Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Earlier this week the New York Times ran a big multimedia piece online about the growing need for government support in middle class communities. The piece was a two-fold argument. First, the social safety net isn’t just for poor people anymore. Second, the areas that are often receiving the most government support have representatives in government who come from the Tea Party side of the political spectrum.
The story was about the nation as a whole. But in the map graphic that accompanied the piece, something interesting is going on in New York State.
In a field of lighter orange, two auburn counties stick out. They’re the ones that have 30 percent or more of their residents’ income coming from some form of government benefit—the Times identifies 50-plus different welfare streams in their analysis, “from food stamps to Medicare.”
One of the two counties, the Bronx, makes sense. It's one of the poorest in the nation, home to the perennial most-impoverished congressional district in the country, NY-16. It has been and remains the county with the worst unemployment in the state, stubbornly refusing to budge below 12 percent. According to the Times analysis, a little over 35 percent of the money coming into the Bronx is from the government.
The other polyhedron that stands out is a small county in the center of the state called Montgomery. Just a bit west of Schenectady, Montgomery County sits at the southern end of the Adirondack State Park. Its largest city, Amsterdam, is home to 18,000 people. And according to the Times, it is second only to the Bronx in the percentage of government money it takes in at 30.36 percent.
A Rustier Spot on the Rust Belt
It’s not that Montgomery is entirely unique as much as it’s just a bit more unique than a number of its neighbors—like Fulton and Herkimer--who are right on the threshold of that 30 percent mark. The difference, according to Shayne Walters, the chairman of the county board of supervisors, is its makeup that’s just too much or little than its neighbors.
“You have a county just north of us with two small cities in it and not much population outside those cities,” Walters said in a phone interview. “You have a county south of us that has a small population but absolutely no city in it. And you have us, with a small population and a small city that did at one time support itself and have tons of work for people and it's not there anymore.”
The focus of the Times article was the quickly shifting economic dynamics in much of the rest of the country. But in Montgomery, the story is the familiar one of a long-gone industrial economy that has yet to be filled by anything. Whereas Tea Party sympathies have bumped up against economic realities in the Times story, the solution for Walters, a Republican, is a familiar one.
“People that don't get things given to them they start to figure out how to survive. I don't think the state's reason and welfare system is the right answer,” he said.
Walter’s has to deal with the literally taxing position paying for these social safety net programs. He says the county collects roughly $27 million in taxes each year. Out of that $13.8 million goes to mandated programs that are in social services alone, like the local Medicaid mandate.
“We’re looking at a little hair over half our tax levy is going to pay for things we have no control over," he said.
The Politics of Economic Failings
If the county feels the crunch of social services, it’s the largest town in Montgomery County, Amsterdam, which faces the dearth of economic activity most directly.
“I think we, as an upstate community, struggle with the fact that we have suffered real decades of decline as industry fled the upstate area,” said Democrat Ann Thane, the mayor of Amsterdam.
For her, the economic decline exacerbates a situation that’s out of control of local governments—what many consider spending mandates for services like Medicaid, imposed by the state and federal governments. Without the jobs, the social safety net is forced to catch ever more people, which add even more cost for local governments, who are struggling financially because of a shrunken tax base due to the lack of businesses and jobs.
“The difficulty we face is trying to entice people back into the region, and business back to the region, and political tension comes when revenues are capped and there are so many mandates,” Thane said.
On the political side of things, Thane said she doesn’t see herself as someone coming “from a political background” having been the director of a local museum shortly before becoming mayor. In her view, many of the problems being discussed are byproducts of political decisions—or rather, indecision.
“People step up for elected office that have really no more insight or experience or education, and actually interest, in this chosen feel [than anyone else]. It’s just awful,” she said.
The Times, They're Hardly A-Changin'
If there’s any irony to the situation in Montgomery County—and New York State in general—it’s that, for the most part, the foreclosure crisis that’s been at the center of so much economic difficulty elsewhere largely passed them by.
And since taking office, Governor Andrew Cuomo has initiated a number of economic programs that focus specifically on local economic improvement. His hallmark program, the Regional Economic Development Councils, have brought stakeholders in the various regions together to discuss locally-focused solutions to the broader issue of getting New Yorkers back to work—and in the process handed the region Montgomery was located in $60.2 million in economic incentives.
But for local elected officials like Mayor Thane, dealing with the day-to-day battle of making government work is going to require more than just conversations to help so many of those auburn squares in the Times map turn a lighter shade of prosperity.
“All of these problems are so multifaceted that they need really a lot of effort and time to come to solving these problems,” she said. “And it’s not happening.”