Bloomberg’s War on Poverty


By Tracie McMillan

The Huffington Post • Sept. 19, 2006

With the Katrina anniversary come and gone, it’s unclear how quickly poverty will recede from public debate. But in New York City, it was yanked back to center stage by yesterday’s announcement of the findings of a high-profile antipoverty commission chartered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Taking on poverty at the local level is a bold proposition–not least because much of the funding for antipoverty initiatives comes from the feds. It’s also an increasingly necessary approach as the federal government further abdicates responsibility for doing so, and funding correspondingly recedes. As such, the experiment in New York helps illuminate a couple important ideas about contemporary poverty–and government’s role in alleviating it.

At first glance, you won’t find much that’s surprising in the suggested policy changes, which push for aiding three discrete groups–the working poor, young people aged 16-24, and children under six years of age. The suggestions here are all fairly sound, relying heavily on Bloomberg’s healthy obsession with measuring progress and targeting efforts accordingly. It’s also worth noting that the suggestions reflect policies that (mostly) have been tested elsewhere and/or been urged by policy wonks for some time.

Yet there is a real shocker in there, if you know where to look: Not at the policies, per se, but at the philosophies undergirding them.

Stealth radical solution number one is to establish an online screening process, accessible from any internet connection, where people can input basic information about themselves and see what public programs they might qualify for–and how much aid they’re likely to receive. That way, people can spend a few hours checking out what programs they ought to go to the bother of applying for (many require in-person interviews and extensive application processes).

It’s easy to pooh-pooh this idea, given the lack of internet access and literacy in low-income communities, not to mention the fact that–as we all know–techie solutions can often get mired in techie problems. But step back and take a look at its premise: Public benefits should be convenient to access and easy to navigate. In New York City, as with other localities that pursued a conservative “work first” approach to welfare reform, the status quo has been to pursue “diversion”–to intentionally make benefits so onerous to receive and maintain that many people, whether through accident or frustration, leave the rolls. An intelligible online screening process doesn’t just make it easier to get aid, but makes government less of a mean-spirited, stingy benefactor–and more of a willing one. What’s more, the commission is looking to eventually execute applications online, in theory making it possible for people to bypass most of the rigamarole completely.

Surprise number two brings a little bit of Europe to American shores, by measuring relative poverty. (There was an excellent John Cassidy piece in the New Yorker earlier this year.) Basically, the city would begin defining poverty in relation to the median income–probably about 60-70 percent of it, as is the case in the United Kingdom. That’s a sizeable shift. Federal guidelines currently define a family of four poor at about $18,800, no matter where you live. In New York City, the median income is $43,434 (family size unclear); a 70 percent of measure would set the poverty line at $30,403. What’s more, the city wants to create a separate index of “economic opportunity” to measure well-being–characteristics that reflect “commonly held notions of poverty.” In short, rather than restricting aid to as small and needy a group as possible–long a hallmark of American social policy–the city would, in theory, broaden its notion of poverty, and hence the people it serves.

Taken together, the two initiatives could suggest a new way to approach poverty in America, one that has its roots not in ideology or even ideals, but in simple pragmatism. At best, you might call it radical bureaucracy: Taking as a given that rather than eliminating government, we ought to make it function more smoothly, and while we’re at it, offer help to people who might need only a little–as well as the ones who need a lot.

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