NYC Offers Cash to Poor to Stay in School

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has started a controversial social program: It offers cash incentives to the city's poor to "stay in school, to stay at work and to stay on track to rise out of poverty." The plan has critics on both the left and right.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a plan to deal with the very poor by paying them. The program is called conditional cash transfers. It's been tried successfully in places like Mexico and Bangladesh. But is it right for a booming American metropolis like New York?

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Paying the poor not to be so poor doesn't sound like anything you'd name a government program. So that's where the phrase conditional cash transfers comes in. In Mexico, the condition was that families spend their cash on school uniforms. In Bangladesh, the slight infusion of cash is enough to keep girls in school and off factory floors.

But in New York City? Paying the poor to send their kids to school or to keep doctors appointments sounds a little like - well, here's the president of the Center for Global Development, Nancy Birdsall.

Ms. NANCY BIRDSALL (Center for Global Development): It is an incentive, in the extreme you could almost say a bribe.

PESCA: When New York's mayor considers the city's 1.5 million poor people, he says it just can't be that they all have made bad choices. It's a fairly interesting thought coming from a self-made billionaire. Nancy Birdsall says that in the city keeping a doctor's appointment versus getting in a few more hours at work is a fraught decision when money is tight.

Ms. BIRDSALL: There could be a lot of reasons why it is rational given the circumstances for the 15-year-old to drop out of high school. It's not a matter of whether these people are behaving well or not only. We should assume that they're sometimes making perfectly sensible decisions, given the circumstances they're under.

PESCA: Convincing parents to choose health care or schooling is why New York City's Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs is backing conditional cash transfers.

Ms. LINDA GIBBS (Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, New York): We're trying to upset the balance. We're trying to create incentives that in fact will change the economics of that decision.

PESCA: Here are the economics for the program. Where it's worked, families are usually given a supplement amounting to a third a quarter of their income. In Mexico, that could be a few hundred dollars. In New York, it means four to five thousand dollars a year for a single mother of two.

The philosophy behind the program strikes at something deeper than a few thousand dollars, though. In this country, public opinion is almost exactly split on the question, what causes poverty. An equal number of people say it's the poor people's fault as say it's due to circumstances beyond their control.

Maybe this is the kind of program that satisfies both points of view, says Dalton Conley, head of the Department of Sociology at New York University. Then upon reflection, Conley says, maybe it will just tick off everybody.

Mr. DALTON CONLEY (New York University): The left, they don't like this kind of patronizing paternalism of the city, saying, well, you know, we're going to help you economically but we're going to tell you what to do and we're going to make you sort of, you know, dance and do dog tricks for it. And the right won't like it because it's more aid to the poor for doing what they should be doing anyway, what any family should be doing.

PESCA: Conley, who's all for the idea, doesn't actually think the poor will be asked to do dog tricks. They'll be forced to meet conditions for their cash. And at least in the beginning, tax payers won't be bankrolling the program. Foundations will donate funds to try it out with a few thousand people in a pilot program.

If it goes well, there are a lot of New Yorkers who can potentially be served by the program, by this idea, which the billionaire mayor of America's richest city borrowed from the developing world free of charge.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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