Fur hats. Felt hats. Fedoras. Wool hats. Ski hats. Mufflers. Scarves. Mittens. When it's this cold out, out comes the gear. And the people – about 75 brave souls who showed up all bundled up for the 24th annual People's State of the State address to advocate for those left out in the cold by budget cuts.
The Weather Channel reported it was 7 degrees in downtown Albany in the highest sunshine of the day, but with the wind chill it felt like -12. With the wind shearing up State Street from the Hudson River, the plucky people standing outside the cold granite Capitol building were shivering. But determined.
Speakers who hailed from activist groups, workers' rights groups, fiscal equity organizations, and those who care for the needy reminded lawmakers that 3 million New Yorkers relied on food pantries and soup kitchens last year and demands on emergency food pantries grew by 13% last year alone. Since 2007, the number of New Yorkers relying on food pantries has doubled as the recession hit and as so many jobs withered.
"Are food pantries and soup kitchens a solution to hunger?" asked Mark Dunlea, director of Hunger Action Network of New York State. Beneath his wide-brimmed hat, his breath blew out in cold, white swirls each time he spoke.
"NO!" shouted the crowd.
Better wages, including an improved minimum wage, are better solutions to the economic problems facing the state and nation, rather than more tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations, Dunlea said.
Here's a cold, hard fact: New York state has the greatest income equality of any state in the country, said Sara Niccoli, director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State.
"We have record hunger. Record homelessness. Record child poverty," said Ron Deutsch, director of the New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. Years of cuts to human services and education have hit people hard.
NYSUT is among the groups working toward solutions.
"We have an opportunity this year we haven't had in the last five years," said Andy Pallotta, executive vice president of NYSUT, who joined the crowd along with leaders and workers from PEF, SEIU, CSEA and other labor organizations. "There is actually a budget surplus, and the best way to spend it is through education and health care. Over the past five years there's been so many cuts, and we need to take this opportunity to restore important programs and services."
"It's a cold day in New York," said Billy Easton, director of the Alliance for Quality Education, describing not the temperature, but the proposals to cut taxes for bankers and on millionaire estates when human services are suffering.