Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New York tackles poverty

A program similar to the one New York is considering has raised primary school enrollment rates in Nicaragua from 68 percent to 90 percent, while in Colombia secondary school enrollment rose to 78 percent from 64 percent

By Diane Cardwell  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Seeking new solutions to New York's vexingly high poverty rates, the city is moving ahead with an ambitious experiment that would pay poor families up to US$5,000 a year to meet goals like attending parent-teacher conferences, going for a medical checkup or holding down a full-time job, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Thursday.

Under the program, which is based on a similar effort in Mexico, parents would receive payments every two months for family members meeting any of a series of criteria. The payments could range from US$25 for exemplary attendance in elementary school to US$300 for a high score on an important exam, city officials said.

The officials said the program was the first of its kind in the country.

The project, first announced in the fall, was scheduled to begin as a pilot program in September with 2,500 randomly selected families whose progress would be tracked against 2,500 families who would not get the rewards. Officials planned to draw the families from six of the poorest communities in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

To be eligible, families must have at least one child entering fourth, seventh or ninth grade and a household income of 130 percent or less of the federal poverty level, which equals roughly US$20,000 for a single parent with two children.

The city has already raised US$42 million of the US$50 million needed to cover the initial program's cost from private sources, including Bloomberg. If it proves successful, the mayor said, the city would attempt to create a permanent program financed by the government.

Likening the payments, known as conditional cash transfers, to tax incentives that steer people of greater means toward property ownership, Bloomberg said that the approach was intended to help struggling families who often focus on basic daily survival make better long-term decisions and break generational cycles of poverty and dependence.

"In the private sector, financial incentives encourage actions that are good for the company -- working harder, hitting sales targets or landing more clients," the mayor said in an announcement at a health services center in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

"In the public sector, we believe that financial incentives will encourage actions that are good for the city and its families -- higher attendance in schools, more parental involvement in education and better career skills."

Since Bloomberg outlined the plan last fall, reaction among anti-poverty experts and advocates has been mixed, with some hailing it as an innovative approach that could become a powerful model for the rest of the country and ultimately gain the support of the federal government.

The program is being financed by several high-profile organizations, including the Rockefeller, Starr and Robin Hood Foundations, as well as the Open Society Institute and the insurance and financial firm American International Group.

The Rockefeller and Starr Foundations are donating US$10 million each, while the Open Society Institute is giving US$5 million and AIG is donating US$2 million. A spokeswoman for the Robin Hood Foundation did not return calls or an e-mail message, and Bloomberg's spokesman, Stu Loeser, declined to say how much the mayor contributed.

Some anti-poverty advocates have bristled at what they see as the condescending notion that poor people need to be told how to raise their families. Others have focused on the broader economic issues at play.

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