June 28, 2016Op-ed

Washington Monthly: How Failures Helped Lead to Success in New York’s War on Poverty (Part 3)

by Linda Gibbs and Robert Doar

Local/ 2016/

One year into creating a citywide apparatus to fight poverty, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an experiment that, while popular in Mexico and Brazil, met with cynicism in America’s largest city. The program—Family Rewards—provided cash payments to the poor if they took such positive actions as sending children to school. Not everybody liked the idea. New York’s two major tabloids published opinion columns critical of the give-away nature of the program.

“You might say, why should we pay people for doing what they are supposed to do?” Bloomberg asked a crowd at the National Press Club in Washington, DC in August 2007. “I think it is a fair question.”

Unfortunately, Family Rewards did not, in fact, become the success that was hoped for. But Bloomberg’s willingness to try something bold – and potentially even controversial – was central to New York City’s eventual success in driving down its poverty rate at a time when poverty rates nationally were rising. Even today, New York City’s poverty rate is among the lowest in the nation’s 20 largest metro areas.