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, ,',
The walk to school on Fox Street, in one of the poorest areas of the Bronx. Cover image: People living and working in high poverty
areas of the city. Individuals pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Amina, a home health aide; Gisell, a bodega worker; Deborah, an artist; and
Thomas, a handyman. Photos: Jarrett Murphy
During 2006, Mayor Bloomberg both announced the creation of his Center for Economic
Opportunity (CEO) and promised a "major reduction" in poverty in New York City over the
next four years.
This issue of City Limits Investigates takes a look at the state of the mayor's promise and the
staying power of the initiatives he kicked off 16 months ago. Just as important, we examine the
fundamental question of just what is, and isn't, a part of this effort
Looming large over this plan is a digital clock that sits above the mayor and his staff's of-
fices in City Hall's now almost-famous "bullpen." It is relentless in its counting down of the
days, hours, minutes and seconds left in his second term.
The mayor is appropriately fond of extolling the virtues of a culture of innovation and
experimentation, but the clock tells the tale of a limit the mayor never had to face during the
building of his Bloomberg LP empire: how to make sure experiments conducted today go
to scale and live on after his administration has left the stage. Transforming a privately held
corporation, where one can call all the shots for decades, and transforming a bureaucratic
government, where the prerogatives and priorities of incumbency last only as long as one's
term in office, are two very different challenges. At the risk of sounding like Chauncey
Gardiner-the famous idiot savant from the film "Being There"-the delicate seedlings of
change are difficult to transplant With so many intersecting and interdependent policies,
federally derived funding streams, competing agencies, and vested interests, developing
and demonstrating new ways to fight poverty at the end of a second mayoral term is hard
enough. When that effort is put together with a premium on smaller-scaled, budget-con-
strained experiments, achieving any continuity may prove elusive.
Despite the boldness of some of the press releases and pronouncements surrounding
this effort, the work of the CEO, by design, has left large questions unexamined and large
swaths of poverty policy outside its mandate and focus.
Whether it's not attempting any far-reaching reform at the city's Human Resources Ad-
ministration (the main city vehicle for anti-poverty programs) or failing to maximize the
impact of city's own Earned Income Tax Credit (one of the few tools under city control
that puts money directly back in the pockets of the working poor), the Bloomberg anti-
poverty effort has chosen very carefully what it will and will not do. From privately funded
experiments with conditional cash transfers to initiatives focusing on financial literacy and
improving communication among the city's social service agencies and the Departments of
Probation and Correction, there are many laudable or provocative ideas that might point to
new directions.
In the end, though, it's still not clear how much the city is obligating itself to in this new
campaign against poverty, what results it is capable of producing for New York's 1.5 million
poor-or whether this mayor's first salvo will lead to a broader war.
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Can NYC tackle
poverty one
incentive at a time?
I. The podium
II. In with the new-and the old
III. Money for something
IV. Hope, and hang-ups
V. Making (some) work pay
VI. Missing pieces
VII. Just getting by
Measured Steps
Seeking a truer poverty count
Livin' in the City
A briefhistory of New Yorks poor
Earned & Burned
Uneven efforts to make work pay
When Push Comes
The data on displacement
A Federal Case?
Predicting a presidential poverty policy
Jarrett Murphy
Investigations Editor
Karen Loew
Web and Weekly Editor
Abraham Paulos
News Assistant
Andy Breslau
Executive DirectorlPublisher
Jennifer Gootman
Deputy Director
Ahmad Dowla
Administrative Assistant
Margaret Anadu, Michael Connor, Russell Dubner,
Ken Emerson, David Lebenstein, Gail O. Mellow,
Gifford Miller, Lisette Nieves, Andrew Reicher,
Ira Rubenstein, John Siegal, Karen Thella,
Peter Williams, Mark Winston Griffith
Can Mayor Bloomberg really tackle
poverty one incentive at a time?
1. The podium
Early in the morning of December 18,
2006, the Lower East Side People's
Federal Credit Union on Avenue B was
a bustle of activity. The credit union-
which opened for business in 1986 at a
time when what's now the East Village
was devoid of the banks and young pro-
fessionals that populate the area today-
had a large space cleared at its center
for a podium bearing the mayoral seal.
Reporters settled into chairs laid out for
the occasion as camera crews jostled for
position in the cramped confines.
A few credit union customers and
neighborhood residents looked on curi-
ously as they waited to do their banking.
One, a middle-aged man with a walker,
looked up from the teller line when he
heard that the mayor was en route to
make a major announcement about city
poverty policy. With a mix of hope and
sarcastic resignation in his voice, he
asked, "Is he going to have housing for
low-income people like me?"
This was not going to be that kind of
poverty-fighting plan. Three months
earlier, the 33-person commission that
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ap-
pointed to come up with a plan for ad-
dressing poverty had returned with its
4 SPRING 2008
recommendations; now the mayor was
to describe how he would turn its vision
into a war on poverty unlike any that
went before. In the coming months, he
promised, City Hall would roll out more
than 30 new programs to "increase op-
portunity," as he put it. "Conventional
approaches, as we know, have kept us
in this vicious cycle of many people
not being able to work their way out
of poverty, even though they're doing
everything that we've asked them to
do," declared the mayor, adding that all
too often government "didn't seem to
learn the lesson that throwing money
at a problem isn't necessarily going to
solve it."
The impulse to break with the past
extended into the mayor's terminology:
Poor people were not "poor," but rather
"starting their way up the economic lad-
der"; the new interagency office whose
director Bloomberg introduced during
the event was dubbed the Center for
Economic Opportunity, or CEO. It was a
contrast to both traditional liberal social
programs and the often scorched-earth
policies of his City Hall predecessor, Ru-
dolph Giuliani.
It was also a remarkable turnabout
for a mayor whose background was in
business, not social services, and who
had seldom even mentioned the word
"poverty" during his first term. Over
Bloomberg's time in office, the official
city poverty figures have remained
steady at around 1.5 million people-
one in five New Yorkers, as many people
as the entire population of Manhattan.
(Or, looked at another way, more people
than voted for Bloomberg in both his
elections combined.) The rate of child
poverty, at about 30 percent, or 600,000
kids, has also remained flat over the
Bloomberg years.
Bloomberg himself seemed to ac-
knowledge the skepticism that a multibil-
lionaire businessman could be the one to
solve the woes of New York's less well
off, saying, "It's very easy to have a press
conference and announce something
and say you're going to do it It's quite a
different thing to actually do it, and I've
always believed that the public should
hold elected officials accountable for ac-
tually delivering on what they promise."
Sixteen months later, CEO's programs
are mostly in place; in December, the
center issued a summary of its "31 anti-
poverty programs" that ran 153 pages.
It's now possible to assess what Bloom-
berg's poverty campaign looks like and
what it does and doesn't promise to do.
Today, the city's anti-poverty programs
Bootstraps and sneaker laces suspend footwear from a cable in the Bronx. near a census tract in which all 169 residents live below the poverty
line. Throughout this issue are images of people and places in high-poverty areas of all five boroughs. Photo: JM
Orsbanksy's poverty measure may have outlived its usefulness.
Photo: Social Security Administration
Seeking a truer poverty count
In 2001, "The West Wing" aired a Thanksgiving episode in which the
White House communications director and his deputy discuss the im-
plications of a proposed new federal poverty measurement. "What was
wrong with the old formula?" Toby (Richard Schiff) asks an anxious Sam
(Rob Lowe). "I don't know," Lowe answers, then adds. "It's possible that
this is a statistical reality and not a political finding."
Unfortunately for statistical reality, defining and measuring pov-
erty in the United States has long been political. Few social workers,
activists or academics would defend the current poverty measure. Yet
policymakers in Washington have dragged their feet over fixing today's
broken formula, knowing-as Lowe's character hinted-that a new
calculation is likely to increase the poverty rate. So a misleading mea-
sure remains in use, obsolete at age 43.
In the years before President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty,
quantifying poverty amounted to little more than drawing a proverbial
line in the sand. Progressive-Era social workers. state labor bureaus and
the Depression-era federal Works Progress Administration developed
various measures of income inequality, but by 1945 those poverty cal-
culations had lost any relationship to family needs. Thresholds were set
without a consistent policy rationale. In 1960, for example, families of any
size with incomes less than $3,000 were considered low-income.
The person who unwittingly led the federal government toward a
more systematic poverty measure was Mollie Orshansky, a Social Security
Administration staff economist and statistician who developed a matrix
of more than 120 poverty thresholds based on variations like household
size and composition. Known as Mollie's Measure, the formula was never
actually intended to be a measure of poverty, but rather an agency re-
search tool. Orshansky used a straightforward methodology that started
with Department of Agriculture survey data showing that the average
American family spent about one third of its income on food. She then
took another Department of Agriculture figure-the cost in dollars of a
"minimally adequate" diet-and multiplied it by three for a variety of
family sizes. Working under great political pressure to track the success
of the War on Poverty, Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity adopted
the measure in 1965. Since then, the only significant change to the mea-
sure has been its annual update for inflation.
6 SPRING 2008
The list of flaws in that federal formula runs long. One is that adjust-
ing the poverty line only to reflect annual changes in the Consumer Price
Index is anachronistic: Calibrating a family's purchasing power today to
that of the late '60s, even as wage growth has outpaced price growth by
roughly 30 percent since that time (according to some measures), masks
rising living standards and tacitly accepts a growing distance between
haves and have-nots.
Another major concern is that today's poverty thresholds misgauge
income. Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau measures a family's pre-tax
income against the poverty line, which exaggerates the resources actually
available to that family after taxes. At the same time, the poverty measure
ignores additions to family income from benefits like food stamps, Sec-
tion 8 housing vouchers and Medicaid, as well as cash transfers like the
Earned Income Tax Credit. This makes it more difficult to assess the effect
that government policies have on poverty.
The measure also makes little intuitive sense. A 21 st-century resident
of New York City would be shocked to see her family budget dominated
by food costs as much as Mollie's Measure suggests. Families today spend
not a third but closer to one-sixth of their family budget on food, while
other basic needs-especially housing-soak up a much bigger share of
financial resources. What's more, necessary expenses like child care are al-
together excluded from the poverty calculus. largely because in the 1960s
child care was presumed to be Mom's job, not a family budget line.
The current measure also lacks any consideration of regional differ-
ences in costs of living. A family of four living on $21,000 in Jackson,
Miss., could not afford the same lifestyle in New York City, yet the poverty
line doesn't recognize the difference; in either place, the family would
remain above the official 2007 poverty threshold of $20,650.
Mayor Bloomberg wants to replace the federal government's math
with a new, more realistic formula-arguing that a better measure is
necessary to realistically judge his anti-poverty programs. "Mayor Bloom-
berg comes from the data world," says Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the
Manhattan Institute, referring to the mayor's number-crunching business
background. "If you don't trust the data going in, you can't rely on the
results coming out."
The mayor's proposed measure is based on a set of recommendations
made by a 1995 National Academy of Sciences panel. The new poverty
threshold would be set to 80 percent of median expenditures on a "bas-
ket" of necessary living expenses such as shelter. utilities, clothing and
food-updated annually for inflation and adjusted geographically for
price differences. At the same time, the definition of family resources
would use after-tax income, add the value of benefits, and subtract work-
related expenses like child care and out-of-pocket medical payments.
The head of the city's effort to revise policy measurements is Mark Levi-
tan, who told City Limits Weekly in November: "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?"
Levitan and the Center for Economic Opportunity looked at a num-
ber of alternatives in constructing their new methodology. Some mea-
sures-like the ·self-sufficiency standard" developed for the Women's
Center for Education and Career Advancement, as well as the "basic
needs budget" developed by the National Center for Children in Poverty
at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health-maintain the
budget-based method that Orshansky applied. In other words, they use
the basic cost of living in New York City in
an assessment of income inadequacy.
But other approaches to measuring
poverty are available. The European Union
relies on a relative concept of poverty. In
contrast to the absolute poverty concept
used in the United States, the EU keys
poverty thresholds to 60 percent of medi-
an annual income. Other social measures,
like the one used by the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP), rate
countries on a scale in which income is
only one variable among many. NYU pro-
fessor Walter Stafford has created a well-
being index for New York City that adapts
the UNDP's national classifications to rate
the city's neighborhoods.
The disagreement over competing con-
cepts and methodologies has resulted in
uncoordinated data gathering-some-
thing the United Nations Statistics Divi-
sion will try to address with the upcoming
publication of the "Handbook on Poverty
Statistics: Concepts, Methods and Policy
Use," which makes the case for a uniform
system of national as well as worldwide
poverty monitoring.
However, Bloomberg isn't waiting for
global bureaucratic thinking to align, and
his move toward a new measure could
spur other big-city mayors-and even the
feds-to follow. "Historically, changes [at
the federallevell have come from the bot-
tom up," says Jared Bemstein, the director
of the Living Standards program at the
Economic Policy Institute in Washington,
D.C. • Much of our safety net is a response
to social problems at the state and local
level that have become so pervasive that
they had to be addressed at the top."
But if the mayor's initiative does build
a critical mass of support for changing the
national poverty guidelines, will a new
federal administration swallow the bitter
pill of statistical reality? At the end of that
·West Wing" episode, Schiffs character
asks the president's campaign strategist
played by Ron Silver. how the administra-
tion could possibly handle a rise in poverty
numbers and still win re-election.
Silver flashes a look of exasperation
and asks, • Are you telling me that this
formula's been broken for years and the
other guys haven't fixed it?"
Then he suggests they go out for a stiff
drink. -Minna Ninova
include some interesting and bold ideas, as well as long-standing efforts that have
been rejuvenated by the CEO initiative. The mayor, as even many of his critics admit,
deserves a great deal of credit for deciding to take on poverty after cruising to a com-
manding re-election victory.
There's no question, though, that poverty was an obvious and pressing problem;
for the mayor to ignore the city's poor would be equivalent to turning his back
on a population the size of Philadelphia. And whatever the good intentions of the
CEO, New York City's response to poverty remains replete with puzzling gaps and
missed opportunities. For every aspect of poverty that Bloomberg is attempting to
address with a new program, there's another where the city is running in place-or
moving backward.
With New York City's economy slowing and budget gaps in the offing, poverty
is set to become an even more compelling crisis in the years to come, and the CEO
sends mixed messages on how prepared the city will be to meet that large and
growing challenge. As one longtime city anti-poverty advocate remarked about
the mayor's plan, "A lot of people that I like are involved in parts of it, but I don't
know what it adds up to."
II. In with the new-and the old
The public transformation of Mike Bloomberg into a poverty fighter began in Janu-
ary 2006, with the elevation of Linda Gibbs, then head of the Department of Home-
less Services, to the newly created position of deputy mayor for health and human
services. Two weeks later, Bloomberg made poverty fighting one of the centerpieces
of his State of the City address, declaring, ''Today I am committing to a major reduc-
tion in the number of children, women and men who live in poverty in this city over
the next four years," and announcing plans for a "public-private task force"-head-
ed by Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons and Geoffrey Canada, director of
the much-lauded community service provider Harlem Children's Zone-to "attack
chronic unemployment and poverty in the homes and neighborhoods where the
The poverty rate in New York City is
below its 1980s and 1990s highs, but still
higher than it was in the late 1970s or at
the start of this century.
i5 30
~ 25
~ 20
~ 15
Source: Current Population Survey, two-year
moving averages [or calendar years. Courtesy of the
Community Service Society.
SPRING 2008 7
Bloomberg announces his poverty commission's findings, backed by human services
chief Linda Gibbs (left), then-HRA head Verna Eggleston (center) and Time Warner chairman
Richard Parsons. Photo: Ci ty Hall
need is greatest."
Much of the responsibility for making
this push a reality would fall to Gibbs, a
lifelong liberal with a degree in govern-
ment law. Gibbs entered city govern-
ment as a staff attorney for the Charter
Revision Commission which revamped
the City Council and abolished the
Board of Estimate during the mayoralty
of Ed Koch, then was brought back by
Giuliani as a deputy director of the Office
of Management and Budget. Giuliani lat-
er moved her to a deputy commissioner
post at the newly created Administration
for Children's Services (ACS) , a job that
she held until Bloomberg selected her to
be commissioner for the Department of
Homeless Services in early 2002. Gibbs
tells City Limits that after her former
posts, she was excited at the opportunity
Bloomberg gave her in 2006 to "go be-
yond the immediate mission-keep the
8 SPRING 2008
child safe, ensure that you have a shelter
for someone who's without a home-and
talk more about the root causes" as the
chief of the anti-poverty effort.
Gibbs turned to a familiar cast of
characters for advice on that new,
broader mission. To fill out the mayor's
Commission for Economic Opportunity,
Gibbs picked a collection of local
nonprofit and business leaders, among
them many of her former contacts
during her time in city government, like
Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former Human
ResourcesAdministration commissioner
forced out after a clash with Giuliani, as
well as three members of a panel that
had helped set homeless strategy during
Gibbs' time as homeless agency chief.
But advocacy groups organized by low-
income New Yorkers, such as Families
United for Racial and Economic Equality,
Make the Road by Walking (now called
Make the Road New York) and Hunter
College's Welfare Rights Initiative, were
conspicuous in their absence.
All of the commission members
contacted by City Limits recall the six
months of CEO discussions and work-
ing groups with enthusiasm. 'The notion
of getting rid of poverty just got people
fired up," says Gail Nayowith, then exec-
utive director of the Citizens' Committee
for the Children of New York, who knew
Gibbs when the latter was at ACS and
later when Nayowith served on a special
master panel that recommended ending
judicial oversight of city homeless poli-
cies, a longtime Gibbs goal. "TItis idea
that the poor will be with us, that's just
not acceptable," was a consensus belief
among the commission members, Nayo-
with recalls.
More than that, the commission
presented a rare opportunity for its
members to help shape city policies-
and get them funded. The resulting
discussion was freewheeling, commis-
sion members say, but within definite
constraints. "It was a broad directive-
we weren't told anything specific was
off the table," recalls Federation of
Protestant Welfare Agencies director
Fatima Goldman, who ran child care
services at HRA when Gibbs was at
ACS. What they were instructed, she
says, was that they "were not going to
be looking at everything, because the
city felt it couldn't look at everything."
The focus, says Goldman, was to be
on "populations that had a significant
chance at succeeding with whatever
initiatives we came up with. But we
didn't know what the populations
were going to be at that time. We all
decided on that."
What the commission came up with
was a report that recommended focus-
ing on three broad, overlapping groups:
the working poor, young adults ages
16 to 24 and children 5 years old and
younger. To that end, Bloomberg cre-
ated the interagency CEO to manage
what he called a $150 million "innova-
tion fund." The fund was to be used to
create pilot projects that could produce
easily measured results-programs
"grounded in strong theory and based
in fact," says Gibbs, with program op-
erators who were "willing to be account-
able to outcomes."
The result is certainly an impres-
sive array of programs (see "Getting
the Program," p. 11), even if getting to
31 (or 41, if you count both initiatives
that have been launched and those that
have been proposed) required some
fancy hair-splitting to determine that,
for example, "Model Education for Rik-
ers Dischargees: Literacy" and "Model
Education for Rikers Dischargees:Men-
toring" should count as two programs,
not one. Some of the other programs
are just new twists on existing city ef-
forts: The nurse "career ladder" train-
ing program was an expansion of one
already in place for city hospital staffers,
for example, while CUNY Prep-which
the city has folded into CEO-was an
already established, federally funded
prep school where high school drop-
outs could pursue their GEDs.
Still, those who work in fields affected
by these initiatives note that even
for programs that aren't really new,
bringing them under the auspices of
the CEO has helped breathe life-and
money-into them. The new Office of
Financial Empowerment, for example,
which works to educate poor people in
financial literacy, things like knowing
to avoid dubious mortgage lenders
or check-cashing stores that charge
exorbitant fees, owes much to an earlier
Bloomberg initiative called Preserve
Assets and Community Equity (PACE),
which sought to educate homebuyers
against risky and deceptive loans. 'The
PACE program was great, because it was
an attempt to get services out to people,"
says Josh Zinner, co-director of the
Neighborhood Economic Development
Advocacy Project, which works on
predatory-lending issues. 'The biggest
issue with PACE was that there wasn't
a whole lot of funding there. The scope
of the problem is huge, and you need to
have a huge response if you're going to
make a dent. This new initiative we're
optimistic about because it has the scale
and the scope to go citywide."
III. Money for something
For all that's familiar in the Bloomberg
poverty strategy, there is one undeni-
ably bold idea. Of all the CEO programs,
by far the most public attention has been
paid to what the mayor's office called
one of the CEO's flagship initiatives,
an experiment known as "conditional
cash transfers." Based on a decade-old
Mexican program called Oportuni-
dades, these are essentially small bonus
payments offered for certain behav-
iors-in Mexico's case, these included
regular medical visits and school atten-
dance-that are considered important
steps toward improving one's lot in life.
"It's designed to encourage parents and
young people to take positive actions
to stay in school, to stay healthy and
increase their earnings-all key ways
to rise out of poverty," Bloomberg said
in announcing plans to raise millions in
private donations to fund a cash transfer
program to be called Opportunity NYC.
(The city has collected $46 million of the
$53 million needed for a two-year pilot;
Rockefeller, Robin Hood and other foun-
dations have pitched in.) "It is true you
A key to
some of the
and programs
that deal with
poverty in
New York City
ACS 0 d ninis n ion for Childre 's
e I .es The city's foster care, day care
and child protection agency.
CCT 0 on dl Ca I rans t:
A type of benefit that links cash incentives
to targeted activities, like attending parent-
teacher conferences.
CEO 0 Ce fa c . ,-
ni :y The new city office administering
the mayor's anti-poverty plan.
DHS 0 De artme t am e s ~
, Administers the shelters that
house some 35,000 people a night.
EIIC 0 ",rne e' (
Started as a federal benefit for the work-
HRA 0 H n n R 'ou 'ces dminis ra
10 Oversees the city's welfare system.
HSP 0 Hous gil P ~
A housing subsidy program for homeless
families launched and later abandoned by
the Bloomberg administration.
1800 !'Idel ce
Analyzes city programs like ElTe.
m U Ii' '/ qu . A city program
that has sought to raise awareness about
predatory lending.
WeCARE 0 A H P og am that
screens disabled welfare recipients for
work placement. -JM
SPRING 2008 9
should take care of yourself. It's pretty
ridiculous to argue that everybody is
doing that. If this works, shame on us if
we're not willing to try it."
By all accounts, conditional cash
transfers, or CCfs as they're known,
didn't come up much at meetings of
the mayor's poverty commission, and
they didn't appear in the commission's
report. Rather, they got their first public
mention in Bloomberg's announcement
of the report, when he declared that "his-
torically, the rest of the world has often
looked to America for leadership in so-
cial policy, but there is no reason that we
cannot also learn from the experience
of others"-in this case, Mexico. "We
couldn't find any First-World equivalents
that were different from either welfare
or vouchers or unpaid work experience,"
Gail N ayowith says. 'That just didn't feel
like it was big enough for us. We needed
new things."
In many ways, Mexico was an unlikely
model for New York City to use in build-
ing an anti-poverty program. Though
both have large low-income populations
(more than a quarter of Mexicans live
in extreme poverty), Mexico has never
offered broad welfare programs featur-
ing cash assistance. But New York City
has and, despite the changes to welfare
over the past decade, still does. To trans-
late Oportunidades for New York, notes
James Riccio of MDRC (formerly the
Manpower Demonstration Research
Corporation), which helped develop
New York's CCfprogram and which the
city later hired to evaluate its success,
the question was ''What do you do when
you have a well-established safety net
and you're trying to add another layer
on top?"
What emerged from these discus-
sions was a system in which Opportu-
nity NYC administrators would issue
coupon books to low-income families,
with each coupon redeemable for a
set value with proof of a particular ac-
tion-or "conditionality" in CCf-speak.
(payments could either be mailed as
cash cards or direct-deposited into a
checking account, which participating
banks agreed to open free of fees; lack
10 SPRING 2008
Bloomberg and anti-poverty allies visited Mexico to see a cash transfer program in operation.
Photo. City Hall
of bank accounts is one reason poor peo-
ple so often fall prey to predatory lend-
ers.) Rewards were to be available for
everything from getting a library card
to visiting the doctor to ensuring that
your children had good school atten-
dance (a parallel program called Spark
offers rewards for good grades)-along
with $150 a month for holding down a
job, a notable departure from Oportuni-
dades, which doesn't provide an added
supplement to employed participants.
'This was heavily debated," says Riccio,
explaining that the program designers
ultimately decided that because getting
people into jobs was the best route out
of poverty, it was worth "incentivizing."
Indeed, the very notion of offering
cash rewards for behavior is contro-
versial. The goal, says Gibbs, was to
"empower clients" and use "the power
of consumer demand to influence ser-
vices," but another way of putting it was
that the city was paying people to do
what everyone else is expected to do for
free as a matter of mere common sense.
Chinese-American Planning Council
Executive Director David Chen, a com-
mission member, expresses a common
sentiment when he says, "Even though
it turns my stomach to pay a mother
$10 to see a doctor, in a practical sense
it works."
o find people to enter the pro-
gram, the city pulled names from
Department of Education lists of fami-
lies with children eligible for school
lunches-"an easy way of establishing
income eligibility," Riccio noted. One of
those chosen was Sandra Killett, a resi-
dent of Harlem, one of the program's
target neighborhoods (along with
Brownsville, East New York and the
central Bronx); she also happened to
be a co-chair of the low-income group
Community Voices Heard.
Killett says she and her friends were
torn over accepting money for, say, get-
ting their kids to school on time. "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," she says. "But they also
have the same questions: 'Why do you
think I need to be paid to do these types
of things?' " Ultimately, she says, she
was swayed by the Catholic Charities
caseworker who recruited her to the
program-and told Killett that, since
these were things she was doing any-
way, she might as well get paid for them.
''I'm a single mother, and every little bit
counts," says Killett. "If you can get this
extra, why not get it?"
Killett's household ended up as one
of the 1,431 families that received their
first cash transfers, averaging $524
each, in December for activities they
completed in September and October.
(Andrea Phillips, senior vice president
for programs of the nonprofit develop-
ment group Seedco, which has helped
develop and implement Opportunity
NYC, explains that even though 2,350
families are enrolled in the program,
many didn't receive payments for vari-
ous reasons. They may have enrolled too
late to earn payments in those months
or may not have opened bank accounts
in time. She estimates that as of Febru-
ary, 85 percent of enrolled families had
earned rewards of some kind, even if
they hadn't yet received checks.) Kil-
lett's first payment was for $400-$300
for holding down a job for two months,
$50 for having a library card and $50 for
having health insurance. "It worked out
fine," she says, noting that the money
just showed up one day by direct de-
posit into her checking account. "I didn't
even know I had gotten it. But I knew
I had sent in a coupon, and based on
the amount, I was able to confirm that
it was from Opportunity NYc." She is
still owed for attending a parent-teacher
conference, she notes-since her son's
teacher couldn't find time for an in-per-
son appointment, they communicated
via e-mail, and she hasn't gotten around
to visiting the school to get her Oppor-
tunity NYC form filled out. "I decided
I'm not going to make myself crazy," she
says. Was there anything she only did
because of being in the program? "Send-
ing in the paperwork!"
That's a key question, because the
goal of the program is not just to reward
those who go to the doctor or to school,
but to get more people to do so. More
than any of the CEO initiatives, Oppor-
tunity NYC is designed as a controlled
experiment with human subjects: Half of
the program's 5,000 recruits have been
assigned to a control group that will re-
ceive no payments, which should, says
Opportunity NYC Conditional cash transfers for health, education and work activities
Office of Financial Empowerment Consumer protection and financial education
Nursing Career Ladders: LPN Propam Ten·month licensed practical nurse training program for 40 residents
. . .
Nursing Career Ladders: RN Propam Four-year training program for 60 residents
. . .
Customized Training Funds Expands training grants to businesses promising higher wages
Work Advancement and Support Center Expands centers to help small businesses retain, advance employees
. .. .
Sector Focused Career Center Creates career ladders and places workers in jobs paying at least $10lhour
Training Provider Directory
Employment Works
Website to match job seekers with training programs
Job training and placement for people on probation
Food Stamp Employment and Training Uses federal money to fund employment services
. .. . . . .. . .
Community Based OIganization Outreach Three Workforce Centers outreach to CBOs about their services
Efforts to Increase EITC Receipt
Language Access
311 Language Access Outreach
Living Wage Executive Order
City Agency Hiring Initiative
Non-Custodial Parents Initiatives
Security Contracts
Microlending Study
New School-Based Health Clinics
Young Adult Internship Propam
Multiple Pathways to Graduation
Provides education on EITC, mails EITC forms to eligible households
Helps city agencies provide services to non· English speakers
. . .
Web· based pre·screening tool for public benefits
Markets 311 health and human service info to non-English speakers
. .
Ensures enforcement of existing living- and prevailing-wage laws
Screens and refers qualified welfare recipients to city agencies
Manages child support orders, provides parenting classes and job training
Ensures that security firms doing business with the city obey wage laws
Analyzing "access to financial products and services" for small businesses
.. .
After-school community service programs in low-income neighborhoods
. . .
Five new school-based health clinics
Short-term minimum-wage internships and job placement services
. .
Expands existing programs for high school students at risk of dropping out
. . .
CUNY ASAP & Prep Provides support to students and expands prep program for dropouts
Model Education for Rilcers Dischafgees Basic literacy, mentoring and GED/Coliege Prep classes for inmates
Youth Financial Empowerment
LifelWork Skills for Youth in Detention
NYC Justice Corps
Child Care Tax Credit
Earty Childhood Policy and Planning
Nurse-Family Partnership Propam
Food Policy
Housing Initiatives
Creates savings accounts with matching funds for youth leaving foster care
Provides workshops for youth in detention
Six-month paid work readiness program for court-involved youth
Provides up to $1,700 to low-income families with young children
Increases efficiency of early-childhood services
Expands program of home visits to pregnant women, parents Qf newborns
. . ..
Creates task force to improve access to healthy foods
. . .
Affordable housing susbidies and zoning rules
. . . .
SPRING 2008 11
Riccio, "tell us pretty well what would
have happened in the absence of the
program to the same group of people
who got into the program." For the next
five years, MDRC will weed through
public records, such as kids' school at-
tendance, grades and test scores, as well
as track benefit payments, employment
and earnings. The firm will also inter-
view a sub sample of participants to ask
about their health, among other things.
The resulting data is intended to show
whether cash rewards affect employ-
ment levels, school performance and
family health-and, of course, whether
they help lift anyone out of poverty.
hat won't be assessed, though,
is whether any of the measured
changes in people's lives occur because
they go to the doctor or attend parent-
teacher conferences--or simply because
they got the cash. The money itself could
make a major difference. In fact, one ques-
tion that Killett and other low-income ac-
tivists have asked is whether it wouldn't
be just as effective to give out small cash
grants at the beginning of each month,
so parents could actually use it for, say,
train fare or a sitter to enable them to go
to the doctor, instead of having to front
money and then wait to be reimbursed
months later. (Maureen Lane of the Wel-
fare Rights Initiative argues that if the
city really wants to encourage parent-
teacher conferences, it should just start
providing child care at school events.)
Such pre-payments could smack of old-
fashioned welfare benefits-something
the CEO has rigorously avoided. But
could it work as well or better than the
Bloomberg cash transfers?
Riccio acknowledges that there's no
way of knowing, as there's no control
group getting cash even if its members
perform none of the conditionalities.
One group gets money if it performs
tasks; the other gets nothing no matter
what it does. 'We actually thought about
the possibility of doing that, which would
have been a very interesting design-
just offer the rewards with no strings
attached, and with strings attached and
see to what extent is this driven by the
conditionality." mtimately, though, he
says, it was decided that "it was going
to be complicated enough to test this
basic model" without adding another
variable-though he says it "might be
something to consider down the road."
It's a question that was never asked
by Oportunidades, either. Mexico has
never had a welfare-style program of
aid to the poor, so if poor Mexicans are
healthier and better fed under Oportuni-
dades, there's no way to tell whether it's
because they were required to regularly
see doctors or because they were sud-
denly getting an extra $2 billion a year in
cash from the government
Mark Greenberg, director of the task
force on poverty at the progressive Cen-
ter for American Progress in Washing-
ton, D.C., has studied conditional cash
transfer programs and consulted with
New York officials about their poverty
initiatives. He has some reservations
about how well the model will work as a
broad poverty-fighting measure.
'There's some level of incentive, and I
don't know if they've got it here, at which
an incentive is likely to affect behavior,"
he says. "But there's a big question as
to whether it could ever be brought to
scale." If cash transfers ever became a
primary method of support for the poor,
he worries, public sentiment could echo
David Chen's gut reaction to the very
concept of conditional cash payments.
'There's a huge equity issue if the ap-
proach looks like it's paying one group
of people to do something that every-
body ought to be doing," he says.
Greenberg points to another past pro-
gram that could raise warning flags for
Opportunity NYC-not in Mexico, but in
Wisconsin, which in the early 1990s ex-
perimented with a highly touted (but un-
like Opportunity NYC, inherently puni-
tive) program dubbed Learnfare, which
cut off or reduced welfare benefits if
families did not meet school attendance
16790 "Top Kno .. Betty receives a few shillings a week in what historians say was the first welfare
payment in New York.
Photographer Rifa opens a
window in 1890.
12 SPRING 2008
1734 0 The Co mon {OU or e a a '1 . About a hundred paupers are listed in the
1730s; by 1774, the almshouse hosts more than 400. Through this period, the city also pays· outdoor" or
"home" relief to poor people who do not reside in almshouses.
18160 The Bellevue Establishmen is uilt 0 house up to 1.700 poor people. Meanwhile,
changing social mores tum against welfare, which is absorbing a quarter of public expenditures. In 1824 the
state abolishes home relief, and in 1830 the city establishes a proto-workfare program, requiring almshouse
residents to perform jobs.
1890 0 Jaco Riis pub is he "How the Other Half Lives."
1898 0 A new c ar er for he cons lida e iv - 0 gh hI its ho e r Ii f. The state
legislature passes-but the governor refuses to sign-a bill providing pensions to widowed mothers.
19150 h fg wi ow' .io co A February 1915 New York Ttmes headline reads:
"Urge State to Aid Widowed Mothers ... Pension Advocates Assail Private Charities as Unequal to Their
Tasks ... City Officials Oppose ... Realty Owners Fear Increased Taxes and Socialistic Tendency. "
requirements. 'They wound up having
just a hornet's nest of problems," notes
Greenberg. First off, school attendance
records ended up being very unreliable,
costing some people their benefits even if
they had sent their kids to schoo!. When
it turned out that school attendance for
kids in Learnfare families had actually
dropped, the program was abandoned.
There is a more fundamental under-
lying question about conditional cash
transfers: Are you rewarding people
for taking steps to better their lives or
directing the most aid to those who are
already best able to help themselves?
Seedco's Phillips says that's a question
she's hoping will be answered by the
resulting data. "You can't look at just
coupon takeup and activity takeup,"
she said, using program lingo for the
numbers of people who earn cash re-
wards and perform their conditional
tasks. 'The question we all want to
understand is how does this affect
people's lives?"
The cash transfer program has
earned the highest media profile of any
of Bloomberg's poverty initiatives, in
part because it has been the one that the
mayor himself has chosen to highlight
in his public statements. Indeed, it of-
fers everything that Bloomberg wanted:
the promise of a good bang for the buck,
an opportunity to leverage private fund-
ing, somewhat quantifiable outcomes,
and-above all-assistance offered only
as a reward for something, not as an en-
titlement based solely on need. These
proved to be crucial criteria in determin-
ing which poverty-fighting measures
qualified for the CEO campaign and
which were cast aside.
IV. Hope, and hang-ups
While the Commission for Economic
Opportunity report shows clear signs of
being a document written by committee,
some concrete ideas do emerge. One is
that the city should ensure that those
already eligible for benefits like food
stamps, Medicaid public health insur-
ance and the earned income tax credit
(for working poor families) are getting
them. The administration has translated
that principle into action-with limits.
In the universe of public benefit pro-
grams, food stamps are one of the most
popular among public officials, in part
because they're not a cash handout
(you can only use them to buy food)
and because they cost the city very little
money: Aside from a few administrative
costs ($7 million for the roughly $1.5
billion in aid the city receives), the bill
for the program is footed by the federal
government. Not every administration,
however, values food stamps equally.
Food stamps were a major bone of con-
tention between advocates for the poor
and the city during Giuliani's time in
City Hall, when "diversion" policies of
discouraging people from applying for
either welfare or food stamps led city
food stamp usage rates to plummet from
a high of 1.45 million people in 1994 to
55 percent of that-less than 800,000
people-in 200l.
The numbers rebounded after Bloom-
berg took office in 2002, as the city
stopped turning people away at the door
and instituted some reforms aimed at
increasing enrollment, such as simplify-
ing applications, increasing outreach and
expanding office hours. (However, the
mayor also famously overruled Gibbs
and then-HRA commissioner Verna
Eggleston when they wanted to pursue
a federal waiver to expand access to
food stamps for jobless single adults.)
Still, food stamp enrollment levels are
not nearly back to where they had been
before Giuliani, something that worries
advocates like New York City Coalition
Against Hunger Executive Director Joel
Berg. The likely not lower food stamp fig-
ures are because people aren't as needy,
Berg says. "While the ratio of people in
poverty to those receiving food stamps
nationwide is about as high as ever, it is
far smaller in New York City than nation-
wide," he says.
19290 The New Yor Sta e Legis ature reo to 'es orne rei f. Two years later, Mayor Jimmy Walker
launches a public works program to relieve severe unemployment in the city, but it runs out of money within
months. The state launches its own relief initiative, but that too hits a financial wall by 1931. The call goes to
Washington to step in.
lamented-a rise in welfare enroll-
ment. Photo: Orlando Hernandez
14 SPRING 2008
19320 The city get 2 billion in e eral rehe u ding, ushering in a period in which a huge share
of federal New Deal dollars comes to the five boroughs. During lulls in the provision of federal money, Mayor
Fiorello La Guardia funds the city's own separate relief and public works programs. By 1934, the city is
administering some 300,000 relief cases.
1964 0 Federal War on Poverty funds head to New York City with the requirement that they be
distributed via a system that offers· maximum feasible participation· to the poor themselves. but Mayor
Robert Wagner Jr. awards control to political clubhouse insiders.
19650 Mayor-elect John Lindsay criticizes Wagner's approa , calls for a more open process and
appoints a task force to study poverty. Daniel Patrick Moynihan publishes his famous study linking black
poverty to out-of-wedlock births. The next year, the welfare rights movement-which pushed for massive
enrollment in order to force governments to do more about poverty-becomes a national phenomenon.
Food stamps are non-cash benefits that
are almost totally funded by the federal
government. According to some studies,
hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers
don't use food stamps even though they
are eligible. That could be a personal
choice, but it also might be the result
of bureaucratic barriers to applying.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, enrollment
has been made easier and the number of
recipients has gone up-although many
qualifying families are still left out.
SouTce: Independent Budget Office
Indeed, all signs at the city's soup
kitchens are that hunger is dramati-
cally on the rise in New York even as
food-stamp levels remain stagnant.
A Coalition Against Hunger survey
found that emergency food providers
served 20 percent more people in 2007
than the year before; even so, every year
they turn away more at the door for lack
of food. When the Neighbors Together
soup kitchen first opened in Ocean Hill-
Brownsville two decades ago, notes its
current Executive Director Ed Fowler, it
was one of 30 or 40 emergency food pro-
viders in the city; today there are more
'85 '87 '89 '91 '93 '95 '97 '99 '01 '03 'OS '07
than 1,000. 'There's a need to have a
soup kitchen or food pantry every couple
of blocks on Fulton Street," Fowler says.
Reports like these make it all the more
frustrating to those working to fight hun-
ger that hundreds of thousands of city
residents who meet the eligibility criteria
for federal food aid don't apply for it.
he exact size of the food stamp
gap is subject to debate. The city's
Independent Budget Office (IBO) re-
ports that between 27 and 39 percent
of eligible city residents fail to receive
the benefit. One obstacle, the IBO
says, is that with so many poor people
no longer receiving welfare because
of reforms to that program, fewer are
coming into contact with caseworkers
who could recommend that they apply
for food stamps.
While the city mailed out application
forms for the earned income tax credit
to all eligible New York tax filers last
spring (see "Earned & Burned," p. 16),
it didn't do anything similar to encour-
age food stamp use. Rather, the Bloom-
berg administration has largely hitched
the city's food stamp outreach efforts to
ACCESS NYC, an online system to help
1970 O e 'aismg be efl leve a de ng el"gibi y .. -and seeing the number of people
Ford resisted a bailout, citing
welfare. Photo: White House
receiving benefits double in five years to 1.2 million-lindsay balks at a request from the city's welfare
agency for more money in his budget and sues the federal govemment to force more funding.
19750 P 'es ent Ford v 0 "veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City
to prevent a default" citing, among other things, the city's high welfare payments,
1977 0 Ed Koch wins tht: mayoralt . dp' rymlJ as "poverty pimps those who run corrupt
community-based anti-poverty agencies. Polls show that many New Yorkers blame welfare recipients for
the city's financial problems. Expenditures on welfare and other redistributive policies shrink between 1978
and 1989.
1988 0 Con res pa ses r I! il 5 po ct. at least the third attempt to reform the Aid to
Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and encourage more work. New York City already has a
workfare program in place for non-federal Home Relief recipients that by 1994 would involve 14,000 people.
1990 0 The I . If a r men t hmb agai unde Mayor Da id Dinkins, who
advocates work for recipients but resists punitive measures. Unlike during the lindsay years, the increase in
welfare under Dinkins coincides with a substantial loss of jobs in the city.
SPRING 2008 15
Bloomberg's sticker says it all. Photo: City Hall
Uneven efforts to make
work pay
Established by Congress in 1975 to provide re-
lief to the working poor and expanded several
times since, the eamed income tax credit has
become a favored program of both liberals. who
like that it gives a boost to people trying to work
their way out of poverty, and conservatives, who
endorse it as a benefit that helps the working
poor-but only the working poor: Below a cer-
tain threshold, the less you eam, the smaller
your tax credit is. The Economic Policy Institute
has estimated that the EITC is more effective
at moving families above the poverty line than
any other government program. Powering its
punch is that the ElTC is refundable, meaning if
it amounts to more than a family earns in taxes,
the government cuts a check for the balance.
Soon enough, local governments were re-
alizing that, like food stamps, the ElTC was a
great way to get federal dollars rolling into
their municipalities. After Michael Bloomberg
took office in 2002, he became one of several
big-city mayors to begin outreach campaigns
to encourage EITC applications, including put-
ting notices about the benefits in Con Edison
bills and on McDonald's placemats.
Still, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of eligible
New Yorkers don't apply for the EITC each year,
largely because they either don't know they're
eligible or aren't filing tax returns. last year,
Bloomberg announced in his State of the City
address that his administration would take the
step of actually mailing filled-out EITC forms
to 95,000 New York households whose tax
filings for 2003 and 2004 showed they could
have clairned the benefit. All that the recipients
would have to do was sign the forms and mail
them in to earn their tax breaks. later in the
year, Bloomberg also gave a speech before the
Brookings Institution, urging that the federal
ElTC be expanded.
Both of these measures will undoubtedly
help New York's working poor, though the
impact may be less dramatic than the mayor
hoped: According to the city's own figures, EITC
filings rose by only an additional 1.6 percent
last year, or about 13,000 families, and only
one in six households that received the mayor's
filled-out tax forms bothered to send them in.
Bloomberg's efforts to boost federal EITC re-
ceipt by city residents reflect a common theme:
They will cost the city government almost noth-
ing, because they're rebated from federal tax
dollars. New York City did pass its own ElTC in
2004 to give the working poor a break on city
taxes, but it wasn't Bloomberg's idea. Rather,
then-Council Speaker Gifford Miller had pushed
for a local tax credit and finally won it in a bit of
budgetary horse-trading with the mayor: Miller
got an ElTC equal to 5 percent of the federal
rebate, worth an estimated $50 million a year;
in exchange, Bloornberg got the $250 million in
property tax breaks that he was demanding.
Despite this, today the number of New York-
ers who are too poor to pay state or federal
taxes who nonetheless pay city taxes is twice
what it was before Bloomberg took office, ac-
cording to Independent Budget Office (IBO)
figures, largely because tax brackets aren't in-
dexed to inflation. In 1999 the IBO projected
that a proposed city EITC and child care tax
credit would ·virtually eliminate" city taxes
for residents who didn't earn enough to pay
state or federal taxes. Thanks to bracket creep,
though, even after the city passed both credits,
an estimated 167,000 households--encom-
passing more than half a million people-that
are too poor to owe state or federal taxes will
still pay city taxes this year, according to the
lBO's current estimates.
The City Council, as part of its comments
on the budget Bloomberg proposed in 2006,
called for doubling the city ElTC to 10 percent
of the federal credit, but that wasn't ulti-
mately approved. Asked whether the mayor's
commission itself had considered a city EITC
hike, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human
Services linda Gibbs replied, "Nobody raised
the EITC issue." -Neil deMause
1994 0 R dolpl i I. n 0 [ and embraces a model of workfare pioneered in Westchester
Dinkins was blamed for
swelling welfare rolls, but the
recession created real need.
Photo: City Limits archives
16 SPRING 2008
County, applying work requirements to the city's Home Relief recipients. The mayor hires hundreds of fraud
investigators to catch welfare cheats.
19950 G ian 'a 5 r p "ng orne Re and expands workfare requirements to some AFDC
recipients and applicants.
1996 0 n h" a h' City 5 "t:! . Giuliani proclaims, ·As I speak to you now, there are
103,000 fewer people on welfare in New York City than were on welfare a year ago. "The FBI investigates
administration officials' roles in awarding welfare-monitoring contracts.
1997 0 G.. e d <l a • may require too much, too soon· by
pushing states to shed welfare caseload on a strict timetable. Some 35,000 people are involved in the city's
workfare initiative, the Work Experience Prograrn.
19980 D pi hi al gl en t e era e " orm w nt too fa Giuliani himself steps on
the gas. announcing in July, ·We're going to end welfare by the end of this century completely .... We will be
the place that people come to relearn the work ethic that made America and New York City great. "The city's
Human Resources Agency begins requiring physically and mentally disabled mothers to work for their benefits.
New Yorkers apply for public benefits
that was already in the works when the
poverty commission began meeting.
Rolled out in late 2006, ACCESS NYC
promised assistance in seven languages
and a customized list of the benefits for
which users were eligible.
ACCESS NYC's user interface is cer-
tainly friendly enough. Visitors to the
page on the city's website are greeted
by a simple series of forms for entering
household income and other informa-
tion. After submitting their facts, how-
ever, users don't get a simple "yes" or
"no." Instead, they are presented with
a series of links to city Web pages-in-
conclusively separated into "programs
for which ACCESS NYC determined the
household may be eligible" and "pro-
grams for which ACCESS NYC cannot
make a determination"-all of which are
English-only. The food stamp link, after
a couple of clicks, eventually leads to a
page on the state's website where users
can download food stamp applications
(in five languages)-which then must
be hand carried to a food stamp office to
be submitted, reducing the value of an
online system.
One of the biggest obstacles to getting
food stamps, say emergency food work-
ers, is the sheer number of bureaucratic
hoops people still must jump through-
simplified forms or no. "For working
people, it's very difficult because of the
number of appointments you have to go
through," says Fowler. "For the most
part, they're daytime hours, so if some-
body is working a daytime job, they're
not going to be able to make it to mul-
tiple appointments just to get qualified."
If ACCESS NYC has made a step to-
ward easier enrollment, it's a baby step.
It certainly does not allow people to
sign up for benefits online. Bloomberg
did set up a pilot program to allow ac-
tual online application for benefits at
five soup kitchens and food pantries as
part of the city's existing Paperless Of-
fice System project; a parallel "working
families initiative" will allow those with
full-time jobs to apply via mail or fax,
with a follow-up phone interview.
But even for those who can apply by
phone or Internet, there is still a need
for a personal appearance at a city office:
Since 1998, as a "fraud deterrence" mea-
sure, the city has required that all food
stamp applicants undergo finger imag-
ing. It's the kind of "give with one hand,
take away with the other" policy that
threatens to hamstring the city's hope for
more food stamp enrollment. An Urban
Institute study found that finger imaging
can lead to as much as a 4.3 percent drop
in food stamp receipt; U.S. Department
of Agriculture officials told the federal
Government Accountability Office that
they were worried about the impact of
finger imaging on enrollment-and,
crucially, that they had no evidence that
it had any deterrent effect on fraud. The
total number of fraud cases caught by
the city's finger imaging, meanwhile, is
tiny: just 31 out of more than 1 million
enrollments in 2006, according to HRA
figures. As Berg of the Coalition Against
Hunger wrote in a letter to Bloomberg
last year, "To prevent fraud by only one
in nearly 35,000 people, the city denies
benefits to one in 23 families in need."
Yet when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer an-
nounced last year that he would waive
the finger-imaging requirement for
families headed by full-time workers,
Bloomberg immediately demanded,
and received, permission to keep re-
quiring finger scans before allowing
anyone to sign up for food aid. Finger
imaging, Bloomberg's new HRA com-
missioner (and former state welfare
chief) Robert Doar told the City Coun-
cil, "is a simple process which helps
ensure the integrity of our overall food
stamp program and has been success-
ful in avoiding the duplication of pay-
ments to the same recipient, whether
due to intentional fraud, administrative
errors or other reasons."
The focus on fraud at the expense of ac-
cess is one way in which the current city
administration resembles its predeces-
1999 c e rei el. 50 At the end of the year,
Giuliani, a national leader
in slashing welfare rolls,
emphasized punitive measures.
Photo: City Limits archives
Giuliani claims to have fulfilled his promise to end welfare by pushing all able-bodied recipients into jobs, but
critics say he has padded the numbers simply by cutting benefits to thousands.
2002 C 0 e!>, Mayor Bloomberg decides to forgo a federal waiver that would
allow people normally denied food stamp benefits to receive them because of high unemployment in the city.
He also announces a welfare strategy that stresses job training and work supports.
2004 C Ot;. 0 . with a plan that
emphasizes supportive housing and homeIessness prevention. He also agrees to a city Earned Income Tax Credit in
exchange for the City Council's backing off from trying to block the mayor's proposed $400 property tax rebate.
2005 C an effort to get disabled recipients into jobs by providing a menu of services.
The program later comes under fire for failing to property assess people's abilities to do certain kinds of work.
2006 C 00 a ITI I. 'c ) I will study
poverty in New York and propose ways to remedy it. Despite a press report that he has reversed himself on
the food stamp waiver. Bloomberg again declines to apply for relief for the childless poor.
2007 C Th ' ra - that 31 programs have been launched as part of the anti-poverty effort. -1M
SPRING 2008 17
18 SPRING 2008
sor, Fowler says. 'There has been this culture that low-income
people are stealing from the system, and we have to go to any
means necessary to prevent them from doing that," he says,
"even if it means that some people have been left out."
V. Making (some) work pay
Another firm conclusion of the poverty commission's report
was that the city needed to "make work pay." Simply getting
people into jobs isn't enough, it said. It must be work that pays
more than a poverty-level wage. "For too many families, work
is no longer a ticket out of poverty," wrote the report's authors,
noting that the share of households in poverty with at least
one working adult rose from 29 to 46 percent between 1990
and 2005. The expansion of the service industry, the report
observed, has created more jobs, but they are typically jobs
with low wages and no health insurance.
Gibbs notes that after years of "job first" programs,
nearly three-quarters of single mothers in the city are now
employed-though not necessarily at wages that bring them
above the poverty line. (A study by demographers with the
Social Indicators Survey Center at the Columbia University
School of Social Work found that between 1996 and 2001, in-
creases in poor families' earned income were just about wiped
out by decreases in welfare, food stamps and other benefits.)
"So if you're going to make more progress, you've got to do
more about increasing the earnings of that parent or bring-
ing more income from the other parent into the household,"
Gibbs says. ''Welfare reform got people into their first job.
What's going to get them into their next job?"
Part of the problem, as Gibbs sees it, is people who are
working but not working enough. Noting that about 75 per-
cent of the working poor work part-time, Gibbs says she
hopes to "incentivize them to increase their hours." To this
end, she wants to eliminate what are known to economists as
"benefit cliffs"-eligibility rules for public benefits programs
that steeply reduce benefits once the recipient earns a cer-
tain amount from work-ensuring that aid is available even as
working hours increase, so that "with every dollar you earn,
you don't lose a dollar in benefits." To achieve this, the CEO
set out to implement programs that would aid the poor once
they secured regular employment and saw their incomes rise;
one such program offsets losses in Section 8 housing subsi-
dies that occur when a renter's income increases.
Knowing that most of the working poor work part-time, for
example, and that child care, as Gibbs puts it, is a "huge deal"
for working parents, last summer the city passed a child care
tax credit worth up to $1,700 that, starting in April, working
parents can use to offset child care costs. (This was an idea that
predated not only the poverty commission but Bloomberg as
The Astoria Houses, a public housing development that contains
some of Queens' poorest blocks. At left, the wealthy Upper East Side
stands just across the East River. Photo: JM
SPRING 2008 19
Photo: JM
Among the 10 million workers in the
New York metropolitan area, more than
a million work in jobs where the median
earnings are less than $10 an hour, like tire-
shop workers ($9.51lhour). Here are what a
few of them do and make for a living.
well. The City Council pushed for a child
care tax credit under Giuliani, but not
until Spitzer took office as governor last
year was the city successful at getting
necessary state approval.) The resulting
tax expenditure is expected to cost the
city $42 million this year, representing
nearly a third of the CEO's entire bud-
get. Gibbs says the tax credit-which
like the EITC is "refundable," meaning
you can take the benefit even if you don't
owe that much in taxes--could help as
much as 49,000 city families.
Both poverty experts and working
parents themselves, though, note that
offering a tax credit is very different
from actually providing child care-or
the cash to pay for it. ''When we expand
subsidies, they provide immediate help
to meet immediate child care needs,"
says Greenberg of the Center for Amer-
ican Progress, whose task force issued
a policy paper for cutting poverty in
half nationwide that recommended
both child care tax credits and directly
providing child care to the poor. "If you
don't have a job and can't afford the
cost of child care, knowing that if you
somehow could afford the cost, you'd
get a tax credit next year is just not go-
ing to help very much," he says. Asked
whether the tax credit alone will end up
actually allowing more parents to take
jobs or merely award cash to people
who are already working, Gibbs says
20 SPRING 2008
Retail Salespersons 150,490 $9.70
......................... ..... ..... ................ .................. .............. ........ ......... .... .. ....
Home Health Aides 95,560 $9.59
Couriers and Messengers 9,910 $9.36
.... ...... ... .. ... .. ... ............. ........... ............. .......... ........ ...... ..........................
Stock Clerks and Order Fillers 57,420 $9.27
Parking Lot Attendants 11,140 $8.64
...... ............ ................. ............. .... .... ....... ....... ........ ..............................
.. .. .................... . .. .. .. . . .. ....... ... . . . ............... .
Cashiers 101,720 $7.99
... ..... ....... ...................................... ....... .......... ...........................
Packers and Packagers 24,330 $7.99
.... .......... .............. ... ... ...... ........ ........................... ...... ... ...... ... .. .. .........
the city will just have to wait and see.
In order to claim a child care credit, of
course, one has to be able to find child
care. As of 2003, according to a report by
the city comptroller's office, more than
28,000 children were on waiting lists for
slots at city day care centers. (The Ad-
ministration for Children's Services, or
ACS, says this figure is out-of-date but
that it doesn't have a current one.) On
this, in many ways the city has been go-
ing backward, closing 17 day care cen-
ters run by ACS in the last four years, ac-
cording to District Council 1707, which
represents many day care workers. And
in February, the city sent shock waves
through child care service providers
when it announced that it would cut pay-
ments to ACS day care centers that did
not have full enrollments.
The idea, city officials insist, was
to force centers to engage in more ag-
gressive outreach to find needy parents
whose kids could fill their seats, rather
than sitting back and collecting city
checks regardless of how many kids
they enrolled. ACS has said that it will
provide training and technical assistance
to centers to boost enrollment.
But according to Camilla Flemming, a
former HRA policy analyst and current
co-chair of the citywide Welfare Reform
Network's child care committee, the en-
rollment problem stems from the policies
of ACS itself, which has left recruitment
13,480 $7.77
Source: Bureau 0/ Labor Statistics
up to understaffed day care centers. Once
approached by a potential enrollee, flem-
ming says, the centers must then send
off a "package" of documentation-proof
of income eligibility, medical forms, and
so on-to ACS for approval. The pack-
age then goes to a borough "resource
center" for processing. "Some are worse
than others," Flemming says. "Brooklyn
is known to be the worst-packages sit
there for weeks and weeks and weeks,
and the child cannot go to day care."
Indeed, the 2003 comptroller's report
stated, "Many providers told us that
verification regularly takes [the Agency
for Child Development (ACD), which is
part of ACS] two to three, and in some
cases, up to six months, and some cen-
ters claimed that ACD instructed them
not to care for a child before they receive
verification. This forces them to keep the
slot empty while awaiting the appropriate
he term ''working poor" gets a
great deal of attention, but the
general notion actually embraces a few
distinct groups. There are people who
are poor and work full-time, but they're
only about 6 percent (about 200,000
people) of the city's full-time work-
force, according to the IBO. A larger
group consists of people who are poor
and work, but not full-time-perhaps
by choice, or because they don't have
child care or can't get full-time hours.
Still larger is the pool of 1 million or so
people who work but live just above the
poverty line.
When it comes to getting better
wages for the working poor, Gibbs and
Bloomberg have largely put their faith
in "career ladders"-programs that help
train workers in selected high-wage pro-
fessions facing labor shortages. 'They
have a nursing shortage in the Philip-
pines because we've hired so many
nurses from Manila to fill vacancies in
New York City," Gibbs says. "And then
at the same time, we have tens of thou-
sands of home health aides that are
working in this caring profession, but
without the ability to get the skills to
fill the nursing vacancies." (The city's
estimated 60,000 health aides are par-
ticularly poorly paid; says Patrick Mar-
kee of the Coalition for the Homeless:
'We see so many women in the shelter
system who are home health aides, it is
shocking.") The CEO solution: Enroll
health aides in nurse-training programs
to move them up a rung to a higher-
paying job in the same field.
It's a sound idea, but the scale so
far is modest. When the initial class of
nurse career ladder students graduates
this summer, 39 (at most) will emerge
from the program, not all of whom
were home health aides or poor to be-
gin with-and in any case, a drop in the
bucket compared with the number of
working poor and near-poor in the city.
Moreover, moving a few people up the
ladder doesn't change the ladder itself:
The city will always need home health
aides, so if their wages remain low, there
will presumably always be the working
poor. While there's much in the CEO
about changing poor people's behavior
and improving their skills, there's little
about changing the economics of low-
end work in the city. Some of the poor
need more work. Others simply need a
living wage.
When asked about this, Gibbs re-
plies, 'Well, this is the big question,
isn't it? What, pragmatically, I think we
acknowledge is that we're not going to
solve poverty on our own in New York
Doreen Cosentino and Tracy Wheeler outside a bodega in Claremont, the Bronx. A former nurse,
she says she contracted HIV though a medical procedure. He was a strapping 215 pounds before neu-
ropathy put him in a wheelchair. People like them are not targets of the mayor's plan. Photo: JM
City without broader forces helping. We
believe we can make a dent in it, and we
can improve it for a lot of people."
Yet wage inequality is not just a mat-
ter of national trends. A 2006 report by
the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)
found that in New York State, the richest
fifth of the population earned 8.1 times
as much as the poorest fifth-the larg-
est income gap of any state. Moreover,
the EPI found that this income gap was
growing at a rate faster than that of any
other state except Arizona. In no ma-
jor American city do the richest of the
rich, the top 5 percent, earn a larger
share of the total income than they do
in New York-more than 27 percent.
And among the largest 25 cities, only in
Boston and the District of Columbia do
the poorest fifth of the population get a
smaller bite than in New York, where
they take home 2.3 percent of the city's
income. That's partly because of the
fact that New York City's high earners
include some of the richest people in
the world. It also reflects, however, that
much of New York's workforce toils in
low-paying service careers as security
guards, fast food workers and home
health aides.
SPRING 2008 21
Development across the city is squeezing low-income families.
Photo: JM
The data on displacement
The woman on the D train was just chatting with a friend--but articu-
lating a widespread wony-when she offered her interpretation of the
message behind her rising rent bill: "They're saying, if you can't afford
to live here, go down South. Get a job at McDonald's down there."
No buzzword has gotten more play in 21 st-century New York City
than" gentrification," with its associated effects of rising rents and
changing neighborhoods. But while some fear "displacement" of
the poor from New York, others (including city officials) have been
heard to herald the· deconcentration of poverty" in the city. Under
either interpretation, the question of whether poor people are be-
ing forced out of the city altogether underlies any discussion about
Mayor Bloomberg's anti-poverty plan.
There's no question that the city is getting more expensive--and
fast. New York's median rent rose 20 percent between 2002 and
2005, and the overall cost of living climbed about 11 percent. But it's
harder to pin down whether current economic conditions are actually
changing the makeup of the city.
That's because people, rich and poor, leave and enter the city all
the time: According to a recent study by the city comptroller's office, a
third of the city's population turns over every 10 years. About 300,000
people left town in 2005, twice as many as moved here from other
parts of the country (in other words, not counting immigrants). That
year there was a complex income pattern to who left, the comptroller
says: Moderate-income households (those earning between $40,000
and $59,000) and somewhat wealthy households (with incomes be-
tween $140,000 to $249,000) were the most likely to leave, while
middle-income and really rich people were the least likely to go. Fami-
lies making less than $40,000 a year left town at a rate somewhere in
between. Overall, the comptroller's office reported, more rich people
left the five boroughs than came.
For its part. the Department of City Planning says its research in-
dicates that the people who leave New York City are, on average, the
wealthiest, those who stay are the poorest and those who arrive are
somewhere in between. It makes sense that the poor tend to be less
mobile: Very poor people are often unable to afford the cost of relo-
cating, especially if it means giving up public or subsidized housing.
It's unclear. though, whether New York City's rich, middle class or
22 SPRING 2008
The importance of wages is a point that commission mem-
ber Nayowith, for one, agrees with, but she adds that topics
like paid family leave and a living wage are "macroeconomic"
topics outside the scope of the CEO-and that there's a risk
to trying to tackle them. ''If you don't get [results) and you
spent four years trying to get a bigger increase in the mini-
mum wage or a living wage, you would have wasted the time
you could have been doing this other work. You have to do it
in tandem. All of this is of a piece."
Bloomberg, however, has not pushed for wage increases
for low-income occupations-in fact, on several occasions he
has gone out of his way to block them. When the state legis-
lature opened discussions on raising the minimum wage to
$7.15 an hour in 2004, Bloomberg was lukewarm at best in his
support, saying, "If you raised it, you probably really wouldn't
help very many people because most people work at or above
it." (In fact, according to the lBO, census data show that even
just among New York City's full-time workers, 9.4 percent-
about 221,000 workers-had average hourly earnings under
$7.15 in 2006.)
Last year, when home health care aides filed a lawsuit de-
manding that overtime and minimum-wage laws should apply
to them, Bloomberg filed a brief against the aides, stating that
it would be too costly for the government. Meanwhile, an ex-
ecutive order by Gov. Spitzer that granted tens of thousands of
home day-care providers-another low-wage group-the right
to unionize was met by a warning from Bloomberg that this
would "lead to reductions in affordable child care for working
New Yorkers."
likewise, those who've advocated city programs to create
high-wage jobs-or require private developers to do so-say
that the mayor has been uninterested in pushing for such mea-
sures. During a 2005 mayoral campaign debate, when asked
about those who have "slipped into poverty" on his watch,
Bloomberg cited the 100,000 immigrants a year moving to
New York City as a reason why "I've tried to focus on the kinds
of jobs they can get at the beginning-travel, tourism, restau-
rants, hotels. Those are the kinds of jobs that we have to bring
to this city."
Recently departed deputy mayor for economic development
Dan Doctoroff-who shaped Bloomberg's development poli-
cy from Hudson Yards to Atlantic Yards to the Greenpoint-Wil-
liamsburg rezoning in Brooklyn-steadfastly resisted linking
wage issues to development plans. James Parrott of the Fis-
cal Policy Institute, who was part of a brainstorming session
for the mayor's poverty commission but wasn't invited to join
the panel itself, recalls his experiences with the Labor Com-
munity Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York, a coalition
formed in the wake of 9/11 to ensure that recovery efforts
included low-income neighborhoods. The coalition proposed
to the Bloomberg administration in 2003 that some of the fed-
eral 9/11 funds flowing into the city be used for job creation-
their hope was to create a liberty Jobs program to parallel
the liberty Bonds set of tax breaks for downtown developers.
The city's response, says Parrott: "Doctoroff told us that they
weren't about to support any 'New Deal' approaches."
Of all the city's grassroots membership groups, Commu-
nity Voices Heard has maintained the most contact with the
mayor's poverty campaign. It was perhaps the first to propose
that the city create a poverty commission, at a 2005 mayoral
campaign event, and its director, Sondra Youdelman, was also
invited to attend the CEO planning session at Gracie Mansion
(though not invited to serve on the commission) . This Feb-
ruary, several of its members met with CEO chief Veronica
White to advocate expanding the city's "transitional jobs" pro-
gram, which provides welfare recipients with full-time paid
work, mostly at the Department of Parks and Recreation, for
up to six months. (A Giuliani holdover, the Parks Opportunity
Program originally ran eleven and a half months, but Bloom-
berg cut the jobs' duration-and the wages they pay-in 2003.)
Youdelman's group wanted to enlarge the program by estab-
lishing a nonprofit "transitional work corporation," modeled
after a public-private program in Philadelphia, that would have
created 3,000 new short-term city jobs paying a minimum of
$12 an hour. White's response, according to CVH member
Stephen Bradley, who attended the meeting: "She said it was a
good idea, but there was no extra money in her budget for it."
VI. Missing pieces
Each year, Community Service Society, a leading city anti-pov-
erty organization, conducts a survey oflow-income New York-
ers. These Unheard Third surveys, as they're called-though
with 3.3 million people living below 200 percent of the poverty
level in the city, they could more accurately be called the Un-
heard Two-Fifths-are meant to gauge both the well-being
and the biggest concerns of a group that seldom has a voice in
city policy debates. In its most recent survey, released this J an-
uary, when CSS asked what would be most useful "in helping
you and your family get ahead," the No.1 item requested by
those living below the poverty line was "housing assistance."
The problems of the poor interlink: Housing pressure re-
sisted becomes a food shortage that's endured. It's some-
thing that Ed Fowler sees daily at Neighbors Together's soup
kitchen. "You don't pay your rent, you'll get evicted-but you
can go without food," he says. "And that's why we have this
enormous infrastructure of more than 1,000 soup kitchens
and food pantries serving 1.3 million people as a way to deal
with the fact that rents are too high."
For all that it touches upon-from training nurses to track-
ing parent-teacher conferences-the CEO report is surpris-
ingly quiet on a few key topics, including housing for the poor-
est, homelessness and welfare.
The Bloomberg administration is in the midst of a 10-year,
$7.5 billion plan to build or preserve 165,000 units of afford-
able housing-which the administration bills as the largest
municipal housing program ever. Large as it is, it doesn't ad-
dress some specific housing issues that affect the poor.
South Williamsburg is one of the poorest areas of Brooklyn. Photo: JM
poor people are coming or going at steeper rates than in past years.
What's also murky is exactly why the people who are leaving are doing
so . • One has to be cautious about interpreting motives from actions, •
says CUNY professor John Mo"enkopf .• Maybe poor people leave New
York City because they find a better living situation somewhere else,
so they are drawn rather than pushed.· What's more, gentrification is
nothing novel, so it can be difficult to discern a recent shift.
Besides, looking only at people crossing the city line ignores the
more likely phenomenon of internal displacement. ·Since there has
been even less new affordable housing [built] in the suburbs than in the
city, it's not clear where those displaced would be moving to· outside
New York, says Chris Jones, vice president for research at the Regional
Plan Association . • However, it's more likely that there is more churning
within the city, and a lot more doubling up.· In Jones' neighborhood of
Washington Heights, the word is that people who can't afford to stay
are going to the South Bronx .• Now, who they might be displacing and
where they are going is an interesting question."
U.S. Census Bureau numbers suggest that New York City's people
have become slightly more transient In 2002, about 824,000 New
Yorkers were in a dwelling they hadn't occupied for a year; by 2006,
some 904,000 were in a new dwelling. In both years, most movers
relocated within their borough, but in the Bronx and Queens, the
numbers of within-borough movers increased from '02 to '06. In a"
boroughs, the people moving within their borough were relatively
poorer in 2006 than in 2004.
What a" the numbers and anecdotes don't address is the human
cost of moving for those who relocate out of necessity, not by choice.
"When a poor family has to leave their home, there is almost never
anywhere else they can afford here in our community," says John
Raskin, director of organizing at Housing Conservation Coordinators,
a nonprofit in Hell's Kitchen that advocates affordable housing.
·Whether or not their new home is in the five boroughs, it's certainly
far from here, which forces their kids to switch schools and forces
adults to form new support networks from scratch." -1M
SPRING 2008 23
A Seventh-day Adventist church just south of Crotona Park in the Bronx. Photo: JM
24 SPRING 2008
As rents have soared, so has home-
lessness. In 2004, Bloomberg an-
nounced a goal to "end chronic home-
lessness in New York City in five years."
Yet while counts of the street homeless
have gone down under Bloomberg's
mayoralty-the most recent survey in
January found 25 percent fewer street
homeless than when the count was first
conducted in 200S-at the same time
city shelters house far more people than
under Giuliani. The numbers under
Bloomberg started at just over 31,000 a
night when he took office, then soared
to the all-time record of nearly 39,000 by
late 2003. The shelters emptied some-
what in 2003, then filled up again as city
policies on Section 8 vouchers changed.
As of November 2007, the shelter popu-
lation was 35,600, including 9,400 fami-
lies-an all-time record for families and
a nearly 40 percent increase in families
living in shelter from when Bloomberg
took office six years earlier. With rents
rising dramatically even in poor neigh-
borhoods, groups like the Coalition for
the Homeless say that more and more
families have turned to the shelter sys-
tem, while uncounted others have been
forced to double up with friends and
"More New Yorkers have experi-
enced homelessness under Mayor
Bloomberg than under any mayor since
the Great Depression," contends the
Coalition's Patrick Markee. "Four out of
five people sleeping in shelters tonight
are children and families. The typical
homeless family is a working mom with
two kids, and they're just priced out of
the housing market. You can't have a
conversation about poverty, particu-
larly in New York City, without talking
about housing affordability."
When it comes to the CEO, that's
pretty much what the Bloomberg ad-
ministration has done. The topic of
housing gets little mention in the pover-
ty commission report, and is relegated
to a single item in the CEO's program
summary: the mayor's existing afford-
able housing plan.
At the Department of Homeless
Services, Gibbs was aggressive about
So far in this campaign year, Sens. Obama and Clinton have talked about poverty to some extent. Sen. McCain hasn' t . Photos [left to
right]: Obama campaign, Barbara Kinney; U.S. Senate
Predicting a presidential
poverty policy
When former Sen. John Edwards exited the
presidential race in January, he claimed that
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
"have both pledged to me ... that they will
make ending poverty central to their cam-
paign for the presidency."
A new federal push to reduce poverty could
dramatically improve the prospects of success
for Mayor Bloomberg's Center for Economic
Opportunity. So far. despite Edwards' prodding,
poverty hasn't become a central issue in the
Democratic race. But by late February, both Clin-
ton and Obama were at least offering extensive
and fairly similar menus of anti-poverty policies.
Edwards' speech didn't touch on whether he'd
asked presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John Mc-
Cain to focus on poverty, but the topic was all
but absent from the Republican primary race.
As with illegal guns and climate control, on
poverty Bloomberg has stepped into a policy
void left by federal inaction. The Bush adminis-
tration's greatest gift to the poor was the 2001
tax cut, which enhanced the eamed income and
child care tax credits for working poor people.
In 2005, Republicans controlling Congress en-
acted tougher work requirements for welfare
recipients; when the Senate voted on the om-
nibus bill that contained those new rules (and
hundreds of other unrelated provisions) Clinton
and Obama voted no while McCain voted yes.
McCain was an early supporter of welfare
reform efforts. In the early 199Os, he led a fight
to allow states to pay food stamp benefits in
cash rather than coupons as part of workfare
experiments, favoring state flexibility to federal
control. In 1994, McCain took to the Senate
floor to scold a Democrat who had complained
about Republican welfare reform efforts, telling
the colleague that "this old line about being
cruel to poor people and depriving food from
people's mouths ... it ain't going to work: Mc-
Cain introduced a 1999 bill to force the Depart-
ment of Housing and Urban Development to
tum over under used property to community
development corporations.
Clinton's position on "ending welfare as we
know it" wasn't clear at the time her husband
signed the welfare reform law in 1996. In 1994
she wamed that GOP welfare proposals raised
"marriage penalty" within the federal welfare
program and is an author of a bipartisan bill
to require the president "to develop and imple-
ment a comprehensive policy to cut extreme
global poverty in half by 2015."
But that was yesterday. What happens to-
morrow? Domestic policy just isn't McCain's
thing; last year he admitted to The Boston
Globe, "The issue of economics is not some-
thing I've understood as well as I should:
McCain's campaign materials don't mention
poverty. His past positions do indude support
for enterprise zones and increased child care
funding, but his proposed tax cuts would re-
duce the money available for new programs.
the "unbelievable and absurd idea of putting
children into orphanages because their mothers
cannot get a job." Three years later. Clinton said
she had supported the 1996 reforms overall but
objected to some provisions. In 2002, Clinton
backed an ultimately unsuccessful bill imposing
tougher work mandates for people on welfare,
explaining that the harsher rules were a trad-
eoff for new funding for child care. In 2005,
on the Senate floor, she accused the Republi-
can majority of prioritizing "irresponsible tax
breaks instead of affordable health care for the
working poor. "
Obama entered the Illinois state senate
as federal welfare reform took effect, and he
pressed for more welfare-to-work child care
funding and transportation assistance. He also
helped pass a state Eamed Income Tax Credit.
In Washington, he has pushed to get rid of a
Neither Obama nor Clinton embraces an ex-
plicit goal for reducing poverty, but they sound
very similar themes on reducing it. Both want to
expand the EITC, improve access to child care,
create green jobs, establish an affordable hous-
ing trust fund and assist ex-offenders. Obama
wants to index the minimum wage to inflation;
Clinton would tie it to increases in congressional
salaries. Obama backs a $1 billion transitional
jobs program, while Clinton wants job training
for 1.5 million disconnected youth-people
aged 16 to 24 who are out of school and out
of work. Clinton has the more aggressive pre-
K plan, which would provide federal funding
only to states that offer pre-Kindergarten to
all 4-year-olds. Obama, meanwhile, advocates
a Promise Neighborhoods program that would
apply intense social services to 20 areas of con-
centrated poverty around the country. -1M
SPRING 2008 25
seeking new solutions to the perennially
crowded city shelter system. Yet, some
of these new initiatives, homeless advo-
cates have charged, only worsened the
city's homeless situation. Gibbs courted
controversy early in her tenure by peti-
tioning the state courts to allow the city
to kick families out of city shelters if they
didn't find housing quickly enough; the
resulting years-long legal squabble has
yet to be fully resolved. Last fall, it was
revealed by the Legal Aid Society of New
York, pointing to DHS's own internal re-
ports, that the city's emergency housing
unit in the Bronx was rejecting appli-
cants so aggressively that one in three
families who were initially turned down
was found eligible after reapplying.
Then there was Gibbs' biggest policy
innovation: the introduction in 2004 of
Housing Stability Plus (liSP), which of-
fered five-year subsidized apartments to
those leaving shelters, with rental aid
scaled back 20 percent each year. Gibbs
claimed that it would be "the most sig-
nificant discretionary rental-assistance
program in the city's history."
Before HSP had turned three, the
city scrapped it, amid reports of families
unable to afford the 20 percent "step-
downs," not to mention people being
warned by city caseworkers that if they
got a raise, they'd risk earning too much
to qualify for the program and be out on
the street. It was replaced by Work Ad-
vantage, a housing subsidy that is only
available to those working full-time-
and capped at two years, leaving tenants
to fend for themselves in the housing
market afterward.
The solution that many have
suggested-from elected officials like
State Senator Liz Krueger and Coun-
cilmembers Annabel Palma and Bill de
Blasio, to such national poverty groups
as the National Alliance to End Home-
lessness, as well as many homeless
people themselves-is more Section
8-style vouchers, to be supplied by the
city if necessary, to help bring apart-
ments within the reach of those who
would otherwise be priced out. A 2006
study by the U.S. Department of Hous-
ing and Urban Development found
that housing vouchers significantly re-
duced both homelessness and poverty.
Yet the Bloomberg administration has
steadfastly steered clear of voucher-
based programs for the poor; indeed,
one of Gibbs' first actions as head of
city homeless services was to stop of-
fering Section 8 to families in shelters,
on the grounds that it was drawing
people into the shelters in hopes of
jumping the line to get housing aid.
Meanwhile, the mayor's affordable
housing plan-which was launched in
late 2002 and expanded in 2006-set
aside relatively few apartments for
the formerly homeless. It did, how-
ever, target a substantial 68 percent of
its units to low-income people-those
making less than 80 percent of the
area median income, or about $56,000
a year for a family of four. At last
check, the housing production plan
was on schedule, and a study by the
Department of Housing Preservation
and Development (HPD) found that
75 percent-comfortably more than
the plan target-of those completed
units went to low-income people, with
a substantial number going to the
very poor.
But the mayor's affordable hous-
ing initiative is threatened by rising
building costs, a depleted reservoir
of tax-exempt bond financing and the
fact that the rest of the plan will be
dominated by new construction, which
is more expensive than the preserva-
tion work that has been its focus to
date. HPD itself expects that as those
higher costs bite, the remaining units
will favor moderate- rather than low-in-
come people. The agency still believes
it will hit its low-income target, but
the implication is clear: From here on
out, fewer of the affordable units com-
pleted under the Bloomberg housing
plan will go to the low-income people
targeted by the CEO .
......... .. ....... .. ..... ...... .... ...... ............. ........ . .............................. ............................................................................
Among single adults, families
and children, the city has seen
sharply higher numbers of
homeless people in shelters
during the Bloomberg admin-
istration, with a dramatic rise
in 2002 and 2003 only slowly
ebbing in subsequent years.
Source: Department of Homeless Services
26 SPRING 2008
1982 1984 1986 1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006
Kiarra, a 2-year-old Bronx resident. Nearly one in three New York City children lives below the poverty line. Photo: JM
SPRING 2008 27
John Novoa, a Legal Aid paralegal, staffs a t able offering free advice at the state office in
Brooklyn where welfare recipients can challenge benefit cuts. Photo: JM
t happens like clockwork. Every
morning, several dozen people file
into the lobby of 14 Boerum Place in
downtown Brooklyn, and stare at a digi-
tal counter as they wait for their num-
ber to be called. They are here to either
request or attend a "fair hearing," the
mechanism by which people who've
had their welfare or food stamp benefits
cut off -"sanctioned," in the terminol-
ogy of the welfare bureaucracy-can
appeal their cases to a state judge.
After Giuliani slashed 600,000 people
from the welfare rolls during his admin-
istration, welfare numbers kept drop-
ping under Bloomberg. (Falling welfare
rolls don't, of course, mean falling pov-
erty.) After a brief leveling off during the
2002-2003 economic downturn, the rolls
have been dropping like a rock since the
start of 2005, shedding almost 80,000
cases-nearly 20 percent of the remain-
ing welfare caseload-in the last three
years. And sanctioning, which Giuliani
instituted as the central focus of welfare
policy, remains high, as the city contin-
ues to cut off benefits for offenses as
small as a single missed appointment At
any given time, nearly one in four wel-
fare cases involving able-bodied adults,
or about 24,000 households, is either in
sanction or about to be.
It you're sanctioned, your only re-
course is to apply for a fair hearing,
where a judge will consider whether
to restore your benefits. After flirting
with the 80,000-a-year range in the lat-
ter years of the Giuliani administration,
fair hearing numbers fell to a recent low
of 56,090 under Bloomberg in 2006. In
2007, however, they abruptly jumped to
74,357, even as the number of public as-
sistance recipients fell by nearly 10 per-
cent during those 12 months.
For the past seven years, a group of
volunteer lawyers organized by a coali-
tion called Project FAIR has set up camp
at a table in the corner of the waiting
room at 14 Boerum Place to advise those
awaiting their day in court (The fair
hearing office is run by the state; the city
bars similar nonprofit information tables
in its own social service offices. A bill to
reverse the ban has collected more than
30 City Council sponsors, but the mayor
has yet to say whether he'll sign it) Some
of those who come for help bring stacks
of documents to support their cases; oth-
ers seem baffled by the entire process or
show up after their hearings asking what
the judge's ruling means. ('They need to
put it in big bold letters at the top: 'YOU
WON' or 'YOU LOST,' " contends Project
FAIR volunteer Shelly Agawrala about
the notoriously abstruse rulings.) The
overwhelming number of stories these
welfare recipients tell are not of the city
accusing them of fraud or lack of need,
but of a failure to jump through the right
bureaucratic hoops: "failure to comply"
and "failure to report," in Human Re-
sources Administration lingo. Some are
there because they missed work assign-
ments, others because they missed re-
quired city appointments, often claiming
that they never received any notice in the
mail. For many, the first sign that they've
been sanctioned is when a check shows
up with· a smaller amount than usual--<>r
doesn't show up at all.
Mickey Sincere, his papers show,
lost both welfare and food stamps after
failing to appear for a recertification
appointment; he said he was in a drug
rehab program at the time, but the city
said he didn't have sufficient proof. 'The
system is getting worse all the time.
This is like an every-month thing, they
cut you off," says Sincere, a resident of
28 SPRING 2008
Brooklyn. He's equally frustrated with
workfare jobs that lead nowhere but to
more unpaid work assignments. "I un-
derstand that they think you're trying
to make [welfare] a career. I don't mind
working for Sanitation," he said-if it
leads to a real job.
There's the partially disabled single vet
who was assigned by WeCARE, the city's
customized ''biopsychosocial'' assessment
program, to a work assignment doing
maintenance at a senior center. He points
to a note from his personal doctor indicat-
ing that "Patient should not use stairs."
He showed this to WeCARE's doctors,
he says, but was nonetheless assigned to
a janitorial job that required climbing up
and down several flights of stairs. His pub-
lic assistance benefits have now been cut
off, and he is worried he'll lose the Sec-
tion 8 apartment he was planning to move
into from a veterans' shelter.
And there's Yvonne Brown, a Brook-
lyn single mom of a 5-year-old, who has
become a regular at the fair hearings
office. Last May, she says, she went to
HRA because she'd gotten a turnoff no-
tice from Con Edison; the agency told
her it could keep her electricity turned
on if she agreed to have the $108 she
owed for utilities deducted from her
welfare benefits-months later, the
city is still taking the money out of her
As of late February, the city's Human
Resources Administration had cut or
threatened to cut benefits in some 24,000
of the 172,000 current public assistance
cases because of alleged rule violations.
Welfare recipients can challenge benefit
cuts at fair hearings, and after a dip,
requests for those hearings have recently
climbed under the Bloomberg adminis-
tration. The mayor's anti-poverty plan
doesn't directly address the city's $7.5
billion-a-year welfare system.
Source: Mayor's Management Reports, Fiscal Years
checks every month. "I was left with $8
every two weeks with a small child,"
she says. On this day, she's skipping
her medical-assistant-training classes to
apply for her second fair hearing on this
same case.
For the city's welfare advocates, one
of the biggest disappointments of the
poverty commission's recommendations
of people's attention when they talked
about poverty."
There is evidence, though, that HRA
could use some more advancement
The sanctioning process itself is a long-
standing sore point Project FAIR law-
yers say they commonly hear stories of
sanctions for missed appointments when
a caseworker failed to input a postpone-
was that reform of the city's notoriously
bureaucratic Human Resources Admin-
istration, which oversees welfare pro-
grams, was nowhere on the agenda. In
fact, welfare policy as a whole has been
largely off-limits for the CEO. When
asked about this, Gibbs says: "I'll be hon-
est. We decided that a ton of work had
gone on around the recipients of public
assistance cash benefits. We have a very
advanced agency on that, and it [has
usually been] almost the exclusive focus
ment request, or sanctions for failure to
comply with work rules when a client
couldn't find child care-the latter being
illegal, but apparently not in the minds
of some HRA workers. Brown says she
found her caseworker to be misinformed
about key program details and suggests
that maybe HRA needs to spring for re-
fresher courses for its employees. As a
client, she says, "I know more than she
does. Why is that?"
There's also the $200 million WeCARE
oL-__ L-__ -L ____ L-__ ~ __ ~ ____ ~ __ ~ __ ~ ~ __ ~
1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
SPRING 2008 29
program, which has been a perpetual
complaint in the fair hearing room since
the city inaugurated it in 2005. Fair hear-
ing applicants have long complained
about doctors who dismissed letters
from patients' own physicians in favor
of five-minute diagnoses, and of having
to make repeated visits to meet with
WeCARE caseworkers or risk being
sanctioned. (In 2006, a court ordered
the city to dismantle its three WeCARE
"hub centers," saying it was a violation
of the Americans With Disabilities Act
to force disabled people to travel halfway
across the city just to prove they were
disabled.) In October, an internal audit
of one of the WeCARE contractors sur-
faced that confirmed many of these sto-
ries, finding inadequate training, missing
paperwork and poor oversight; medical
exams, the audit noted, were not being
done in many cases. "Rather," the audit
found, "physicians are interviewing par-
ticipants about their conditions rather
than examining them." In response, the
city promised to keep a tighter rein on
its contractors, but moved to renew their
contracts regardless.
Since a stay in a city shelter two years
ago, Brown has been getting housing
aid for her Ocean Hill-Brownsville apart-
ment through Housing Stability Plus, the
now-orphaned city program. With the
program suspended, her rent subsidy is
now frozen at 80 percent of what it was
when she first got out of shelter-some-
thing she only found out, she says, by
doing library research, not from her
caseworker. "It's terrible," she says, not-
ing that since the program reduced her
subsidy, she's been falling short of rent
every month. "I'm trying not to go to the
shelter. What do I have to do, wait for an
eviction notice?" Though the federal gov-
ernment freed up more housing vouch-
ers in 2007, Brown has been waiting for a
Section 8 voucher for almost a year.
It the mayor's anti-poverty effort is
not interested in entitlements, neither
is Brown. 'The average person wants
to prosper-that's why I'm in school, so
one day 1 won't need them," she says.
"When I went down to apply for public
assistance, 1 said, 'Look, you may see
30 SPRING 2008
this as free money, but it's not free-I
paid taxes for 15 years. I need help right
now. I just need a stepping stone.' "
VII. Just getting by
Mayor Bloomberg's December CEO
progress report came at almost the ex-
act midpoint of his second and final term
as mayor. In a little under two years, he'll
depart from city government with CEO
programs and pilots in their infancy. One
of the vital questions about the CEO ini-
tiative is whether it will survive in post-
Bloomberg city government.
That will doubtless depend on the
city's economy, and on the programs
themselves. Gibbs hopes that develop-
ing initiatives that are well grounded
in research and evaluation will create
enough momentum that the new mayor
will feel obligated to keep them going,
regardless of mayoral changes or bud-
get crises. "It's one thing to unplug
rhetoric," she says of the future mayor.
"It's another to say, 'Oh, 1 don't want
that evaluation team anymore. Let's just
close down that office.' That's hopefully
a very difficult thing to do."
But while the CEO can lay the ground-
work, the new mayor has to be willing
to commit political capital-and budget
dollars-to fighting poverty. None of the
likely mayoral candidates responded
to City Limits' request for comment on
the mayor's anti-poverty effort, except
for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum-
who has signaled an interest in Gracie
Mansion but now says she is unlikely
to run-who applauds the mayor's ap-
proach. "I think what the mayor is do-
ing is extremely creative, and I think it
should be continued into the next ad-
ministration and I'd urge the mayor-or
if it's me, I will pledge-to keep it going,"
Gotbaum says.
Of course, it's not like the next may-
or needs to limit his or her agenda to
their campaign platform. Nor is it only
the mayor who has a say on how far
these programs go. Bloomberg "didn't
talk about poverty during the re-elec-
tion campaign," Nayowith says. But he
did launch the CEO during his second
term, "so 1 don't think that poverty by
itself is a campaign issue," she says.
'The more important thing is whether
or not private philanthropy will be sus-
tained over the transition because, if it
can, the programs can be rooted and
can come into full flower." That com-
mitment in turn might depend on the
city's corporate sector, and while some
business leaders are aware of the CEO's
work, the city's anti-poverty effort does
not have nearly as high a profile as, say,
congestion pricing does. "I think for
the most part this has been happening
below the radar screen of the business
community," says Michael Littenberg, a
lawyer and president of the Manhattan
Chamber of Commerce.
As the 2009 race draws closer, pols
and policymakers in New York will
know more about what, if anything,
the federal government under a new
president will do differently on poverty.
Nayowith believes the New York City
effort could be a national model.
Of course, that makes it all the more
important for New York to get it right.
And deciding whether Bloomberg's ini-
tiative is right depends on what one ex-
pects from the city when it vows to tackle
The Bloomberg administration's anti-
poverty effort is neither a hollow gesture
nor a crusade. It promises rigorous anal-
ysis, even a new way to calculate what
constitutes poverty itself. It boasts bold
thinking, like the conditional cash trans-
fers. But in its zeal to test small-scale pro-
grams with easily measurable results,
it steers clear of big issues like wages,
welfare and homelessness. It sidesteps
questions of whether long-standing city
policies like fingerprinting food stamp
recipients are compatible with a concert-
ed effort to empower the poor. In 2006,
the mayor promised a "major reduction
in the number of children, women and
men who live in poverty in this city over
the next four years," but in his version
of the War on Poverty, Mike Bloomberg
brings good intentions, modest budgets
and limited scope to the battle. A million
and a half people will wait to see if that's
enough .•
A sidewalk memorial on Kelly Street in the Bronx to Luis Pastrana, a.k.a. Cuba, a neighborhood figure. Photo: JM
SPRING 2008 31