News & Politics

Actual Poor People Rate Bloomy’s Poverty Plan


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
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.

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