The RP History Month Profile: Mike Bloomberg Hates Poverty

Unlike Weboy, I’m not giddy over NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s efforts to turn the Big Apple into the Big Green Apple (did I really just write that? Yep, there it is in front of me.  Eeek.).  Try as I may, I just cannot get interested in climate change, the environment (other than my own personal space), or energy, despite the realization that these are THE policy issues du jour.  You know me, it’s nothing but poverty, the poor, public housing and inequality over here at the RP.  (I know, poverty and the environment are hardly mutually exclusive.  Can we just move on already??)

I’m not alone.  Bloomberg, the only male GOP I’ve ever voted for, has made tackling poverty the core issue of his second administration.  And true to my form of trying to meld my MBA/PhD ways, he’s tackling the issue with non-traditional, innovative, public-private approaches (ok, public-private partnerships are not new nor pathbreaking, per se, but Bloomberg’s attempts to use city government as a host for entrepreneurial pilot programs rather than situating such initiatives outside the bounds of municipal control is original). 

Like Wesley, I’m generally on board with Bloomberg and his initiatives.  Keep in mind he’s a generous philanthropist for whom the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins is named; a friend of mine working for the NYC Dept. of Health was told by a colleague that now is the “golden age” for the department on Bloomberg’s watch.  (That they give her NO paid maternity leave is abysmal; that she works in their Maternal & Infant Health group is beyond ironic.)

So of course I’m pleased to see several developments in the last six months in NYC:

the creation of the Center for Economic Opportunity ($), a venture-philanthropy like city office that will spend $150m/year on “experimental programs” and “nontraditional solutions” to fighting poverty;


– the launch of one program with the Center, a $50M privately funded initiative to give cash bonuses to poor families ($) (“conditional cash transfers”) for specific actions such as attending parent-teacher conferences or going to the doctor.  Similar programs in Latin America have proven to raise school attendance and nutrition rates; one program in Mexico that provides grants to 25% of the country’s population has found the overall number of families living in extreme poverty has dropped.

At broad brush, these are great initiatives and a good sign of things to come from this administration that has worked hard at confronting homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, and arguably, shrinking economic inequality in the city.  Their focus on outcomes and the combination of government stewardship with flexible private funds are popular and easily sold on funders.  (We obviously can’t ignore the value of Bloomberg’s rolodex here either.) 

Yet, keep two things in mind before you add Bloomberg to your list of idols (especially now that Sanjaya’s departure has opened up a spot). 

First, there is a paternalistic, classist emphasis in these programs in their “focus on personal behavior,” specifically that they are “rewarding good behavior and promoting self-sufficiency.”  Taken without context, it’s difficult to dispute such an approach.  For sure, I often received a new Cabbage Patch Kid for good report cards growing up (did I mention I have eight?).  The problem arises given that the mayor understands that “struggling families…often focus on basic daily survival”  and therefore operate within severely constrained parameters that influence their prioritizing and resources available for activities such as parent-teacher conferences or keeping doctor’s appointments, or even their ability to work full-time versus part-time, given the cost and difficulty of accessing child care in the city and the instability of jobs that don’t provide benefits or time off for a child’s illness, etc.  The use of the phrase “good behavior” here implies that somehow families are “misbehaving” when trying to make ends meet or raise their kids to the best of their ability, etc.  It’s also not clear how $$ every couple months communicates the notion that attending parent-teacher conferences are “better long-term decisions” for kids and families, even as parent participation in their children’s education is something most families likely would say matters, if asked.

Fortunately, other Center initiatives include tax credits for childcare, and educational programs emphasizing prenatal care or financial skills.  These are all good things.  Merging them with cash payments for meeting appointments and job requirements requires more clarity.  For instance, in waxing eloquent about the cash transfer program, Bloomberg maintains that it will leave parents with “better career skills.”  How that will be the case is not clear, if we’re merely rewarding them for attendance, or hours worked. 

Ultimately, if the program’s anticipated success at keeping kids in school proves true, it will be an important step towards “[breaking] generational cycles of poverty and dependence.”  It’s critical for those of us who care about alleviating poverty to remember that results often bear out over generations.  Ideally, Bloomberg and his public-private partners will build this into their measurements of program outcomes.    

The second issue is the failure to focus on the structural impediments to economic mobility, namely the growth in insecure low-wage jobs, the shrinking of secure, middle-income opportunities, and the prohibitive cost of higher education that is more or less mandatory for economic success.  One of the issues they’re seeing in Mexico is that children are growing up and graduating from secondary school only to find there are literally no jobs for the taking.  These families run the same risk lest we put our heads together to generate jobs that promise stability and growth.  The fact that income inequality is only widening in the U.S., with NYC having one of the worst gaps, and that wages are stagnant for the middle class does not bode well for these families hoping to climb up from the bottom of the economic ladder. Rather than “incentivizing” (a made-up b-school word) them,

“In an economy where inequality was the problem, you would want to protect people. You would help them pay for health insurance, retirement, their children’s education and other basic needs when the market, left to its own devices, was not doing so.”

Seems setting poor people up to compete in a market that’s been failing them to begin isn’t necessarily the best policy.  Gazillionaire Bloomberg and his wealthy, corporate buddies might keep this in mind. (Of course, if Bloomberg doesn’t run them all out of Manhattan first.  Stay strong, Mike!!)


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