Poverty Report Attracting Attention Outside New York


By Tracie McMillan

City Limits • Sept. 25, 2006

New York City is planning to use new antipoverty initiatives to do more than help just the five boroughs’ poor. At a City Council hearing last week, officials said they’ll also be pushing a legislative agenda to complement the priorities set out in the report of the Commission on Economic Opportunity – a move that observers say could position NYC as a policy trendsetter nationwide.

“There’s many things we can do here locally, but many [for which] we need the partnership of both the state and the federal level,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda I. Gibbs, citing access to health insurance and increased workforce development funding as examples. “It is incumbent upon us to bring our advocacy to the state and federal agendas.”

That sounds good to poverty watchdogs in D.C. “It’s significant that the report is calling for the state and federal government to put poverty reduction and economic opportunity at the forefront of their agendas,” said Mark Greenberg, executive director of the Task Force on Poverty at the Center for American Progress, a research institute in Washington, D.C. “That could help enormously in advancing the national discussion.”

The commission has a new deadline of mid-November to assemble a plan of action for implementing the recommendations in the report, released last Monday, as well as developing the legislative agenda. The 47-page report’s main suggestions were to focus efforts on the working poor, children under age six, and youth ages 16 to 24; to develop a comprehensive set of standards, called an “economic opportunity index,” to chart program success against; to create an alternative to the federally-defined poverty line that would more accurately measure poverty; and to coordinate efforts and standards across different city agencies. Mayor Bloomberg also proposed providing a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child to help low-income families pay for child care, modeled on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

It’s unclear just how aggressive the city will be in related lobbying efforts. While New York City has been very active on Capitol Hill around work requirements contained in federal welfare reauthorization issues, for instance, it’s largely been done with a low profile.

That behind-the-scenes approach stands in stark contrast to the Mayor’s outspoken lobbying on issues such as gun control, a fact pressed by Councilmember Bill de Blasio, chairman of the council’s General Welfare Committee, at the hearing. “Is the mayor going to now say, based on this report, that some federal policies are just plain wrong?” he asked Gibbs. She responded by saying she was asked to bring back a list of issues to advocate for at both state and federal levels.

Whether it pursues aggressive lobbying or not, the city is positioning itself as “an incubator of innovation” in creating effective antipoverty initiatives, said Larry Aber, an NYU psychology professor who chaired the Commission on Economic Opportunity’s data and evaluation committee.

One such idea is the controversial “conditional cash transfer” program announced by Mayor Bloomberg last Monday, which would offer payments to poor families to reward constructive activities such as staying in school and keeping doctor’s appointments. Based on a Mexican program, the initiative also drew praise in the New York Post from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who suggested a similar initiative in a recent speech at New School University.

The city plans to raise private funds to support the cash transfer program during a two-year pilot program, rather than commit taxpayer dollars to an untested approach, Gibbs said. “If it has the kind of success it’s had in other countries, then we think that’s the evidence that will really merit consideration of the investment of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Some say the city’s new efforts have already put it on the cutting edge of antipoverty efforts nationwide. Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a progressive Washington, D.C. think tank, recently completed a nationwide survey of antipoverty initiatives (http://www.clasp.org/publications/targetingpovertytakingaimatabullseye.pdf) and says New York is the first city in the U.S. to commit to setting concrete, measurable goals for program success.

“A numerical target and timeline for achieving a goal on poverty helps…get things done,” said Levin-Epstein, citing initiatives to fight child poverty in the United Kingdom that have been considered successful in part because of a strict data-based approach. “If the recommendation is to set a city poverty target, and timeline, with metrics,” she said, that puts New York “on the front lines.”

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