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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Downstate getting help, upstate little

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech were a movie, it would be something like “Forrest Gump” — a rousing crowd-pleaser that aims to offer a little something for everyone, while skirting life’s harsher realities.

There were optimistic comments about the state’s private sector job growth, but nothing about poverty or income inequality. There were calls for investments in education as well as tax cuts, but little discussion of controversial topics such as the Common Core education standards, gun control or hydrofracking.

The theme of the day: building on success.

“In three years, we’ve reversed decades of decline,” Cuomo said. “We’ve changed the direction of this state for the better.”

As I listened to all this happy, optimistic talk, I wondered what regular people might say in response.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household is earning less than when the recession ended, while unemployment remains fairly high, at more than 7 percent. When you examine job growth numbers, you can see downstate is faring much better than upstate. The state Department of Labor’s most recent figures show that between November 2012 and November 2013, private sector jobs grew by 3 percent in the 10-county downstate region, compared to 0.7 percent in the 52 counties upstate. In light of such numbers, upstate residents could be forgiven for feeling they’re experiencing more stagnation than success and that the future holds more of the same.

Of course, Cuomo presented his prescription for reviving upstate. The keys to prosperity? Casinos, tax cuts and tourism.

Among other things, the governor called for cutting the corporate tax rate altogether — “you can’t beat zero, my friends” — a two-year property tax freeze and a multi-pronged tourism campaign that would promote history, food and other noteworthy places. One big-ticket item was a $2 billion bond act, the Smart Schools Initiative, that would pay for technological upgrades in schools throughout the state.
A smaller-ticket item would provide free SUNY or CUNY tuition for high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class, go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field and then agree to work in New York for five years.

I actually think some of this stuff could be positive, but it’s worth asking whether gambling, tax reform, tourism and educational initiatives will lead to an upstate job boom.

I like food and history as much as the next person, but will putting up a bunch of signs promoting what upstate has to offer really provide the shot in the arm the area needs? I don’t have a problem with providing the state’s public schools with high-speed Internet, tablets and laptops, but I wonder whether some of that money might be better spent on reading tutors and classroom aides for struggling students. And while I can see how New York might benefit from a lower corporate tax rate, it’s not clear to me why the upstate rate should be zero.

I suppose it’s time to reveal my growing irritation with this notion that the only sure path to a good job is a STEM career. Not everybody is cut out to be an engineer or a computer programmer. What is the state doing to make sure there are good jobs for everybody else? Or are those people out of luck and should resign themselves to low-wage retail and restaurant work? Also, it’s far from clear that STEM jobs are the future of the economy, if articles such as a recent Chronicle of Education report questioning whether there’s really a shortage of workers to fill STEM jobs are to be believed.

I did find some things in Cuomo’s speech to like, just as I was once able to appreciate aspects of “Forrest Gump.” I liked his call for full-day, universal pre-kindergarten, which might actually deliver lasting educational benefits, especially for low-income students. I liked his call for tougher drunken-driving laws and texting and driving penalties. And I liked his call for a Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice. It was nice to hear the governor acknowledge that New York is one of only two states in the nation to treat 16- and-17-year-olds who run afoul of the law as adults and that there might be a better way of doing things.

Cuomo’s speech ended in a rousing fashion, with upbeat words about New York’s greatness.

“At the end of the day, we are one,” he said. “That is the promise of this great state.”

Like “Forrest Gump,” this is feel-good, inspirational stuff. But New Yorkers struggling to get ahead need more then lofty rhetoric.

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