The Magazine

Learning for Dollars

Bloomberg's fanciful antipoverty program.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his latest change of political party two weeks ago and cast himself as an innovative anti-politician. "Any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles," he said via press release, "and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular political ideology." Such results-oriented executives, the implication was clear, are precisely what presidential voters are hungering for.

By now, there are few political appeals more conventional than the claim that one is unconventional and above party. But this time, the newly minted independent mayor (who had just lightly dispensed with his temporary and self-serving "Republican" identity) had rolled out a "new" solution to an old problem--poverty--the day before. Anyone interested in seeing what Bloomberg's rhetoric of "innovative," nonpartisan problem-solving means in practice will find his new poverty plan illuminating. It combines a clever technocratic veneer with a profound ignorance of civil society. If this at present privately funded pilot were ever duplicated widely, it could prove to be one of the most destructive welfare policies ever devised.

Bloomberg plans to pay low-income parents in six New York neighborhoods to behave responsibly toward their children, and their children to take advantage of school. Starting in September 2007, 2,550 parents enrolled in the "Opportunity NYC conditional cash transfer" pilot will get $25 for reviewing their child's test scores, and another $25 for discussing those scores with a teacher. Merely attending a parent-teacher conference earns $25. Obtaining a library card nets $50; taking one's child to the dentist or to a doctor-recommended (and taxpayer-subsidized) medical exam, $100. Students will receive monthly bounties for school attendance; improvement on standardized tests yields about $300; completing 11 high-school credits is priced at $600 a year. In a separate pilot, 9,000 fourth- and seventh-grade students will receive up to $100 simply for taking required math and English tests; answering all questions correctly garners up to $500.

Funding for the $53 million pilot is to come from foundations such as Rockefeller and George Soros's Open Society Institute, as well as from Mayor Bloomberg himself. But if after two years the project architects are satisfied with the results, the mayor envisages extending the incentives city-wide and paying for them with hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

Give the Bloomberg policymakers credit for one thing: The cash-for-responsibility plan violates the greatest taboo in the poverty industry. It implicitly recognizes that the long-term poor are held back more by their own behavior than by social inequities. Talk to any inner-city teacher and you will hear how difficult it is to get parents involved in their child's education, or students to bother with homework. Countless schemes for tutoring and job training sit on the shelves unused because the "clients" never show up. Free medical advice is wasted because patients don't return for follow-up visits, if they bother following the doctor's instructions at all. After the urban riots of the 1960s, political scientist Edward Banfield observed that the central trait separating the poor from the prosperous is future orientation. His insight has never been improved upon. The middle and upper classes defer gratification and invest effort in self-improvement, Banfield wrote in The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of our Urban Crisis; were the underclass to do so, they would not long stay in the bottom economic tier.

In unveiling his "conditional cash transfer" scheme on June 18, Bloomberg predictably eschewed Banfield's bracing honesty. The poor fail to "plan for the future," the mayor said, because they are "so focused on surviving." The idea that the residents of Brooklyn and Central Harlem are engaged in a "struggle," as Bloomberg put it, against starvation and depredation is a fantasy. Many teens who will be enrolled in "Opportunity NYC" likely wear the latest sneakers and carry pagers and cell phones. Their problem is motivation, not the unforgiving demands of a subsistence economy. Nevertheless, Bloomberg should be congratulated for implicitly acknowledging the behavior issue, however misleading the rhetoric in which he couches it.