STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina shone a light on American poverty, we have some hints how that condition is changing. For the first time since President Bush took office, the number of people in poverty has dropped. But Americans are having to work more for the money. And as we'll hear in the moment, the number of people without health insurance climbed again.

INSKEEP: As the Census Bureau released those numbers we sat down with a politician who says he wants to fight poverty. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire. He's been tamping down speculation that he might finance his own independent run for president. He's been promoting an effort to give people cash incentives to improve their situation, which leads to this question.

Why pay children to attend school or to pass a test or pay parents to do certain things, go to a check-up?

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): We have been trying to end poverty for a long time. We have spent trillions of dollars of the taxpayer's money and yet fundamentally the same percentage of people are still struggling to feed themselves and to house themselves and to send their kids to school. Time to try something different.

INSKEEP: Pay kids $50 to get a library card?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: You know, we pay rich people to not plant corn. We pay rich people to drill in some places and not others. We are a capitalist society, and you can argue that a lot of the things that Congress subsidizes people should do anyways, but the truth of the matter is, when you have a bonus you tend to work harder and do more. There's nothing wrong with giving people incentives and holding people accountable. In our school system we're holding people accountable, and we're trying to give incentives to teachers and to principals to join our school system. And if it doesn't work, we're trying it with private money. Okay, at least we'll know what doesn't work.

INSKEEP: Is this something that you would want the government of New York City or other governments to be doing three years from now and paying for it themselves?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: The answer to your question is if it's working, absolutely. But the nice thing about a privately funded demonstration program is if it's not working, I'm not going to give any more. The other foundations aren't going to give any more, so it will come to an end.

Whereas in government-sponsored programs, once it gets going, the truth of the matter is, we tend to continue those programs forever because there's political pressure to protect the jobs of those providing the service.

INSKEEP: Since we've been talking about incentives and disincentives, let me ask you this. What incentives and disincentives are you presented with if you were to consider running for president in 2008, if you're a politician?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: I'm not running for president and I have roughly 857 - 856 days left to go in the greatest job in the world. Somebody the other day said...

INSKEEP: Just tell me how you have to think through that problem though. What are the incentives out there for doing that? What are the disincentives?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: Well, I'm not running so they're not incentives for me. If they're doing it for ego reasons so somebody plays hail to the chief, my suggestion is you got a better chance of going into the private sector, trying to make a lot of money, hiring your own band. That would make more sense. The only reason to run for office is if you really want to dedicate yourself to making a difference.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, would get you to reconsider your position that you're not running and that you don't think anyone would elect you, as you said recently?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: Well, there's nothing that would get me to reconsider. As I said, I've got the best job in the world. You know, when somebody says that, oh, you should run for president, it's heady stuff. Anybody that doesn't get a smile on their face ought to see a psychiatrist.

But if I can contribute something to the national process or just the political process generally, it is that if you work hard and are honest and explain to people what you want to do, they'll sign on and they'll cut you a break. And if you're right, then they'll really like it.

INSKEEP: Let me ask more about that. You've been critical to the political system. Someone could say that a lot of your career has been a criticism of the political system. You've quit both political parties at one time or another. Is the incentive system somehow wrong?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: Well, I think the trouble with our political system is there's too much partisanship. The public wants somebody that is accomplished and honest and that can address the key issues. What are the key issues? There's immigration, health care. We have to decide how much health care we are willing to pay for.

But people are unwilling to face the public and say that. They say I'm going to fix health care. I'm going to get it. And you know, somebody says, well, wait a second, this guy says you can't have it, there's no free lunch. The other says there is a free lunch. Why not vote for the guy that says there is a free lunch, maybe he's right?

INSKEEP: You're saying people don't have the incentive to tell the truth, which in your view...

Mayor BLOOMBERG: People elected officials...

INSKEEP: ...there's only so much money.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: But I'm not so sure you blame elected officials. Blame ourselves. We don't hold our elected officials accountable.

INSKEEP: Is there a rationale for independent candidacy for president in 2008?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: You'll have to ask somebody that's thinking of running.

INSKEEP: But setting you aside, is there a way that it makes sense?

Mayor BLOOMBERG: Well, it depends what you mean makes sense. There's a question as to whether an independent candidate could win when you have the Electoral College and the system in all states make it difficult for somebody without an organization in that state to get on the ballot. A second issue is could an independent candidate govern better? But those are very different things.

INSKEEP: Mayor Bloomberg, thanks very much.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Michael Bloomberg is mayor of New York City.

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