When Mayor Bloomberg’s Commission on Economic Opportunities—given this administration, the unfortunate C.E.O. acronym is probably intentional—issued its final report on reducing poverty in the five boroughs last week, expectations weren’t exactly off the charts. Disgruntled members of the 38-member commission, which included leaders from business, social service, and religious groups, as well as the city’s five deputy mayors, had already leaked word to the Times last month that its findings would recommend a sort of triage, focusing only on an easily accessible subset of the city’s 1.5 million people living below the poverty line: the working poor, young adults, and children under five; Bloomberg, meanwhile, had reportedly issued an edict that both city welfare policy and the
workings of the notoriously byzantine Human Resources Administration were off the table for discussion.
The resulting 47-page “Increasing Opportunity and Reducing Poverty in New York City” is a strange read, veering from dire warnings to bright-eyed can-do-ism. While Bloomberg declared that the report was an attempt to “focus our resources,” the actual document was a grab bag of broad policy goals (create affordable housing . . . somehow), technocratic twiddles (“explore sector-focused career centers” to focus on “sectors that offer career ladder opportunities”), and problems with no identified solutions (the “benefit cliff” whereby higher-paid work often costs more in lost benefits than one gains in increased wages). To further confuse matters, the mayor’s press conference announcing the report centered on two policy initiatives—providing $1,000 tax credits for child care, and giving small cash bonuses for such things as staying in school or scoring well on standardized tests—that the commission never actually recommended, though they certainly fit with the theme of leveraging the magic of the marketplace to cure poverty.
In their cover letter, commission chairs Richard Parsons (an actual C.E.O., of Time Warner) and Geoffrey Canada (director of an ambitious anti-violence, pro-education effort in Harlem, and Bloomberg’s unofficial “poverty czar”) brag of having engaged in “discussions with a broad spectrum of people from different professions and communities, including business, labor, government, academia, foundations, and neighborhood and religious organizations.” The obvious group missing here, say critics, is the poor themselves. With one in five New Yorkers living in poverty, they shouldn’t be hard to find; the Voice tracked down some of these elusive souls at the state fair hearing site for public assistance recipients in downtown Brooklyn.
Many of those interviewed were cautiously optimistic, especially at the report’s suggestion to increase access to benefits for those who are already eligible. (The report notes that more than a quarter of eligible New Yorkers fail to get food stamps, while somewhat smaller numbers miss out on Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit; it did not mention that the mayor has consistently refused to apply for a federal waiver to expand food stamp access, even overruling his own aides on it earlier this year.) They did, though, pick up on an obstacle that the commission missed: shame. As Brooklyn mom (and former postal worker) Jermaine Gibson, cuddling her three-week-old baby, put it: “They have people who don’t want to come down and apply because they’re embarrassed. They think it’s beneath them and they really need the help.”
But if, by and large, those interviewed reacted positively to the report’s recommendations—after all, it’s hard to find fault with notions like expanding free pre kindergarten to all city kids—they then quickly returned to complaining about the bigger problems in their lives that were mostly beyond the scope of the commission’s report: lousy schools that make kids want to drop out, job programs that make you spend all day cold-calling uninterested employers, HRA workers who treat you like dirt, and most of all, the lack of jobs that pay a decent wage.
“The mayor, the president, the governor, they all messed up,” said Brooklynite Shyneetka Soto, who has actually been trying to shut down her own welfare case, but has been told that the two nieces in her custody would lose their benefits in the process. “There are no jobs for no one out here right now. And the jobs that they have, they can’t pay nothing. How are we supposed to live?”
As for the other demographic left out of the commission’s consultations—the city council—it held an afternoon-long hearing on Thursday on the poverty commission report, with general welfare committee chair Bill de Blasio especially adamant that he and the rest of the Fifty-One would work to “make this part of the public debate.” City Hall has given itself 60 days to come up with ways to implement the commission’s recommendations, meaning mid-November will be the likely test of whether Bloomberg intends to grapple with the deep roots of poverty, or merely tinker around the edges. And maybe by then, someone will have dug up some actual poor people to take part in that public debate.