Accountability and the Poverty Fight

A New York City initiative aims to help the poor by supporting successful programs — and killing ineffective ones.
by , | December 6, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

In a 1964 speech, President Lyndon Johnson famously said that "for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty." Nearly half a century later, that War on Poverty has seen far more defeats than victories, but it has also taught us many lessons. New York City is using those lessons to shape a more successful, if less ambitious, anti-poverty initiative.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in 2006 to implement the recommendations of a high-profile city commission. CEO uses a $100 million innovation fund, about $20 million of which is raised privately, to finance 40 targeted, performance-based initiatives.

Since CEO is located in the mayor's office, it can break down silos. The initiative coordinates with 20 city agencies to target three populations: the working poor, young adults and children under 6. In all, these groups account for 725,000 of the city's 1.8 million poor people, or about 40 percent, so New York's effort is a far cry from the nationwide effort to eradicate poverty entirely that began in the 1960s.

The New York initiative uses independent evaluation firms and rigorous data collection to determine whether programs are achieving specific outcome targets. Programs that achieve their goals are sustained and expanded; those that don't are eliminated.

CEO released 18 program evaluations in 2009 and followed up with evaluations of three workforce-development programs in January of 2010. Among the successes was a joint program with the City University of New York that provides students with support to earn an associate's degree, ideally in a high-demand area in which there are opportunities to transfer to a four-year institution. The first cohort of students graduated at a rate that was more than twice that of a comparable group that did not receive the support.

Other successes include the Young Adult Internship program, in which more than 90 percent of enrollees completed internships and nearly half of those were placed in employment or education. An Office of Financial Empowerment is helping educate low-income New Yorkers on how to manage their household budgets.

Programs that didn't work have indeed been eliminated. They include one designed to place welfare recipients in entry-level jobs with city agencies, a literacy program for young adults emerging from incarceration, and efforts to promote online screening for city benefits. Perhaps Ronald Reagan was wrong when he called government programs "the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

Knowing which programs are working and which aren't allowed CEO to use $50 million in stimulus and private funding last year to serve 65,000 New Yorkers by scaling up five of the most effective innovations. A $5.7 million Social Innovation Fund grant awarded by the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2010 will allow CEO to expand successful programs in New York and provide resources for the initiative to help eight other cities replicate its work.

But CEO sees as its greatest achievement its 2008 development and launch in 2008 of an alternative poverty measure for New York City. Since the federal measure doesn't take existing government aid to low-income families into account, it's impossible to tell how taxpayer investments have impacted poverty-reduction efforts. The CEO measure allows the city to follow the trajectory of poverty over time and have much better data on which groups are most impacted. This year, the U.S. Census Bureau launched a supplementary poverty measure that reflects CEO's methodology.

When he created CEO in 2006, Mayor Bloomberg said, "What we're trying to do is to identify groups … we believe we know how to help, focus our resources, demand accountability. … How much we can improve society, we don't know."

This incremental approach is a long way from the rhetoric of the War on Poverty. But it is informed by having a much better idea than in 1964 of just what a stubborn foe we're up against.