DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When the country's mayors gathered for their annual conference, much of the talk was about income inequality. And New York's new mayor was in the thick of it.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At his inauguration six months ago, Bill de Blasio told the crowd we are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. Now, he's heading a task force to tackle the issue at the local level. And we reached Mayor de Blasio at his office at City Hall. Welcome to the program.
BILL DE BLASIO: Thank you so much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: When this task force was announced earlier this week, the mayor of Dallas - which, of course, is a city famous for its wealth - he said that income disparity is costing his city millions of dollars. How so exactly? Not just for Dallas, obviously, but for any city.
DE BLASIO: What it means when talks about the cost factor is as families slip farther down and are unable to afford the basics, it all keeps falling to the public sector to catch people when they fall. And it's become really dysfunctional. If a forward moving country - as we saw in substantial degree for several decades in the '50s, '60s, '70s - is a country where middle class is growing, where people can support themselves or wages and benefits are going up. We've been in the reverse dynamic for years now, but federal policies have not responded in a meaningful way and that's not healthy. And so a lot of us are going right at wages, benefits, fundamental rights to things like pre-k and childcare - the things that really affect the day-to-day lives of families and their bottom line.
MONTAGNE: Though let me put this to you - why do you and other mayors who are pushing for higher minimum wages at the city level - you've already succeeded in getting most workers there in New York more paid sick leave - why do you think that's the way to go even though critics point out that it does come out of the pockets of taxpayers and businesses?
DE BLASIO: Look, you could argue that if a company pays a fair wage, some companies might raise the cost of their products. I don't think that's always true. I think a lot of companies - we obviously have seen with CEO compensation and a lot of other realities of companies - that they have plenty of resources to draw on that they can use to pay a decent wage and provide decent benefits. So it's not a given that that gets passed along to the consumer. But even if - to some extent - there's a consumer impact, it's still worth it to create a more functional society. Here in New York City, when I ran last year, I said we were living a tale of two cities because we saw a city government report come out a year ago that said 46 percent of New Yorkers were at or near the poverty level - an astounding statistic. If we don't get to the root cause - which is wage levels and benefits levels - we're kidding ourselves.
MONTAGNE: But let me ask you about the pressure you will be getting in return. When you are pursuing universal pre-kindergarten, your big proposal was raising taxes on the wealthy. That was shot down not just by Republicans, but by New York's Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo. Does that reveal some - in one way - the limits of what cities can do?
DE BLASIO: By definition, cities can't do everything we need to do unless we have cooperation from the federal government and from our state capitals. I thought it was fair to tax the wealthiest New Yorkers so we could provide pre-k for every child. Our legislator in Albany, our governor, didn't happen to agree. They found another way - a different way - to provide us with the exact same amount of money. So we got there. Are there still some places around this country where our leaders don't understand the extent of the crisis and aren't supporting cities? Yes, that's entirely true. And that's why cities are banding together to try and change the debate and change the politics around urban issues.
MONTAGNE: Much of your city's economy - New York City's economy - is fueled by Wall Street, which many people would point to as a driver of income inequality. Is it possible in New York City to battle income inequality without declaring class warfare on Wall Street?
DE BLASIO: Of course. You know, when I proposed taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers, obviously a lot of those individuals are connected to Wall Street. By the way, my proposal had immense popular support. It was one of the reasons I got elected and ultimately got elected with 73 percent of the vote in the general election. I know some individuals on Wall Street didn't like it, but I think broadly speaking, there was an understanding in the financial community that this was about improving our school system and ultimately that's in the interest of the city and in the interest of our society. By the way, when you talk to business people from all over, one of the things they care about when choosing a location is the quality of the schools. I don't think in any way, shape or form, that's class warfare. I think that's acknowledging real needs and acknowledging a serious way of paying for it and sometimes saying hey, folks who've done well should pay a little more. Really, the fight against inequality is as important as any other element in terms of our national security and our national future. And I think there are more and more people - even among the wealthy, even among the business community - who recognize that something's really gone awry here and has to be addressed.
MONTAGNE: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is chairman of the Cities of Opportunity Task Force. That's a group of mayors working on income inequality. He spoke to us from the mayor's office in New York. Thanks very much.
DE BLASIO: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.