With estimates of the city’s poor population nearing 2 million, elected officials last week raised fundamental questions about the scope, accessibility and impact of the Bloomberg administration’s Center for Economic Opportunity programs.

Almost two years after Mayor Bloomberg announced the creation of the CEO to fight poverty, the City Council held its first oversight hearing on the results of the new initiative on Oct. 30. While both witnesses and councilmembers said they were hopeful about the center’s programs, city officials said it’s too soon to determine what effect they’re having. And several councilmembers expressed concerns about whether these pilot projects can ever be expanded enough to significantly affect the city’s large needy population.

The joint hearing of the Council’s general welfare and community development committees, chaired by Brooklyn Councilmen Bill de Blasio and Al Vann respectively, focused on three CEO programs: Opportunity NYC, the set of “conditional cash transfer” programs in which poor families are paid small cash sums for everything from going to the doctor to getting good school test scores; the Sector-Focused Career Center, set up to help connect low-wage workers with jobs in better-paying industries; and Employment Works, designed to place individuals on probation from the criminal justice system in jobs.

De Blasio set the tone in his opening remarks, noting that under the mayor’s new poverty measure introduced this summer to update the federal standard, the city’s estimate of 1.5 million of its residents living in poverty jumps to 1.845 million – including one-third of children under five – largely due to a recognition of the city’s high housing costs. “That’s tremendously troubling,” said de Blasio. “We need to think about a war on poverty, not a skirmish.”

The bulk of the two-hour hearing was filled with testimony by CEO Executive Director Veronica White, who was appointed by Bloomberg in Dec. 2006 to oversee 41 new and existing anti-poverty programs across various agencies. (Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs, who selected most of the new programs, was invited to the Council hearing but did not attend.) Opportunity NYC, White testified, is currently entering its second year, funded with $47 million in private money. It has 2,400 families enrolled in the cash transfer program, and an additional 2,400 in an unpaid control group that will be used to evaluate how successful the payments – which range from $25 for attending a parent-teacher conference to $150 a month for holding down a full-time job – are at lifting people out of poverty.

As for how well it’s working, White couldn’t begin to say. The only data the CEO has yet received, she said, are school performance figures for the enrolled families, and even then not for the control group. Individual surveys to determine such things as whether participants are seeing doctors more frequently and procuring library cards are being prepared now for a rollout next spring. (As City Limits Investigates reported in April, the private agencies overseeing Opportunity NYC did not set up a control group that simply receives cash payments without requirements – a consultant to the city said it was considered, but the evaluation was going to be “complicated enough” as is – meaning it will be difficult to determine whether any positive effects are due to the behavioral incentives, or merely the increased cash participating families will have on hand, along with other program benefits like no-fee checking accounts.)
Small Business Services Deputy Commissioner for Workforce Development Angie Kamath reported that her agency’s new career center’s aim is to place 650 unemployed and low-wage workers in quality jobs – defined as paying at least $10 an hour, plus benefits – in the transportation industry by summer. The Workforce 1 NYC Transportation Center is sited in Jamaica, Queens, which is both a high-poverty neighborhood and close to JFK Airport. The idea, she said, is “not just about getting a job, but really about moving people up a career pathway.” The center is already ahead of its target, she reported, having made 133 placements in its first three months, “so this is a promising start.”

As for Employment Works, Kamath said it provides not just job placement but “intensive career coaching and skills training” to people on probation, with the hope it will not only help them obtain quality jobs (here defined as anything over $9 an hour), but result in reduced recidivism. The program has a goal of 600 people placed in the first year, and is well on its way, Kamath said, though she didn’t provide exact figures.

With data on the CEO programs’ outcomes still largely unavailable, much of the questioning focused on the larger issue of what the Bloomberg administration has planned once these pilot projects have been evaluated. When White said successful programs would be “revved up,” Vann replied, “I’m wondering what ‘revving up’ means, particularly in the climate we now find ourselves.” Added de Blasio: “I believe, by and large, that a lot of what you’re doing is working. But I have this nagging concern about scale and timeline. What’s the vision of building this out?”

White replied that a handful of CEO programs are already being expanded: the transportation career center in Jamaica, she said, “has been such a success” that the city will open two more sector centers in the spring; it will also open five new financial counseling centers modeled on one that’s been set up in the Bronx. But given the constraints of the city budget, she admitted, any substantial expansion will likely depend on help from Washington, through increased funding for such programs as the federal Workforce Investment Act.

The Council hearing started late, as several councilmembers were off attending a related announcement by Bloomberg of 18 initiatives to help the city’s most vulnerable deal with instability caused by the economic crisis. The initiatives include expanded capacity at the transportation career center, along with job creation through infrastructure investment and eco-friendly retrofitting of buildings; job placement assistance for laid-off information technology and financial sector workers; transformation of foreclosed properties into affordable housing; increased food assistance for senior citizens, food pantries and soup kitchens; and an expanded free breakfast program in the public schools.

In further questioning, Councilwomen Melissa Mark Viverito, Gail Brewer, and Helen Diane Foster expressed frustration that their offices had gotten little information on CEO programs available in their districts. “You need to involve some of us who are seeing people who are unemployed,” said Brewer. “You have to be a genius to find [a CEO program] if you’re just Joe Schmo walking down the street.” She also worried that in a time of shrinking philanthropy, even the grant-funded Opportunity NYC could end up “sucking money out of nonprofits” that are already facing increased program needs and reduced budgets.

White said she would work to set up more informational meetings with councilmembers, and said the point about funding was “well-taken.”

Finally, several representatives of nonprofit and low-income groups testified. While they, too, were generally supportive of the CEO’s current initiatives, several, including two members of the low-income group Community Voices Heard and Citizens’ Committee for Children Senior Policy Associate Susan Wieler, expressed frustration that the mayor’s new programs do not address the needs of many poor people, in particular those receiving public assistance. “When you think about the three groups the CEO is targeting – kids zero to five, the working poor, youth out of work 16 to 24 – if you flip that around, what that means is that if you’re 25 and don’t have a job, the CEO is not addressing you,” Wieler said.

After the hearing, de Blasio in an interview elaborated on his concerns that the CEO, while promising, has no clear plans for a “phase two” once its initial pilot evaluations are done. “It seems like in general when it comes to fighting poverty, there’s a generic lowering of expectations that this administration does,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how you move anything forward.” Starting with limited programs and then scouting around for available funding, de Blasio maintained, is “a formula for guaranteed incrementalism, and that’s not what we need right now. God bless ’em for their new measure on poverty, but 1.8 million people? You can’t approach that incrementally.”

– Neil deMause