards and civic groups and interviews and focus groups with racial justice stakeholders.  Any statewide racial equity policy must similarly engage authentically and consistently with our communities to ensure that the policy is truly representative of the best interests of New York’s children, young people, families and communities of color.

              There is clear and urgent need to take decisive action to end New York’s entrenched racial inequalities and promote equitable economic mobility.  This is particularly evident with regards to the racial and ethnic disparities in New York’s alarmingly high poverty rates.  As noted in a report released by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli last December, almost 2.7 million New Yorkers, or 13.9 percent of our State’s population, lived in poverty in 2021, compared to 12.8 percent of all Americans.  Poverty rates are more than double for Hispanic New Yorkers compared to white, non-Hispanics, with one-fifth of New York’s Hispanic population living below the poverty level in 2021.  Black, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander and American Indian New Yorkers experienced poverty at twice the rate of white New Yorkers in 2021.  Racial and ethnic disparities are particularly pervasive in New York’s child poverty burden, with Black and Latinx children more than twice as likely as white children to live in poverty statewide and 10 to 13 times more likely than white children to live in poverty in Manhattan.  The Child Poverty Reduction Act, which makes a public commitment to cutting child poverty in half in New York within ten years and establishes the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council (which CDF-NY was appointed to by Governor Hochul), represents a critical step towards reducing these jarring disparities.  In addition to the tangible actions that can be taken through the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council, our State’s rulemaking and legislative processes must incorporate racial and ethnic impact analysis by codifying a racial and ethnic impact statement requirement.  Undoing generations of racial and ethnic disparities and systemic harm demands an actively anti-racist approach that examines the role of legislative and regulatory action in perpetuating inequality in New York.  It is past time to get it right.