Q&A: NYC's New Take On Poverty

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The move to alter New York’s measurement of who is poor is a project led by Mark Levitan, who works at the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO). The CEO was established by Mayor Bloomberg in Dec. 2006 to implement antipoverty programs recommended by his Commission for Economic Opportunity in its Sept. 2006 report, “Increasing Opportunity and Reducing Poverty in New York City.” With its $150 million annual budget, the CEO has designed and implemented several new initiatives, including Opportunity NYC, Access NYC and others. CEO staff monitor and evaluate the programs to track how effectively they are reducing poverty in New York City.

Levitan plays a key role in these evaluations. As the Center's director of poverty research, he oversees the center’s efforts to track poverty and indicators of well-being among the CEO’s target populations. Levitan has conducted policy-oriented research in nonprofit, college, trade union and government settings. Prior to joining the CEO in June, Levitan was a senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, where he authored influential studies on poverty, joblessness and the low-wage labor market. He has also held positions at Queens College, the state Department of Economic Development, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and the United Auto Workers. Levitan received his Ph.D. in economics from the New School for Social Research.

He spoke with reporter Tram Whitehurst on Nov. 8 about his efforts to develop an alternative poverty measure for New York City.

CITY LIMITS: As the director of poverty research, what is it exactly that you’re doing? Specifically, what are some of your goals and responsibilities?

MARK LEVITAN: Well, the mayor’s Commission on Economic Opportunity was tasked with the job of coming up with new programs, new ideas for alleviating poverty in the city.

In the course of their work there was a developing frustration. They felt that the conceptual tools they had for understanding who in the city was poor, gauging impact of current policy, forecasting the impact of proposals in terms of policy, that those tools were inadequate. They really couldn’t tell what they were doing. And so you’ll see in the Commission’s report to the mayor, there is a call for the city to develop new measures of poverty and wellbeing. And so me being here is an outgrowth of their frustration.

My approach to the job is really how to alleviate that frustration. So the things we’re going to be doing really have a bend towards being things that will create practical information for policy making. And there are essentially two products we’re thinking about. First, the Commission and the Center have focused on three target populations: children under 6, 16 to 24-year-old youth, and the working poor. We’re going to be issuing annual reports on each of those population groups. In those reports we’ll be looking at their wellbeing in a multidimensional context.

So for example, looking at the 16 to 24-year-olds, there’s sort of an overriding question about that group. People are moving from the end of childhood to the beginning of what we hope will be a successful adulthood. And we know the things that we’d like to see people accomplish in that period: that they come out of the school system successfully, that they find work when they leave school, that they avoid certain activities and bad experiences. We can look at people’s success at school, their attachment to the labor market, their engagement in risky behaviors, their engagement with the criminal justice system, and get some sense, each year, about the extent to which this group of the population is moving, or trends in a positive or negative direction. Or we can see some of the elements of those trends within that broad picture. We’ll be doing things in a similar vein for the youngest New Yorkers and for the working poor.

Second, we’re also going to do a yearly report on poverty in New York. And our poverty measure is going to be an improvement over the existing official measure. By poverty we mean a measure of income adequacy.

CITY LIMITS: Can you talk more specifically about what it’s going to look like? How is it envisioned right now?

MARK LEVITAN: Well, essentially we’re going to be traveling in the footsteps of a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences in the early ‘90s that was asked to come up with recommendations for revising the federal poverty measure. The panel’s recommendations have been out there now since 1995. They’ve been reviewed, discussed, researched extensively. I think that there’s a fair consensus among poverty experts that this measure of poverty is far superior to the one we have now – but it hasn’t been implemented. So we think that it will provide a more useful look at poverty in the city. We also hope that other people follow suit, and that eventually this is the poverty measure used at the federal level as well.

CITY LIMITS: What are the specifics of how this would be different than the current federal measure?

MARK LEVITAN: If you conceive of poverty as being a measure of income adequacy, then there are two things you need to pay attention to. One is, what’s your definition of resources – what counts as income? Second, what’s the yardstick that you’re measuring income against? And we feel that the official measure is flawed in both respects.

Let’s begin on the resource side. Right now the only resource that’s captured in the official measure is pre-tax cash income, and that’s just way too narrow. First of all, it doesn’t capture, as you might guess, the effect of taxation. People are paying taxes, which means they have less money available to meet needs, but low-income people in this country receive a lot in the way of tax credits, particularly the Earned Income Tax Credit. On a net basis, most working low-income people get more out of the tax system than they put in, in terms of income taxes. So there’s a resource that goes uncounted.

If you look at the evolution of spending over the last 20 or 30 years that’s geared towards putting resources in the pockets of low-income people in the U.S., more and more spending is going toward either tax credits or what you could call near-cash benefits. For example, food stamps. Food stamps are used like money to meet a basic need, but the value of food stamps is not included in this measure of pre-tax cash income. Think about a housing subsidy, a Section 8 subsidy. People use that to meet their basic need for housing. It’s not counted as pre-tax cash income. If people get a subsidy for transportation costs, or child care costs, those are not counted as resources.

So we end up with a measure that’s not capturing the things that government is doing to improve the lives of low-income people, and that’s kind of ridiculous. Here we advocate for these things, some of them come to pass, and then we can’t see their effect. It’s not a very useful measure in that regard.

Then we come to the other side, the threshold side. There are two sort of fundamental issues. One is that the threshold is not adjusted for differences in the cost of living across the country. So the threshold that applies in Manhattan is the threshold that applies in rural Mississippi. And we know that New York is an expensive place. And the threshold ought to reflect differences in the cost of living across the country.

The second thing is that the threshold is designed to be what in technical terms is called an absolute standard of poverty. The best way to explain that is the relationship between the threshold and the economic mainstream. When the threshold was developed in the early 1960s, the threshold for a family of two adults and two children just about equaled one-half of median income for a family of two adults, two children. If you looked at the value of the threshold now, it’s less than a third of the median income for a family of that type. And so what’s happening is that the distance between the poor and the economic mainstream has been growing over time. But if we think of poverty as a sort of “biological definition” – you know, people have a certain set of needs in terms of nutrition, housing, clothing – then if those needs are met, well then they’re not poor.

But a democratic society will view poverty not simply in terms of biology but in terms of human beings being essentially social creatures. And that speaks to the ability of people to participate in society. A lot of us feel that as the poverty threshold moves further away from the mainstream, we lose that social element of poverty: the ability of people to participate in all the roles that people need to in this society. If most people in the society are getting their information by the Internet, not having access to the Internet cripples your ability to fully participate. Now you may have enough food to eat, you may be able to keep a roof over your head, but your ability to participate in your community, in the political life of your city, of your country, to understand what’s happening in your child’s school, because that information is being posted on the Internet, all these things are closed to you. And so the poverty threshold needs to reflect the rising standard of living in the society as well. A poverty threshold that was appropriate 40 years ago is no longer appropriate today.

CITY LIMITS: You mentioned that that this could be a model for other cities. Has there been any interest from other localities? And the flip side of that, have you had any discussions with the federal government, because I’d imagine the differences between the data that you might be gathering could potentially cause some issues?

MARK LEVITAN: Well, we know that around the country there are various cities and some state governments that have been doing something akin to what was happening here in 2006. Mayors or governors have called together commissions to look at new approaches to addressing poverty in their localities. And the first question that seems to be coming up in these efforts is, well what do we mean by poverty? And when people look at the existing measure they say, hmm, well this isn’t all that useful.

I think we’re maybe six or 12 months ahead of a number of different efforts around the country in that respect. And we hope that we’ll be talking and partnering with people who are going down that road. I think we’ve got something to discuss with them, we have been thinking about this, and we’d be happy to share our thinking, and I’m sure we’d learn some things from them as well. We’ve also been talking to people on the House Ways and Means Committee, we’ve been having conversations with people at the Census Bureau. Just on the technical side, trying to understand what the challenges are in terms of actually implementing the measure.

CITY LIMITS: Is the data gained by the new measure going to be used to make programmatic decisions and determinations of funding? Or is it more to analyze the effectiveness of the programs? What’s the balance there?

MARK LEVITAN: I don’t think there will be a direct connection, at least not at first. I think we need to do our work and to see what shakes out of this. My hope is that it will provide some new insights, and that going forward people will use this to think about how we fashion our antipoverty efforts. But I can’t say at this point that because of the work that I’m going to be doing, this and this and this are going to follow from it. We’re going to provide a big picture analysis. I hope it will be informative, and I hope that the information will shape the conversation. But I can’t tell you how it will shape the conversation. We haven’t done the work yet.

CITY LIMITS: Do you anticipate that this would increase the poverty rate in New York City specifically? And if so, is that of concern either programmatically or politically speaking?

MARK LEVITAN: Let’s not speculate. Six months from now we’ll have a conversation, and we’ll have some data in front of us and we can talk about how the poverty rate has been changed. I actually don’t think that whether the poverty rate is a little bit higher or a little bit lower is really all that important. I think what’s important about the poverty rate is: Do we have a good measure, number one? Number two, is poverty going down or going up? And I think the third thing is: Who is living below the line? And maybe the most important piece of information we get from this new measure is that it changes our picture of who’s in need, of who’s poor.

CITY LIMITS: You mentioned six months from now. Is that when you might have your first hard data?

MARK LEVITAN: I think we’re looking toward mid-2008.

CITY LIMITS: You had also mentioned that this might bring to light some new people in need. Why were the three groups that you were talking about before, why were they chosen as the groups to really focus on as part of these anti-poverty measures?

MARK LEVITAN: Well, these were the groups that were targeted by the commission in 2006. My sense of what the commissioners were feeling was that these groups had some strategic importance in terms of the overall mission of alleviating poverty in the city. So there was a basic strategy in mind about picking these groups.

CITY LIMITS: How might our perception be changed in terms of the bigger picture of what poverty is, and who it affects?

MARK LEVITAN: I think we’re getting into the realm of the hypothetical, so it wouldn’t be meaningful to talk about it now. We’ll get to it next year.

CITY LIMITS: This could be a kind of accountability tool to see how effective the programs really are. How is the city doing that currently?

MARK LEVITAN: The reports that I’m going to be working on—the population reports and the poverty measure—are not intended to be program evaluations. And they’re not agency performance reviews either. Other people do those things. All the CEO programs are going to undergo a rigorous analysis and assessment for program effects. But that’s not my bailiwick; we’re not trying to do that. We’re taking a more big-picture, long-run vision of what’s happening with these particular population groups or what’s happening to low-income New Yorkers taken as a whole.

CITY LIMITS: The CEO is a big initiative of the Bloomberg administration. Is there a sense that this work needs to get done by the end of this term? Or do you think that as a change in leadership occurs, the work can continue?

MARK LEVITAN: We want to do our job so well that the next mayor will continue it because the public will expect her or him to continue on.

CITY LIMITS: You’ve been working on poverty issues for a long time, doing research looking in at the public sector. What made you decide to make the switch and become part of the city government? And how has that changed the work that you’re doing or your ability to do it?

MARK LEVITAN: I thought about what could I contribute at this stage of my life. What was most important to me? Sort of an existential question. Here I am on the outside sort of rattling the cage in my own small way—‘you should pay more attention to poverty.’ Somebody comes along and they do just that. And I thought, okay, well good. And I guess the thing that really pushed me over the edge was that the last thing I wanted to happen was for the CEO effort to be one more thing that people look back on and say, see, you really can’t do anything about poverty. Of all the things that could happen to me, that would be the worst result. And so I thought to myself, what could I do to prevent that from happening? What could I bring to the table? I’m a researcher, that’s my skill. I thought, if I could bring my research skills into the fold here and help move part of the agenda, that was a worthwhile thing to do.

– Tram Whitehurst

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