Op-Ed: The Bloomberg-Era Anti-Poverty Programs de Blasio Should Keep Around

Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future writes about anti-poverty policies that succeeded or showed promise in New York City over the last 12 years.

You listening, Bill? Credit: Bill de Blasio on Flickr

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When New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio takes office in January, he will inherent a number of serious social policy challenges. An estimated 1.6 million New Yorkers live below the federal poverty line, including nearly a third of the city’s children. The homeless population is at an all-time high, the city suffers from an alarming skills gap and, for low-income residents, the road to the middle class has become more arduous than ever.

If this year’s mayoral campaign was any indication, the mayor-elect will not waste a lot of time before launching new programs and policies to tackle these formidable problems. But while the city could surely benefit from new strategies to aid the growing number of New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet, it would be a mistake for de Blasio to start entirely from scratch. Indeed, a number of important social policy innovations during the Bloomberg administration’s 12 years deserve to be continued or expanded upon.

The Bloomberg administration’s social policy feats are not nearly as well-known as its experiments in sustainability, transportation, economic development and public health, where initiatives such as PlaNYC, pedestrian plazas in Times Square, a new applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island and a ban on trans fats in restaurants gained international attention.

Yet under Bloomberg, the city has launched several groundbreaking social programs that have produced impressive results or demonstrated significant promise, including the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), the Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) and the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI). The administration also pioneered new approaches to social policy, including a greater emphasis on evidence and data, more interagency collaborations, and a dramatic expansion of efforts to leverage private resources.

In particular, the CEO’s creation in 2006 heralded an era of risk-taking and experimentation rarely seen in prior administrations. CEO incubated more than 50 anti-poverty programs that may never have gotten started otherwise, put poverty on the agenda of every city agency, made significant strides in cross-agency collaboration, created a new emphasis on rigorous testing programs and funding those that produced results, and brought in considerable resources from the philanthropic and corporate sector to support anti-poverty initiatives.

If it were possible to continue only one Bloomberg-era anti-poverty policy, you could make a strong argument that it should be CEO. But many other standout anti-poverty programs got their start in the past decade.

For instance, CUNY ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), established by CEO and the City University of New York in 2007, has more than doubled the community college graduation rate for those who participate. The program, which blankets incoming students with support services designed to remove common barriers to graduation, has been a tremendous achievement, especially in an age when an associate’s degree has become a critical platform to economic mobility.

Jobs-Plus, a place-based initiative that connects public housing residents with jobs and workforce development programs while eliminating disincentives for work, shows significant promise in improving outcomes for people living in New York City Housing Authority buildings, where the unemployment rate is about twice the citywide average and almost half of all residents live in poverty. OFE has put money in the wallets of thousands of poor New Yorkers by helping them build assets, reduce debt and take advantage of tax credits that had previously gone unused.

In addition, new school-based health clinics have helped reduce teen pregnancy rates by 25 percent, the Neighborhood Opportunity Network has transformed probation offices into resource centers, and the city’s Office of Child Support Management has helped non-custodial parents find employment and reduce debt so they can better comply with child support orders.

Of course, Bloomberg’s record in addressing poverty has been far from perfect. While the administration succeeded with a number of innovative programs, many remained too small to make a significant dent in the problem. Some new initiatives, like the Out of School Time afterschool program, offered much promise but were never given the resources to meet the significant demand. And city funding for a number of other vital social programs has been cut or flat-lined, even as the need for these services has increased.

Yet there are a number of effective anti-poverty programs from the Bloomberg administration that are clearly worth building on. At a time when the city faces a significant budget deficit and the likelihood of declining support from Washington, the incoming administration would be wise to invest in programs with proven records of success.

In any transition from one administration to the next, it is tempting for newly elected mayors to become overly focused on developing new policies and programs. It is arguably just as important for incoming mayors to understand which existing policies are worth keeping.

Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based think tank which today published “Innovations to Build On,” a report profiling 10 social policy innovations from the Bloomberg administration that deserve to be continued or expanded in the de Blasio administration. Follow the Center @nycfuture.

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Tags: new york citypovertypublic housingmichael bloombergbill de blasio2013 mayoral races

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