Big Apple Opportunity

March 10, 2011
Welcome to New York City. The Big Apple. The City of Light. The Capitol of the World. Every year, multitudes of Americans and foreigners alike travel here with undaunted dreams and impervious optimism. Estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau at a population of 8.3 million, New York City is an emblem of hope to many and, yet, a dungeon to others trapped in the shackles of urban poverty and hardship.
In 2009, 44 million, or 14.3 percent, of Americans were said to be below the poverty line. The New York Times reported that about 20 percent of NYC's inhabitants are considered poor. How should this fabled city in a proverbial “promised land” go about ending the cycle of poverty within its borders?
In 2007, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the implementation of a government program called “Opportunity NYC,” an experimental Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) plan aimed at aiding poor New Yorkers. According to the City of New York, the “pilot initiative” would “provide monetary incentives to households living in poverty” that completed activities such as attending school, visiting the doctor, and working.
Conditional Cash Transfer programs, however, will not succeed in poor areas of a developed country. Opportunity NYC was not, and is not, a quality program for the United States for three key reasons: the first, poor planning by program designers, the second its misguided motivational strategy, and the third its lack of results.
The first, and probably most severe, mistake of Opportunity NYC was the conception by project designers that their New York Program could function similarly to the program in Mexico that it was modeled after. Oportunidades, meaning Opportunities in Spanish, is, according to a Shanghai Poverty Conference case study, the principal anti-poverty program of the Mexican government. By providing female heads of families with cash grants after they have attended health workshops, made regular visits to their doctor, and kept their children in school, the Mexican government is, in a sense, stimulating the economy like Obama attempted with his Economic Stimulus Package.
Oportunidades has been incredibly successful in Mexico. Public Radio International reported in January of 2009 that the Mexican poverty rate has improved so dramatically that Oportunidades spin-offs are being adopted in 30 other countries, including the project in New York City.
Mexico, however, is a world removed from the Big Apple. “A welfare mother in Central Harlem is not poor for the same reasons that a subsistence corn farmer in Mexico is poor,” wrote Heather MacDonald in City Journal magazine. The Mexican government was aiding mainly farming peasants of a vastly different background than the urban poor of America. While the agricultural parents of Mexico were taking their children out of school to help with the harvest, those in metropolitan New York were certainly not. In fact, as MacDonald continued, very few inner-city parents exercise any control over the lives of their children. Urban kids skip school because “their peer pressure is toxic.”
Furthermore, the poor of Mexico do not have access to the technologies and advancements that the poor of the United States do. Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, names the “big drivers” of American poverty as the “failure to complete high school, having a child without being married, and the failure to maintain an attachment to the labor force.” While these drivers hold true in virtually all societies, there is a dividing comparison between third-world and industrial nation poor.
In any case, for an anti-poverty program to be effective, proper motivation must be created in the participant. Those that criticize Opportunity NYC worry that offering monetary incentives for “normal” activities is morally erroneous. If the program succeeded, participants would be accomplishing activities for the want of money. Parents wouldn’t encourage students to attend school because it was important to gain an education, but because it promised an instant payoff.
As Edward Banfield implied in his book “The Unheavenly City,” the poor live in the short-term, the rich in the long-term. By offering cash rewards for such activities as attending school and following up with a doctor, the further foreshortening of the poor’s ambition would be inevitable. Once again, writer Heather MacDonald appropriately deduced that, “Society would become divided between a caste that acted responsibly because it understood that it was the right thing to do, and another caste that got paid by the responsible caste to follow social norms.”
In 1999, a study on rewarded behavior in relation to motivation was conducted by three professors from the University of Rochester and McGill University. They confirmed that once the reward disappeared, participant progress did as well. This result is what critics propose will happen if such a Family Rewards program as Opportunity NYC were to be annulled.
The nation will soon have its chance to judge the accuracy of these theories, as Opportunity NYC discontinued payments in August of 2010. In this way, the MDRC, which helped to design and execute Opportunity NYC, can evaluate the effects of the three-year program to determine whether it is worthwhile to continue.
But what were the results? The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) was particularly interested in program results relating to students. It reported that out of 50 attendance and test-score outcomes the only favorable findings for the program was that of a 2.9 percentage increase in proficiency of elementary students in the state math test. However, when 20 attendance and credit-accumulation results for high school partakers were compared, a 95% increase in both areas was observed.
Still, no significant improvements were seen in graduation rates, and only modest outcomes were reported in health and workforce categories. In addition, as a MDRC preliminary report conceded, the effort of program participants from year one to year two declined across the boards. Standing in stark contrast to the immense success of Mexico’s Oportunidades program, the MDRC attributes the minimal success it had in New York to the relative complexity of the program. It argues that outcomes will improve as the program matures.
Long-term effects of Opportunity NYC will be collected and studied first this fall, with a final report due in 2013. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg, the MDRC, and other contributing private organizations will really discover if their investment paid off, particularly after their incentives were no longer offered to participants.
Meanwhile, the poor of New York City will continue on with their lives, some to be empowered by the Family Awards approach, but most to return to their pre-Opportunity NYC lifestyles. Perhaps one finding of the MDRC’s first report offers a more rational solution to poverty. The families that received the most income from Opportunity NYC were the most functional in the first place. They were being paid for activities that, for the most part, they already engaged in regularly. Incidentally, City Journal magazine reported that these families had higher rates of marriage.
New York University professor Larry Mead shared his Opportunity NYC prediction in 2007, stating: “If the poor were as responsive to [financial] incentives as the policy assumes, they wouldn’t be poor for very long in the first place.” He also connected the absence of “strong paternalism and clear moral guidance” to the presence of poverty.
As indirectly illustrated by the semi-functional families described previously, households headed by a single-parent were the main source of long-term poverty in New York City. Single-parent families are usually headed by the Mother, which the National Poverty Center reports as the largest group making up the national poverty total. As researcher Robert Rector shared earlier, single-parentage is a main driver of poverty.
Probably the most direct solution in erasing poverty is this: marriage. In his book “Life without Fathers,” David Popenoe describes the importance of the father-child relationship. He says the absence of a father in the life of children produces, “crime, premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births to teenagers, deteriorating educational achievement, depression, [and] substance abuse,” all factors that contribute to poverty.
Moreover, North Dakota State University (NDSU) family science specialist Sean Brotherson suggested that, “School-aged and adolescent children show better academic achievement and school behavior [and] a positive self-esteem….. when the relationship with the father is positive.” When raised under the constructive and positive parenting of two parents, especially a father, children are simply better prepared for all life has to throw at them, including the ability to break the chains of poverty.
While single-parentage usually isn’t a choice, and many healthy, rational individuals have been raised in a single parent household, one cannot dismiss the overwhelming positivity of the influence of two parents in a child’s life. Rather than bribing families with short-term rewards, anti-poverty workers should seek to establish a lasting impact in their participants’ lives by first encouraging and enabling improvements in the basic family unit. Move over, Opportunity NYC, wedding bells are ringing.

Join the Discussion

This article has 1 comment. Post your own now!

Anonymous said...
Feb. 7, 2012 at 9:40 pm
Sounds like you did some will be interesting to see what the final report says.....
Site Feedback