Monday, July 17, 2006

Anti-Poverty in NYC: I Want to Believe
Because I don't get the print copy of the New York Times every day, sometimes I miss things I really, from a professional responsibility standpoint, should have read. So it was Monday with this article, which a colleague--my supervisor, actually--mentioned to me at the Yankee game that night. The piece had little actual news to it; a more descriptive title might have been "Group Continues to Meet and Deliberate." But its content does give me a little hope, for the first time, that Mayor Bloomberg's Commission on Economic Opportunity might accomplish something beyond briefly focusing the attention of a thin slice of the public on the seemingly intractable problems of the city's poor.

First a little background, for those who don't know. (And don't feel bad: the administration has imposed a virtual press blackout on this group since before its Commissioners were even announced, probably as a way of keeping expectations low and reducing outside pressures. Pretty shrewd.) Bloomberg won re-election last year despite a theme of criticism that NYC during his first term had been a much more congenial place for those with greater means than those with less. Indeed, the percentage of statistically poor New Yorkers (those in families earning under the federally set poverty standard--itself a horribly inadequate tool for measuring material want; a better one is the Self-Sufficiency Standard) grew during the last few years, while it shrank in many other large U.S. cities. The criticism never seriously imperiled Bloomberg's chances, partly because the fact of rising poverty didn't really stick to the mayor himself and partly because opponent Freddie Ferrer so clearly had no idea how to actually improve the situation, but it must have bothered the mayor--and the rumor I heard was that various parties extracted a promise for him to create this Commission as a response to the problem.

Bloomberg did so in a typically thoughtful way. His two co-chairs are Richard D. Parsons, chair of Time Warner and arguably the most successful African-American businessman in the country, and Geoff Canada, a street thug turned non-profit superhero whose Harlem Children's Zone is itself one of the most ambitious and comprehensive anti-poverty efforts ever launched. The 32 other Commissioners are, as the Times article says, "drawn from the upper echelons of New York City’s business, nonprofit, academic and social services sectors." The ones I know, or know of, are all exceptionally talented and dedicated. The mayor then put his newly minted Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, a woman with near-universal respect in her orbit, in charge of staffing and administering the whole project, and made it clear to all city agencies that they had to be on board. I can't over-emphasize how important this last point is; turf instincts and bureaucratic foot-dragging can very easily scuttle something like this.

Finally, he put some constraints on the conversation: again quoting the article, "Mr. Bloomberg has charged the commission with finding ways to diminish or eradicate poverty without significantly increasing the size or cost of government." A lot of my friends and colleagues who have participated in the discussions (I was invited to attend two sessions last month, but couldn't go because of deadlines) found this caveat enormously constraining at first--but it was probably necessary to control for the regrettable liberal instinct to attack deep-seated social problems wallet-first. Sotto voce, it's been said that some new spending might happen, which further suggests to me that this was a deliberate framing choice.

So what did they come up with? Specific recommendations aren't due for awhile yet, but the conversation seems to be going in a direction I would have hoped for, but didn't expect:

[T]he thinking... has narrowed to a central notion: the solution to poverty is employment. But in a twist on the welfare-to-work policies of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the group has agreed that the government must use more of its resources to foster conditions that allow people to enter the work force and stay in it.

To achieve that goal, the commission has been looking at ways to increase access to child care so parents can hold on to their jobs. It has also been devising ways to use city resources to tailor training programs to an ever-changing job market, and to focus public schools on preparing students not only for college, but also for the workplace. The approach departs from the welfare-based strategies of previous generations, but emphasizes government’s role in making employment worthwhile for the poor.

“It’s not about pumping public benefits into households in order that they can have disposable income,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, who is overseeing the commission. Rather, she said, the focus is “what can we do to direct investments in poor households in a way that improves their earning capacity.”

Damn right. Unlike many of my colleagues, I've never really had a problem with the foundational premise of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which eliminated the entitlement to assistance. Work is a core value of our society; we should honor it, and it's fair that we hold it out as a condition of assistance. But we also have to reward it. I'm currently writing a piece for the Joyce Foundation on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, and how it's played out in the Midwest (where Joyce does its grantmaking). The results are pretty unambiguous: welfare rolls went down everywhere, but a discouragingly small percentage of those who made the jump from welfare to work actually escaped poverty.

Why? Two main reasons, both of which the NYC Commission seems to appreciate. First, their jobs just didn't pay well. By and large, the public assistance population then--and even more so now--didn't have a lot of education or employable skill. Economists talk about a "reservation wage," what some people not working at any given time would have to make before they'd take a job. People tend to be rational about their economic choices; pre-1996, welfare was often literally a better deal for those people than working for $3.35 an hour or whatever the minimum was then--especially because they lost almost a dollar of welfare for every dollar they earned working, as well as eligibility for benefits like health care. (Back then, you lost Medicaid if you started working.)

After '96, the incentives were changed; you couldn't stay on welfare forever, and in most states you could keep drawing some assistance and your (and your kids') benefits while starting work. But the pay still sucked. The welfare reform law pushed millions of new, mostly unskilled jobseekers into the labor market just as the economy was increasingly rewarding education and training--but its provisions made relatively little allowance for participants to gain the credentials and knowledge that would provide them greater earning power. (I also think the glut of new entrants depressed wages for low-skill workers already in that labor market, but that's just a theory.) Most states adopted what was called a "Work First" approach, but a better name would have been "Work First, Last and Only." And this despite a lot of research showing that a "mixed model," featuring both work and skill attainment, was by far the most effective in reducing poverty.

The second reason is that even when former welfare recipients got jobs, other issues in their lives constantly imperiled their ability to keep those jobs. Childcare, physical and mental health, housing, transportation--all the sorts of things that middle-class and wealthy working families can deal with because of their greater resources--played havoc with the employment of these workers. Government programs exist to help people handle all these sets of issues--but many are too small to meet the need, and often low-income workers aren't aware of them or can't access them. The challenge is to bring all those resources to bear in hopes of giving these workers the tools to handle their problems.

In making notes for this Joyce project, the idea came to me that for the nation as a whole, welfare reform was a conservative success, because it so dramatically cut the rolls, but a liberal failure, because it didn't lift all that many people out of poverty. The problem of course is that there was no clear consensus on what it was supposed to do: no single goal was defined. The NYC Commission does have a clear goal: to reduce poverty. The strategy by which it evidently means to do this is work. And its members seem to grasp that you can only do this by connecting work to opportunity and offering it with a measure of security. There are still a million places where this can and maybe will fall to pieces--but just that they've gotten this far is pretty exciting.

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