New York City’s Turnaround on Poverty

In America’s biggest cities, more and more Americans are now living in poverty. From 2000 to 2013, the poverty rate in America’s 20 largest cities grew by 36 percent, to an average of 22.7 percent. Nationally, the poverty rate has risen too, from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 14.8 percent in 2014.

But there’s one stand-out exception to this phenomenon: New York City.

Over the last decade, New York City’s poverty rate has defied national trends by declining. While New York once suffered one of the highest poverty rates among the country’s large cities, today it boasts one of the lowest, with a smaller share in poverty than in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and Houston, among others.

This impressive result is the fruit of an innovative, “data-driven” war on poverty, declared by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the start of his second term in 2005. Today, low-wage workers are getting extra cash in their pockets at tax time to help support their kids. New programs are helping more workers earn their associates’ degrees to boost their wages. Better access to financial education and financial services is helping families manage their budgets and even to save. New York City also became the first local government to implement an alternative to the federal poverty measure, which prompted the U.S. Census Bureau to follow suit with a new supplemental poverty measure for the nation.

The story of New York’s success to date is one of repeated experimentation, a willingness to take risks and the occasional failure. As two staffers who worked on the front lines of Bloomberg’s initiative, we learned an important story about urban poverty and how to fight it. We’ve also gathered evidence supporting an exciting set of antipoverty programs that work, and can provide lessons to state and federal partners. Most significantly, New York’s experience confirms that solid evidence can trump the liberal-versus-conservative stalemate when the welfare of the country’s most vulnerable people is at stake.

A supporter of the work-focused welfare policies contained in the historic welfare reform legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Bloomberg had spent his first term expanding health insurance and other work supports to accompany the strong work requirements enacted as part of welfare reform. While the city’s poverty rate had declined since the beginning of the reforms, further declines had become much harder to achieve. To Bloomberg, expanding the safety net for low-wage workers wasn’t enough anymore; he wanted to start fresh with experimental initiatives that would change the dynamics and yield solid evidence on what works.

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