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Recipients of public assistance are among the most demonized groups of people in American society. Even working people look down on them, claiming that their benefits are too generous or even foolishly suggesting that both the rich and the poor have an easy life. Anecdotes abound of friends or relatives on the dole who could support themselves if they weren’t too lazy to work.

The condemnation is turned on its head when the hand in the public treasury cookie jar comes from a wealthy corporation. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer on earth, has received $1 billion in subsidies from state and local governments across the United States. If Wal-Mart can ask for the tax dollars of hard working Americans it is little wonder that other corporate interests are adamant in demanding a slice of corporate welfare pie.

Among the repeat offenders of greed at the public trough are professional sports teams.

Every municipality is given an assurance that an arena or stadium will produce jobs and bring in millions of revenue. In actuality the jobs produced are scarce and low paid and the facilities never meet predictions of economic benefits.

A comedic sports analogy is definitely in order to describe the fleecing of the public and the accommodation of urban leaders. In the old Peanuts comic strip, the hapless hero, Charlie Brown, listened to Lucy’s promise to let him kick the ball, but on every occasion Lucy would pull the ball away at the last moment and laugh when Charlie Brown fell on his behind.

Urban political leaders have been reduced to comic book characters by corporate interests. New York City is getting the Charlie Brown treatment from both the New York Jets football team and the Nets basketball franchise. The Jets want to build a stadium and convention center on Manhattan’s west side that would also double as a facility for the 2012 Olympics if they are held in New York. They Jets are asking for $600 million from the state and the city. The Nets plan to condemn property through eminent domain in downtown Brooklyn to build an arena for their basketball team. Their reach into the public purse is for $449 million.

The refrain is the same. The facilities will provide jobs, revenue and tourism. The Charlie Browns of New York’s black leadership have all begun taking their turn at kicking the ball. Paul T. Williams, President of 100 Black Men Inc., is the latest victim. Mr. Williams believes that the high rate of black unemployment in New York will disappear if tax payers just turn their coffers over to the Jets. It is unfortunate that Williams didn’t read a report written by the New York City Independent Budget Office. The IBO concludes that the Jets revenue estimates are overly optimistic and that the facility will only provide half of the jobs that the Jets claim it will.

The same elected officials and corporate interests who could do something about the 48% unemployment rate for black men in New York are now using that data to advocate for public subsidies to wealthy corporations and individuals. When the high unemployment numbers were made public neither Governor George Pataki nor Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed any interest in tackling the problem. Now that they want public funding for their pet white elephant, black male unemployment is used as the reason to make these projects move forward.

Black elected officials have not disappointed their superiors and have dutifully stepped forward and proclaimed themselves believers in the old time religion of corporate welfare. This sorry spectacle would not be repeated in city after city if black leaders made the effort to plan for economic development, or even if they bothered to read the Black Commentator series “Wanted: A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves.

Big city mayors have been reduced to a bizarre class of beggars, lining up at corporate doorsteps with gifts of public resources. Urban executives extend permanent invitations to private capital managers to do whatever they want with constituents’ property and futures, but please do something! Rarely do they have anything resembling a plan of their own, beyond a firm determination to accept whatever capital offers, and a willingness to out-grovel the next mayor in line.

The plan for the Nets arena has a sweetener of 4,500 units of housing. Even ACORN, known for its grass roots organizing on issues of equity and justice, supports the giveaway to the Nets because of the housing component. If it weren’t so sad it might be funny. The developer can make money constructing housing without a public subsidy and yet even a progressive organization is ready to bless an unnecessary giveaway of public funds.

The civic leaders and politicians who want to be thought of as leaders need to start acting the part. Their homework assignment is to read the entire series “A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves”. They might come up with ways to help their communities instead of asking “How high?” when corporations say, “Jump!” Urban leaders just might find a way to truly save their communities instead of relying on old formulas that have been proven untrue time and again. If both teams succeed in their plans for public subsidy they should be renamed. It won’t be enough for the names to rhyme. They should both be called the Kings, the Welfare Kings, of New York City.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at



July 15 2004
Issue 99

is published every Thursday.

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