Scapegoating New York Means Ignoring Its Desperate NeedRoundup
tags: Ronald Reagan, New York City, AIDS, Gerald Ford, politics, New York, coronavirus
Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at New York University, is the author, most recently, of “Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics.”
There’s a long history of scapegoating New York City for problems that have their roots far beyond the Hudson. In the 1970s, the Ford administration blamed New York’s liberal politics, generous social safety net and strong public sector unions for the fiscal crisis that almost brought the city to bankruptcy — even though that crisis arose when the country as a whole was mired in recession, at a moment when federal policies encouraged suburban flight and the departure of factories from cities like New York.
Despite the national context for the city’s difficulties, President Gerald Ford warned that there could be no federal aid for the country’s largest metropolis because it had brought its problems on itself. As his press secretary Ron Nessen put it: “This is not a natural disaster or an act of God. It is a self-inflicted act by the people who have been running New York for a long time.”
Underlying Ford’s punitive attitude was a deeper conservative critique of the city. Its history of leftist politics, its tuition-free city university and its network of public hospitals (several of which were closed in the fiscal crisis) all made New York suspect, as did its reputation as a center for the gay rights movement and feminism.
The vision of New York as morally suspect, a city of sexual promiscuity and libertine mores, also helped shape the federal response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The Reagan administration failed so dismally in addressing the health crisis, not even mentioning it publicly for years after it had emerged, as it raged in part because AIDS was viewed as a disease of the cities, especially of gay men and IV drug users, not as a problem of the heartland.
But while some aspects of New York’s situation in the 1970s and beyond were unique, the larger problems the city faced were those confronting the entire country. And the AIDS epidemic, too, spread throughout the nation. Blaming New York was a way to let the federal government off the hook.
Today, the scapegoating of the city could have consequences even more profound than during the 1970s. It could mean the city not getting the federal money it needs or a sufficient supply of ventilators and masks and enough support for health care workers.
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