De Blasio on Bloomberg on Poverty: Bravely Transparent, Sadly Insufficient

In advance of tomorrow’s City Council hearing on Michael Bloomberg’s effort to reducing poverty, City Councilman Bill de Blasio sent over this opinion piece in which he praises the mayor for “bravely” using  substantive benchmarks to measure its effects, but laments the insufficient follow-through.

In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg announced an ambitious goal to reduce homelessness by 2/3 by 2009 (though it looks increasingly clear that the Mayor will not come close to achieving that goal)  he began his second term by forming a blue ribbon commission to develop a host of innovative pilot programs for addressing poverty, now housed under the Mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity; and, most recently, Mayor Bloomberg created a new tool for measuring poverty in New York City, which bravely reveals that more New Yorkers are in fact living in poverty than previous figures had indicated.

The Council’s joint committee hearing on poverty takes place tomorrow at 10 a.m. at 250 Broadway. The full opinion piece by de Blasio is below.

 

Give Poor New Yorkers a Fighting Chance

By Councilmember Bill de Blasio, Chair of the Council's General Welfare Committee; Joel Berg, Executive Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger

 

Today the City Council's Committee on General Welfare and Committee on Community Development will hold a joint hearing to examine the Mayor's efforts to address poverty in New York City. Over the past several years, New Yorkers have experienced homelessness, hunger, and poverty in increasing numbers that are staggering. In 2007, 102,187 different New Yorkers slept in homeless shelters, a 23.4% increase since 2002. The number of meals served by City-supported soup kitchens and food pantries was nine percent higher in spring of 2008 than in spring 2007. And according to the Census Bureau American Community Survey, in 2007, 1.5 million New York City residents lived in poverty, which is more than when the Mayor took office in 2002.

While the welfare rolls are at their lowest level since 1963, we have to wonder where these New Yorkers are going after welfare, and if they truly have the necessary tools and resources to be self-sufficient.  A falling welfare caseload that correlates to skyrocketing homelessness and increasing reliance on emergency food sources is hardly something to celebrate.  This is not the welfare reform that President Bill Clinton envisioned: a comprehensive effort of enabling people to obtain the training and work support they need to move into living wage jobs and escape poverty.

The Mayor has not shied away from the issue of poverty.  In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg announced an ambitious goal to reduce homelessness by 2/3 by 2009 (though it looks increasingly clear that the Mayor will not come close to achieving that goal)  he began his second term by forming a blue ribbon commission to develop a host of innovative pilot programs for addressing poverty, now housed under the Mayor's Center for Economic Opportunity; and, most recently, Mayor Bloomberg created a new tool for measuring poverty in New York City, which bravely reveals that more New Yorkers are in fact living in poverty than previous figures had indicated.

But New York City deserves more. According to the Mayor's new measure, 23.0% of New Yorkers (almost one out of four city residents) are living in poverty.  Poverty is also more likely to affect minorities, with the poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics higher than the city average – 23.9% for African Americans and 29.7% for Hispanics—and well above the 16.3% poverty rate for white New Yorkers. The Center for Economic Opportunity's 31 anti- poverty measures consists mostly of small pilot projects.  While the City's reports are vague regarding the size and scope of these programs, it appears that each engages only a few thousand people, sometimes fewer. If we generously estimate that the Center for Economic Opportunity is engaging 50,000 New Yorkers, this would equal less than 3% of people actually living in poverty in the City.

New York City's poverty problem cannot be solved only through pilot programs and new measuring tools. Imagine if we tackled crime this way – by devising a series of test programs to take place on a handful of city blocks or neighborhoods, while maintaining the status quo throughout the rest of the city. It would be an outrage. And yet when it comes to poverty, our society has set its goals far too low and we have allowed poverty in our city to spiral out of control.

To defeat this mounting crisis, New York City needs nothing short of a war on poverty. The reality is that the nations; first War of Poverty in 1964 was working in dramatically decreasing poverty, until money and attention were diverted elsewhere. As the Bush administration enters its final year, we call on the Mayor to work urgently and creatively
to put the full power of New York City behind this same goal, and to join us in urgently imploring the federal government to do so. We have learned the hard way that we cannot fight poverty in a vacuum. Pilot programs and experimentation are useful, but the real gains will be made when we put down our blinders and approach New York City —its wealth, its creativity, its rapid development— as a multi-faceted engine for fighting poverty.  We have an opportunity to tackle poverty each time this city breaks ground on a building site, opens a new school, or processes a public benefits application.

 

Truly fighting poverty will mean making child care accessible and affordable rather than closing centers; fulfilling our commitment to fully fund education; leveraging local development to create local jobs and affordable housing; maximizing every available opportunity to create quality living wage jobs; eliminating barriers to food stamps and other public benefits; providing New Yorkers leaving welfare with real skills, training programs, and finally a living wage job placement.  We must live and breathe this issue daily; our eyes cannot come off the ball. Only then do we stand a chance of truly battling poverty in New York City.