Spotlight Exclusives

A National Agenda for Poverty Research and Development, by Veronica White, Executive Director of the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity

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This week the Census Bureau makes its annual announcement of the number of Americans living in poverty. The annual benchmark is our primary measure of economic deprivation and informs government program eligibility and resource allocation. This week۪s announcement provides a good opportunity to consider just how accurate this measurement is and also to reflect on how we can improve our anti-poverty efforts.

In order to know what works, we must first have a clear and accurate picture of the scope of the problem. Last year۪s Census Bureau figure indicated that approximately twelve percent of Americans were living in poverty. While we are concerned with the trend of this figure over time, there is wide consensus that the current poverty measure is out of date. It does not capture the realities of poverty in our country; nor does it fully measure government efforts to combat poverty. That is why New York City۪s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) spearheaded an effort to develop a new measure based on the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. This poverty measure reflects the impacts of government interventions (such as tax credits and in-kind assistance), actual household expenditures, and geographic differences in costs of living. This tool will help better assess the nature of the problem and the impacts of our work.

While attention to the numbers is crucial to understanding the state of poverty in our nation, we must also keep our lens focused on new and innovative research-driven programs that can contribute to reducing poverty in our communities. CEO۪s basic strategies include promoting employment and educationwell-established avenues out of poverty. Our innovation is to approach these issues with new ideas, a sense of urgency, and a focus on accountability.

To fuel this new effort, New York City stepped up its commitment to fighting poverty with the allocation of new funds, resources and staff. CEO manages an annual Innovation Fund of $150 million to develop and implement new poverty interventions. These investments are strategic, and our focus on evaluation allows us to try new things, analyze the results, and then efficiently direct our resources toward the ideas that work.

One of CEO۪s biggest and most successful programs to date is a local Child Care Tax Credit that this year helped more than 50,000 families meet their child care needs. Another program that supports work is our conditional cash transfer program, Opportunity NYC, which rewards families for completing employment, education, and health-related activities. This incentive program is controversial and will be rigorously evaluated to see if what works in Mexico and Turkey is successful in New York City.

Other promising interventions include expanding workforce development programs beyond job placement to promote retention and advancement, as in New York City nearly half of all families living in poverty include a working adult. Our new Office of Financial Empowerment promotes financial literacy and asset building and is leading a national network of cities. We are also targeting a range of educational and employment programs at disconnected youth and using technology to improve access to public benefits.

On the federal policy front, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others are pushing for a significant increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit for single adults. The beneficiaries of such a change would include non-custodial parents and their children. This increase requires new federal resources, but has the potential to make significant strides in reducing poverty.

A commitment to addressing poverty is the hallmark of a strong society. Local and state governments have historically been the testing ground for new policies and approaches and must continue to perform in that role. NYC۪s CEO has launched a diverse array of promising programs, serving as a research and development laboratory for poverty reduction. The more that other cities and states take the opportunity to do the same, the more tools we will have to promote economic security. The federal government must join those of us on the local level in studying what works and replicating successful programs throughout the country. If we are serious about fighting poverty, we must commit ourselves to new efforts that can truly impact the individuals behind the Census Bureau۪s annual poverty numbers.

Veronica White is the Executive Director of the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), created two years ago by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to implement New York City۪s ambitious and innovative anti-poverty strategy. Since then, CEO has launched more than 40 anti-poverty programs, policy proposals and research projects that represent both nationwide best practices and new, cutting-edge ideas that make an impact where traditional methods have failed.

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