After 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, the reins of New York City have officially switched to Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio, who has promised a “fairer, more progressive” city, certainly has his hands full as he begins to lay out his agenda for the city.
At a time when the GOP is seeking ways to soften its image to appeal to women voters, while its members are callously trying to cut women’s access to programs vital to their survival, de Blasio has an opportunity to make the city more fair and just for New York City mothers and to undo much of the damage done by his predecessor.
Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s record for women and mothers wasn’t all bad, particularly on reproductive rights. In 2002, the billionaire media mogul endorsed a plan from NARAL Pro-Choice New York to integrate abortion care as a standard part of OB-GYN residency training in eight of the city’s public hospitals. This policy has not only increased the number of trained abortion providers, but it has sent a signal that abortion is an integral part of comprehensive reproductive health care and OB-GYNs should have access to that training. He also instituted the CATCH program (Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Healthcare), which allows campus-based student centers to provide female students with contraception, including the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step. Though the program has been criticized for giving students access to contraception without parental consent, this program directly empowers teens and gives them unfiltered access to reproductive health care.
However, his tenure was not without problematic policies for mothers. In September of 2012, he helped shepherd the Latch On NYC program through the New York City Department of Health, which encourages city hospitals to actively discourage the use of baby formula.
In fact, new mothers who seek baby formula from a hospital after childbirth must sign out the formula like medication, and they will then receive a mandated talk from staffers on why they should breastfeed instead. While reducing social stigma around and providing support for breastfeeding mothers is a laudable goal, lecturing new mothers about what’s best for their baby and best for their body is not.
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In addition, Mayor Bloomberg oversaw the new teen pregnancy prevention campaign released by the New York City Human Resources Administration in March 2013, one that was widely criticized. This campaign features emotionally manipulative images and rhetoric, with phrases like “Honestly, Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” This campaign centers around shaming teen mothers as irresponsible and lascivious, and it blames them for larger social ills like poverty, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What’s more, the campaign lacks any accessible information about how to truly prevent unwanted pregnancy; the ads say nothing about where to find contraceptives, condoms, or abortion care or how to afford them.
In its place, Mayor de Blasio should implement a more comprehensive campaign to prevent unwanted pregnancy—not just teen pregnancy—focusing on increased access to birth control, abortion care, and a full host of reproductive health-care provisions. In other words, a campaign that informs New Yorkers about the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care. Rather than centering around shame, these campaigns should center around empowerment and information. Crying infants and manipulative rhetoric should be replaced with information about emergency contraception and clinic locations.
This campaign could coincide with a wider effort to increase access to sexual and reproductive health care across the city. As a city council member, de Blasio co-sponsored legislation to institute protective zones around reproductive health-care clinics. Currently, New York is one of the 15 states that provides Medicaid assistance to help low-income people access abortion care, but cost is still a deterrent for many. The de Blasio administration should focus on ways to increase city-funded access to reproductive health care, including abortion.
New York City is also facing a homelessness crisis, one that disparately affects single mothers and their children. Despite national trends that show a decrease in homelessness, the percentage of New Yorkers who are homeless has spiked. The city’s homeless population increased by 13 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone. According to the advocacy group Legal Momentum, three-quarters of homeless families are headed by a single mother, all who are left without any safety net from the city.
The Bloomberg administration essentially abandoned funding for Section 8 housing in favor of the Advantage program, which gave homeless households short-term rental subsidies to help them find housing. The Coalition for the Homeless called the Advantage program “wasteful and ineffective,” noting that more than one of every three formerly homeless families returned to a homeless shelter as soon as their subsidies ended. Due to budget cuts, the Advantage program was terminated in 2011 and has not been replaced with any other program to provide housing to homeless New York City families.
Mayor de Blasio has already begun to address the city’s homelessness crisis. His new administration reinstated “Code Blue” shelter guarantees that enable access to shelters for families in dangerously cold weather emergencies, a program the Bloomberg administration covertly
ended over a year ago. While this is an admirable move, let’s hope it is only the beginning of a comprehensive, city-funded effort to increase safe and accessible housing for the burgeoning homeless population in New York City.
We’re off to a good start in other ways as well. For instance, de Blasio has already expressed his intent to increase taxes on those making more than $500,000 a year to pay for early education and after-school programs, programs that would no doubt have a significantly positive impact on mothers and their children.
But the potential is greater: Mayor de Blasio has a real opportunity to radically restructure the way New York City deals with access and opportunity for mothers and their children. By increasing access to safe and affordable housing, ending the city’s shaming teen pregnancy prevention program, and centering reproductive and sexual health care as utmost priorities, the de Blasio administration can begin to move both the city and the nation in a more progressive, just direction, and markedly improve the lives of New York City mothers and women.