Crosby: A positive vision for New Haven

In his column Monday (“Taking our alderman to task,” April 18), Nathaniel Zelinsky took a misguided stand against the living wage proposal which recently passed out of committee, accusing Ward 1 Alderman Mike Jones ’11 of putting some putative desire to be a “social reformer” over the needs of his constituents. Zelinsky argues that the city must abdicate its moral responsibility to its workforce and ignore its own long-term economic well-being in order to bow before that clay-footed idol of “efficiency.” Further, his argument strongly suggests that Yale students have no stake or voice in confronting broad social issues in this city and should simply wash their hands of these matters altogether.

Let’s begin with the issue of New Haven’s living wage. The moral argument is a simple one: It is the responsibility of the city government to provide its workers with fair wages. As a citizen of New Haven, I don’t want my city’s workers to be trapped in poverty, whether they are employed directly by the city or via contractors. This was the impetus behind the original living wage ordinance in 1997, and this remains the impetus behind the new proposal; all it aims to do is keep the living wage in line with increases in the cost of living and extend it to cover more categories of city employees.

Updating the living wage is not only the right thing to do, but is also best for the long-term economic interests of the city. Those like Zelinsky who highlight our city’s budget issues are not wrong to do so, but the tired bogeyman of out-of-control city spending and extreme solution of drastic expenditure-slashing are neither the diagnosis nor the treatment our city needs. One of the most serious problems New Haven faces is its comparatively small tax base — and one of the most powerful solutions is to make sure that people who live and work in this city are able to find good jobs which pay enough for them to set up a life here. For the city to subsidize poverty is clearly a fiscally counterproductive strategy, but using taxpayer dollars to employ people at a wage level at which they are forced to turn to (also taxpayer-funded) social service agencies is doing just that.

But Zelinsky’s column didn’t just deal with the living wage ordinance. He also lambasted Alderman Jones for betraying the needs of his constituents — that is, us — in order to embark on what he called “flashy but flawed” policies of citywide reform. While the specific policy proposals Zelinsky advanced are not without merit — indeed, I commend him for his insistence on increasing transparency and accountability in our city’s police force — I am disturbed by the model of aldermanic action which Zelinsky sets forth, and even more disturbed by the conception of the relationship between Yale students and New Haven which seems to underlie it. I believe that New Haven’s problems also profoundly affect our lives as students, and we can and should be acting alongside other New Haven residents to solve them.

Do a quick search in your inbox for “Chief Ronnell A. Higgins.” Issues of crime and violence in New Haven have a profound impact on the experience of students at this university and are intimately linked to broad systemic issues of poverty and economic development in this city. I refuse to believe that Yale students (even those who, like me, receive a lot of financial aid) care more about paying a few cents in taxes on late-night G-Heav runs than about the systemic problems affecting this city. Too many Yalies pour too many hours into a wide variety of service organizations for this to be true.

I know that Zelinsky attacked Alderman Jones’ politics rather than Yalies’ service endeavors in his column. But I also know that my own service experiences have led me to a desire to transform the structures which make my service necessary. It is unfortunate that Zelinsky considers this type of expansive, progressive politics off-limits to Yale students.

Fortunately, most of our recent Ward 1 aldermen have not shared Zelinsky’s view. In working hard for just wages for city workers, Mike Jones ’11 is continuing a long line of Ward 1 aldermanic involvement in citywide issues: Josh Civin ’96 LAW ’03 and the original living wage ordinance, Ben Healey ’04 FES ’12 and recognition of domestic partnerships, and Rachel Plattus ’09 and New Haven Promise. I hope that Ward 1 aldermen to come — and Yale students in general — choose not to focus on a narrowly defined set of student economic interests but rather to work with the community to create the stronger New Haven that we all need — a better home for us all.

Ben Crosby is a sophomore in Pierson College.