Bloomberg's Wager

Is there anything new to try in fighting poverty? The mayor of New York thinks so.
by | December 2006

Debates about poverty still break down, for the most part, along the ideological lines that have been in place since the 1960s. Conservatives continue to argue that poverty is the unfortunate byproduct of cultural problems, such as teen pregnancy and single- parent households, and that government can do little without creating more dependency and more victims. Liberals cling to their belief that the government has never really made enough of a fiscal commitment to education, child care and other anti-poverty programs to justify any such categorical pronouncements.

But to some extent, the line between the two camps is blurring. More and more policy makers argue that both individual self-help and institutional intervention are necessary to ease chronic poverty. There's no better evidence of this than in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to fashion a new approach.

The details are still being worked out, but Bloomberg wants to target three groups in particular--the adult working poor, children under the age of 5, and young people between 16 and 24. Among other things, the mayor wants New York to become the first city in the nation to provide a tax credit for child care. He is counting on the private sector to pony up funds that would reward parents who make good choices, such as bringing their children in for regular health checkups. Many of these ideas have been put in place in Latin American countries, but most haven't been tried in this form in the United States.

The mayor's plan has engendered complaints from both sides of the policy spectrum. Liberal advocates worry that it offers nothing new to some groups, especially the elderly and homeless. Heather Mac Donald, of the conservative Manhattan Institute, warns that government shouldn't get in the business of offering financial bounties for engaging in "ordinary sound bourgeois behavior."

But in this area as in many others, Bloomberg has staked his political reputation on being a manager rather than an ideologue. He's convinced that urban poverty is not a problem beyond solution, in spite of a generation of failed efforts. If his ideas are implemented, and show even a modest degree of success, he will have served another important purpose as well: He will have moved a long-standing policy debate a few more steps beyond the ideological trench warfare in which it has been mired for years.