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A Message to the Mayor

Rooting NYC Policy & Practice in Community Voice and Research

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and his administration recently spearheaded a survey campaign across the five boroughs of NYC with a civic engagement group called NYC Speaks to collect community input on policy priorities and future policy development. Gothamist reports that 62,000 New Yorkers submitted responses on a range of issues related to public safety, infrastructure, education, and racial equity, of which affordable housing and reducing homeless were most often selected when asked about public safety concerns. The results of the survey were released just before Mayor Adams reached his 100th day in office. This presents an opportunity to reflect on the work of the new administration and to offer considerations to Mayor Adams on ways to attend to the most pressing challenges and needs of New Yorkers.

At the Institute of Human Development and Social Change, we understand the importance of bolstering community voices and using evidence to inform policy and practice. We tapped the expertise of our faculty affiliates for research insights the Adams’ administration should leverage to inform decisions in New York City. A central focus of the faculty recommendations below is the need to attend to institutional barriers, particularly within communities of color, that have long perpetuated a history of racial injustice, poverty, and inequality.


Carly Baetz, JD, PhD (Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NYU Grossman School of Medicine): Research has consistently found that ongoing and deeper penetration into the justice system reduces opportunities for youth to meet important developmental milestones, receive appropriate treatment, and learn valuable skills for their transition to adulthood. This is detrimental to youth and their families, and it is also contrary to the goal of public safety. The practice of trying youth as adults has been found to be particularly damaging and does not reduce the risk for recidivism. Detention and incarceration also further increase the risk for re-traumatization for a population that already has an exceptionally high rate of trauma exposure. Instead, we need to continue with what works, including ensuring that there are appropriate and accessible services within youths’ communities that are individually tailored and multifaceted to address risk factors at multiple levels: individual, family, school and community.

Shabnam Javdani, PhD (Associate Professor, Applied Psychology, NYU Steinhardt): We want to spotlight the potential treatment-to-prison pipeline whereby youth can be placed in residential treatment settings—locked facilities that typically use restraint and seclusion— without a legal record, without oversight or intention to be provided evidence-based or adequate treatment, and leave treatment with a criminal record. Since the late 1970s, national policy has tried to prohibit the unnecessary confinement of children and to deploy resources away from punishment and toward “rehabilitation”. Recognizing the real and neglected mental health needs of young people involved in the legal and court system, new facilities under the umbrella of “residential treatment” have flourished in the last two decades. Residential treatment placement represents 25% of all confinements for the over 2.2 million children and adolescents in the family court system. Most often, court-involved youth are mandated to residential treatment by family courts, but have not actually broken criminal law. Thus, it is troubling to note that there is no mandate for these residential settings to actually provide treatment – leading us to question whether residential treatment facilities are new settings that confine youth who have not broken the law under the false promise of treatment. Of even greater concern is the emerging evidence for a treatment-to-prison pipeline, whereby youth residents are charged with new offenses while they are living in treatment facilities. This is most likely to occur for Black and Brown youth residents, and especially for girls with histories of trauma. In one of our New York-based studies (forthcoming), we find that youth crime would drop by 25% if it were not possible to charge youth with crimes when they were residing in treatment facilities. This crime drop would affect 99% youth of color, and eliminate 75% of total girls’ crimes.

Vincent Southerland, JD (Assistant Professor, Clinical Law, NYU School of Law): Research shows the deleterious effects of harsh criminal justice interventions on the long term health and safety of communities. Moreover, these interventions exacerbate racial inequality and perpetuate cycles of disadvantage. This illustrates how the system is in need of broad-based reform and points to the value of investing instead in supports that address root causes of crime, including housing, employment, health, and education.

Sarah K. Cowan, PhD (Assistant Professor, Sociology, NYU Graduate School of Arts & Science): We propose that Mayor Adams consider giving families unconditional cash they can spend on anything, without meeting specific requirements to receive it. This proposal has a lot of excellent qualities: (1) it is administratively simple; (2) it provides families with greater autonomy and dignity than other ways of giving resources (i.e., vouchers, creating conditions for receiving money); (3) it helps parents have the families they desire and reduces inequality on spending on children; (4) it can empower people to leave unhealthy relationships and to forge new, more ambitious futures for themselves and their loved ones. 

William Tsai, PhD (Assistant Professor, Applied Psychology, NYU Steinhardt): There is a longstanding model minority stereotype that Asian Americans are well-off and not in need of resources or scientific attention. In fact, more Asians are in poverty according to the 2019 New York City NYC Government Poverty measure than their White, Black, and Hispanic counterparts. This is important because there is a strong association between socioeconomic status and health, especially among those who have been underserved and “unseen”, such as the Chinese immigrants living in NYC. In our recent study, we found that Chinese immigrant breast cancer survivors with lower SES (i.e., as measured by education level and annual household income) have higher levels of cancer-related fatigue and greater stress than their higher SES counterparts. We hope that adequate attention and resources are provided for the large percentage of Chinese immigrants who are living at or below the poverty level in NYC.

James Kemple, EdD (Executive Director, NYU Research Alliance for NYC Schools): Grounded in more than a decade of rigorous research, the Research Alliance's Blueprint for Advancing Equity in NYC Schools outlines recommendations for improving equity in NYC’s education system. These include recommendations for building a robust system of education equity indicators—focused on opportunities and resources, not just outcomes—and making the information public; disproportionately investing in schools and communities with the highest levels of need; providing intensive, individualized support for the most vulnerable students; leveraging innovation and learning from the last year; and linking reforms in education to reforms in other systems and agencies across City government.  

Kaitlyn O'Hagan (IES-PIRT Fellow and Doctoral Student at Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service): Evidence that the physical school environment has large and significant impacts on learning has grown over the past few years, and there is now robust evidence that attending a new school building has a positive impact on student outcomes. Recent research suggests that improvements in air quality and temperature control likely drive some of this effect, and the pandemic has prompted renewed interest in effective ventilation (indeed, Boston Public Schools recently unveiled a comprehensive dashboard that tracks air quality in schools at the classroom level). These research findings suggest there is a role for investments in school infrastructure to move beyond historic priorities of addressing overcrowding and responding to legislative mandates. School infrastructure investments can be a school improvement strategy in themselves, and targeted to address inequities in access to high-quality school facilities.

Charlton McIlwain, PhD (Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development, NYU Steinhardt) & Sebastian Cherng, PhD (Associate Professor, Applied Statistics, Social Science, and Humanities, NYU Steinhardt): ​​More of our aspiring students from underserved communities can succeed and thrive through high school, college and career when armed with the social capital accrued by engagement with college and university faculty, students, and staff. This approach is based on research, which has long shown that youth of color, on average, have higher educational aspirations than their White, middle-class peers, but are not yet equipped with the knowledge of career landscapes and how to navigate pathways into them. And there is no better place than universities to show young people their spectrum of academic and career options. Through a series of lectures by faculty and industry experts, interactive activities in small groups, and guided conversations with their mentors, College & Career Lab (CCL) provides free programming during the summer and now with touch points throughout the year. Moreover, middle school students who participate in our 'exploratory' track can choose 'immersive' programs in later years that focus on particular careers, such as STEM.