A New Way of Looking At Inequality in NYC

I have called NYC home for over 60 years.  Living and working as a government official and City University of New York (CUNY) Sociology Professor in it, I never fail to find something new, remarkable, or strange about it every day.  No wonder it is home to the CUNY system, the largest urban public university in the world.  It truly is a place that attracts those with a deep hunger for learning, including those from the city’s poorest communities and thousands of immigrants representing over 50 countries around the world.  Historically CUNY has played a key role in mitigating inequality through extending access to affordable, quality higher education to everyone on the income ladder.

CUNY’s role in society is one I contemplate frequently in light of the growing inequality gap.  This gap is frequently discussed on Op-Ed pages and one that grabs national and local headlines as we head into another election cycle.  I have seen the discussion framed in a hundred different ways; the haves versus have-nots, the winners versus the losers in the new economy, the 1% versus the 99%.  But this gap always seems nebulous to me, perhaps because it is so rarely framed in a context where it is quantifiable or relatable.

I am a former NYC Correction and Probation Commissioner so I understand at a very gut-level inequality in the criminal justice system.  For example it is well understood that black and Latino men disproportionately comprise the prison and jail populations, but it is the numbers that makes this issue concrete.  It is hard to ignore the call for reform when 1 in every 15 African-American men are incarcerated compared to 1 in every 106 white ones.

So when I recently became the Director of CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) I was intrigued when my Research Director told me he wanted to undertake a large-scale study of inequality as a multi-dimensional concept that reaches beyond the traditional income inequality discourse.  I had looked at inequality from the perspective of the criminal justice system and, of course, the economy, but to look at inequality holistically seemed a gargantuan task.  Almost all academic work around measuring inequality looks at it from a global or national level.  But we were more interested in looking at how inequality plays out in its various forms at the city and neighborhood level.

This, I thought, was exactly what was needed.

So in April of 2014, the Equality Indicators Project was born.  The project looks at six key areas, Economy, Education, Health, Housing, Justice, and Transportation & Other Services. In each of these areas we looked at the experiences of people who face the greatest inequalities based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, immigration status, disability, or criminal record. The goal is to measure change over time on an annual basis to see whether the inequality gap is growing or shrinking for these disadvantaged groups.

Where before, inequality could only be measured using comparative data like income or wealth distribution, we developed what amounts to an equality scorecard.  Ninety-six indicators were scored on a scale from 1 to 100, revealing the gaps between those who experienced the least levels of inequality versus those experiencing the highest levels of inequality.  For instance in measures of Health, black infants are three times more likely to die at birth compared to white infants in NYC.

For its pilot launch, NYC seemed the logical choice given the diversity of its population, the richness of its data and Mayor DeBlasio’s commitment to fighting inequality.  In addition to city government officials, community groups and academics provided valuable suggestions about what to measure and how to do it.

So what did we find?

Despite all the understandable public attention to inequality in Housing and Income, the greatest inequalities are in Health.  Within Health, the quality of healthcare indicators showed huge gaps between races.  Unfortunately, one can easily find indicators where blacks are five to ten times more likely to face negative health outcomes such as HIV-related death where they are more than six times more likely than whites to die of this disease.

Inequalities in Justice are also vast.  For example blacks are nearly nine times more likely to be admitted to city jails, and they are seven times more likely to be victims of family-related homicides.  These inequalities have been decades, if not longer, in the making, but they do point out the huge hurdles that elected officials and policymakers will have to overcome to shrink them in any meaningful manner.

Evidence-based, policy decision-making is the end goal of a project like the Equality Indicators.  But having worked in government, I understand too well, the siloed and bureaucratic nature of its mechanisms.  Too often the root causes of inequality get lost in day-to-day operating models of government agencies.  When a mother calls to report her apartment has lead paint and her child lands up in the emergency room, is it the responsibility of the buildings department, housing department, or health department?  When a newly released prisoner from Rikers can’t find a job because of his arrest or criminal record, does the responsibility lie in the workings of the criminal justice system, the education system, social service system, or the economy?  In other words, all issues around inequality are intertwined and addressing one requires measuring and ameliorating another.

So how can this tool help?

As it is commonly said, “You can’t change what you can’t measure.”  A tool like this can help policymakers develop realistic targets and specific interventions for reducing inequalities at the local and neighborhood level.  It can also help identify priorities for funding, resources, and programs in areas with the greatest or worsening inequalities.  Communities themselves can also benefit from such a tool.  The Equality Indicators were built with community input and it is now an accessible tool communities can use for holding government officials, at local, state, and national levels, more accountable for providing equal opportunities for everyone.

The Equality Indicators also support a more holistic way of looking at inequality that has a precedent in other countries.  I look to countries like the U.K. which have used Equality Indicators like the ones ISLG has developed to establish government agencies based on a cross-agency approach to human rights and equity.  The U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Government Equalities Office (GEO) are charged with monitoring and evaluating the progress towards equality and human rights taking account of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, transgender status, and religion or belief.  They do not look at these issues in isolation.

My hope for the Equality Indicators is to push for greater opportunities and more equitable outcomes for all New Yorkers, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or other characteristics.  In a city that prides itself on diversity, our differences should not be the determinants of how we are treated.