Magazine article The American Prospect

Behavioral Theory: Can Mayor Bloomberg Pay People to Do the Tight Thing?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Behavioral Theory: Can Mayor Bloomberg Pay People to Do the Tight Thing?

Article excerpt

Groundwork is a tiny, storefront service agency that sits across the street from a hulking housing project in East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood infamous for being one of the poorest and most dangerous in New York City. Though on the surface many blocks in East New York lack the blight of inner-city Detroit or Baltimore, the statistics here speak volumes: The infant mortality rate is double that of the city as a whole. Half of all residents rely on public assistance. Two years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg shut down the local public high school, which had a graduation rate of only 29 percent.

On a rainy spring morning, a string of East New Yorkers visit Groundwork's office, looking for help. A middle-aged man with a speech impediment is confused about the status of his taxes; a staff member offers to call the Internal Revenue Service for him. An elderly woman wants to arrange nurse visits for a homebound friend. A laid-off Verizon fieldworker comes in to update the staff: He has successfully applied for food stamps.

Watching the daily grind, you'd never guess that Groundwork is actually ground zero for one of the most innovative--and controversial--anti-poverty programs in America. This modest community-based nonprofit is one of six neighborhood partners in the experimental Opportunity NYC program, which pays poor people--mostly single moms--for a broad range of health, education, and work-related activities, everything from taking their kids to the dentist to getting a new job to attending parent-teacher conferences.

A project of Bloomberg's Center for Economic Opportunity, Opportunity NYC is funded entirely by private philanthropies and is modeled after Opportunidades, a successful Mexican program that also uses "conditional cash transfers"--the social-science term for welfare payments conditioned on "good behavior." Small-scale cash-transfer programs have been tried before in North America: During the 1990s the Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project and Minnesota Family Investment Program offered cash to single parents on welfare who found full-time work. But Opportunity NYC exceeds the scope of those experiments by including rewards for education and health goals as well. Since its September 2007 launch, the New York initiative has paid $10 million to 2,400 families living at or beneath 130 percent of the povertyline--about $22,000 for a family of three. The typical participating family earned just under $3,000 during Opportunity NYC's first year.

Bloomberg created the Center for Economic Opportunity in 2006, an effort that includes 40 different anti-poverty programs spanning 20 city agencies. The Obama administration is observing the center carefully, looking for successes that can be scaled up at the national level. But while longtime New York City anti-poverty advocates are grateful to Bloomberg for his focus on the issue, they are not all sold on his approach. Many regard Opportunity NYC in particular as the questionable pet project of their hyper-capitalist, billionaire mayor--the richest man in New York, who is expected to spend $100 million in his quest to win a third term.

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"Opportunity NYC borders on offensive--the idea that a person can be bribed into doing better in school or being a better parent," says Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Progressive Policy in New York City. "It sort of suggests that poverty is a lifestyle choice, that somehow if we're just given a nudge, that we can choose not to be in this condition, or choose for our children to do better in school, or choose as parents to provide better child care. It comes out of the idea that poor people are almost sort of culturally and inherently dysfunctional. Not because of structural circumstances but because of their own personal failings."

In April the city published initial results of the trial, which is the largest-ever controlled test of conditional cash transfers in the United States. …

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