From a podium in Staten Island in late January, 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered a bold promise for his second term. “Today,” he told the array of city leaders who had gathered for his State of the City address, “I am committing to a major reduction in the number of children, women and men who live in poverty in this city over the next four years.”
Bloomberg was saluted, even by his critics, for wading into the complex challenges of fighting poverty in New York City. But the mayor said he wanted accountability, not accolades. “It's very easy to have a press conference and announce something and say you're going to do it,” Bloomberg said later in 2006. “I've always believed that the public should hold elected officials accountable for actually delivering on what they promise.”
In its spring issue –Target of Opportunities, released today – City Limits Investigates follows the mayor’s advice and takes a close look at what his initiative really promised to do, some of the programs that is has launched, and some of the areas of city policy where it did not tread.
Bloomberg’s Staten Island statement signaled a change: The mayor who had barely mentioned “poverty” in his first term soon named a high-octane panel to study the problem. Within a year, he’d launched a new city office, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), to implement a raft of anti-poverty programs. And by the end of 2007, City Hall was boasting no fewer than 31 programs as part of its plan, with 10 more soon to come.
It seemed that Bloomberg—no stranger to big ideas, what with his $7.5 billion affordable housing plan and his takeover of the Board of Education—had decided to tackle one of the city’s oldest and largest problems. From the 1730s when the city’s almshouses sheltered only a few hundred people, New York City's poor residents had increased by 2007 to 1.5 million, a number larger than the total population of all but four American cities – and about as many people as live in the borough of Manhattan.
But CEO never promised to help all the poor. Its strategy was to target specific groups within the poor population: the working poor, children age 5 and under and people aged 16 to 24 who are “out of school and out of work.” And even for those groups, the plan is as modest as it is noble, offering a few new ideas, expanding several existing city initiatives and saying very little about issues like housing for the very poor, homelessness and welfare.
Some CEO efforts seem like good common sense, like creating new high school health clinics, striving to increase receipt of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and making the city's 311 helpline accessible to the non-English-speaking poor.
The CEO’s highest-profile policy to date—the Opportunity NYC cash grant, which awards small bonuses to low-income families who complete self-improving tasks like taking their kids to the doctor—is a landmark effort in the United States. But for now, it’s a small-scale, privately-funded pilot program involving a few thousand families. A human experiment, Opportunity NYC’s first results aren’t in—but even if it succeeds for the pilot group, there are doubts that it offers a large-scale solution to poverty. Like other critics, poor people themselves question the premise behind the program.
“People seem enthused—$25 for some families might make a difference if their kid can get something to wear for the first day of school,” says one pilot program member about her fellow participants. “But they also have the same questions: 'Why do you think I need to be paid to do these types of things?'”
In other policy areas, the city's actions sends mixed messages: encouraging food stamp enrollment, but fingerprinting those who apply; offering a child care tax credit for the working poor, but moving to close some publicly funded day care centers; highlighting the plight of the working poor, but steering clear of any direct efforts to raise the wages of low-end work. And it directs scant attention to the Human Resources Administration—the agency that still administers 350,000 welfare cases, and punishes a substantial share of the caseload with benefit cuts for rule violations.
“What, pragmatically, I think we acknowledge is that we're not going to solve poverty on our own in New York City without broader forces helping,” Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, told City Limits Investigates reporter Neil deMause. “We believe we can make a dent in it, and we can improve it for a lot of people.”
The Bloomberg plan is arguably the most serious mayoral anti-poverty effort in the 42 years since John Lindsay took office promising to improve the way the city distributed federal War on Poverty funds. After the ravages of the fiscal crisis, Ed Koch built affordable housing but cut redistributive programs. Amid the early 1990s recession, welfare expanded under David Dinkins, who implemented modest welfare reforms. His successor Rudolph Giuliani reduced welfare rolls, ramped up the city's workfare programs and made it harder to get public benefits like food stamps. But no recent mayor has promised something like a “major reduction” in poverty, devoted a new city office to achieving it or promoted as wide an array of anti-poverty programs as Bloomberg has.
What won’t be certain is whether the anti-poverty initiative has the political legs to survive – or the scale to really make a difference. Bloomberg will hand over his poverty plan to a successor in less than two years. With the economy faltering, poverty is likely to become a larger problem even as the city’s resources for tackling it shrink. CEO will be remembered either for making major strides – or treading water.
For more information on “Target of Opportunities,” click here.