Vol. 18, No. 20

Oct. 20 - Nov. 2,  2005


In the Public Interest


_________________________in focus___________________

Bronx Boom or Bust?
The Bronx is poorer than ever, or on the upswing, depending on which recently released economic analysis you read. Reports surfacing over the last two months have either trumpeted the Bronx’ amazing recovery or lamented its entrenched poverty, but the reality is less black-and-white.

The Bronx borough president’s office saw the glass half full and celebrated some optimistic indicators earlier this month. The borough’s unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in August, which is nearly half the high reached in 2003, according to state Department of Labor statistics. Wages also improved drastically, rising 14 percent since 2000 to an average of $35,000 this year (not including the salaries for the Yankees).

“We have made great strides in combating unemployment and [creating] a new supply of job opportunities,” said Borough President Adolfo Carrión in a statement.

Residential and commercial investment has also poured into the borough. Spending on housing in the first half of this year was double the total for 2001 and 2002. More than 3,000 new businesses were opened during the first part of this year, which far exceeds previous rates, according to statistics from the Bronx County Clerk.

Carrión took credit for much of the improvements and threw some to his predecessor, mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer (though supporters of Ferrer worried that the rosy outlook would only help Mayor Bloomberg in his bid for reelection). After listing several new initiatives, Carrión stated: “These campaigns … have led to unprecedented economic development in the borough.” One of these, the Bronx at Work employment program, is responsible for placing over 20,000 Bronxites in jobs since last year, according to the borough president’s figures.

“[This is] another great example of the unprecedented economic development that has been taking place in our borough in recent years,” Carrión said.

But the borough’s bright economic future isn’t reflected in new U.S. Census data released seven weeks ago. The survey of 236 American counties in 2004 pegged the borough as the poorest urban area in the nation, with nearly one-third of Bronxites living below the poverty line along with 43 percent of its children.

“Those figures wouldn’t support great optimism,” said Bill Bosworth, who runs the Bronx Data Center at Lehman College.

How one assesses unemployment has something to do with the contradictory analyses, according to Bosworth. While a 6.7 percent unemployment rate seems to indicate low joblessness, that figure only reflects active job seekers who haven’t found employment. It does not include those who have given up looking or those who are not in the workforce, like caregivers.

Roughly 42 percent of the Bronx’ total adult population was not in the workforce last year, according to the Census. That is the sixth highest percentage of the surveyed counties, with Philadelphia and some areas along the Mexican border faring worse.

Things may be improving in the borough, but many residents continue to scrape by with low, or no, income. “I don’t know what’s improving, but the poverty rate isn’t,” Bosworth said.

Ballot Initiatives
Picking a mayor isn’t the only task for voters when they go to the polls next month. Four ballot initiatives will also be up for grabs, which touch on the state budget, transportation funding, the ethics code, and accounting in the city budget.

The most controversial initiative would change the state budget process, including delaying the deadline by a month and allowing for a contingency budget if an agreement isn’t reached by May. The measure would also create a budgetary oversight office and generally shift more power over the budget to the Legislature. Some fear that a contingency plan would remove an incentive to pass a budget on time.

The second initiative would issue a $2.9 billion state bond for transportation projects, including funds for the Second Avenue subway line and new subway cars. The mayor and governor both support the measure.

The Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, based in Riverdale, endorsed the two initiatives last month. “I am very pleased that the Club has again decided to take a stand on two very key issues that impact our community,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Club member, in a statement.

The third initiative would establish a code of ethics for administrative hearing officers, who resolve citizen complaints and non-criminal matters. The last would require that the city budget follow generally accepted accounting principles and create a four-year financial plan. These two measures have attracted little public attention.

Senior Funding
A citywide program to help those suffering from Alzheimer’s is getting a lift, thanks to funds secured by the city Department for the Aging and local Council Member Maria Baez, who chairs the Aging Committee. The Safe Return program, which helps seniors who have inadvertently wandered from home, was allocated an additional $250,000. The monies will go toward a publicity campaign and provider trainings.

Comings and Goings
The Bronx Republican Party elected Joseph Savino as its new chairman last month. Savino is a former Bronx commissioner for the Board of Elections, and a Morris Park resident. “As chairman, my goal will be to build the Party from the grassroots level up,” said Savino in a statement.

Savino is currently assisting the campaign of City Council candidate Phil Foglia, a Republican running for the Bronx District 13 seat in next month’s general election.

Making Law
  *The City Council flexed its muscle last week, overriding a mayoral veto and repealing Sunday metered parking. Capitalizing on the issue in his bid to kick Bloomberg out of City Hall, Fernando Ferrer joined the Council in announcing the change.

  *“For New York’s drivers and Sunday worshipers, one small day of relief from feeding the meter makes a big difference,” said Ferrer in a statement.

  *The Council also overrode a mayoral veto against a bill to offer health insurance to employees of larger groceries.

 Council members Maria Baez and Oliver Koppell voted to override the vetoes, and Joel Rivera was absent.

  *The city strengthened safeguards for those in domestic partnerships earlier this month. The city’s Human Rights Law was amended to include partnership status in the list of categories that are protected against discrimination. All local Council members supported the legislation and the mayor signed it into law.

The city also secured agreements this month with four major health insurance companies to provide domestic partner benefits at small businesses. The participating insurers are Group Health Incorporated, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, HIP Health Plans of New York, and Horizon Healthcare Insurance Company of New York.

The city will monitor small businesses to make sure they are complying. Partnership benefits were previously made available at companies with over 50 employees.

  *A state law to increase the amount of asthma inhalers kept on hand at schools took effect this month. “This law will ... keep kids out of the emergency room and in school,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a co-sponsor, in a statement.

Community District 7 experienced over 800 hospitalizations due to asthma in 2003, according to city Department of Health records.

Focus on Chocolate at Halloween
Chocolate is considered almost as American as baseball and apple pie, especially around Halloween time, but a local lawmaker has been working to make Americans aware that half of the world’s cocoa is made by slave labor in western African countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

African farms that employ child slave labor produce nearly half of the world’s cocoa, according to Congressman Eliot Engel. And candy magnates like Hershey, M&M/Mars and Nestle use much of it.

Engel, who represents Norwood and Bedford Park has long raised the issue in Washington along with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.

“If we can have our tuna fish dolphin free, we can have our chocolate slave free,” Engel said in 2001.

That year, the House of Representatives passed an amendment calling on the Food and Drug Administration to require labels on chocolate products that say no slave labor went into their production. The Harkin-Engel Protocol, as it became known, also included a “comprehensive, six-point problem-solving approach along with a time-bounded process for credibly eliminating abusive child labor in cocoa growing.” The Protocol was adopted by the chocolate industry, although Engel and others say a lot more can and needs to be done, including the establishment of a an industry-wide monitoring system which was supposed to be in place last July.

“We now have set in motion a plan to monitor 50 percent of the growing region of West Africa in the next three years,” Engel said in an e-mailed statement. “That program will oversee conditions on more than 700,000 farms. We are working to create an independent oversight authority to certify that child slave labor is indeed being rolled back.”

Meanwhile, the non-profit Global Exchange is offering fair trade chocolate that certifies farms as slavery free and guarantees a fair price for their beans available on their Web site at Along with different types of chocolate, they have made Fair Trade Trick-or-Treat Action Kits, which come with 30 kids’ postcards with information about fair trade as well as a door sign proclaiming a fair trade Trick-or-Treat household. For information about bringing fair trade into schools, churches and community groups, call Jamie Guzzi at (415) 575-5538.

—David Crohn and Jordan Besek

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