Dumeetha Luthra, BBC News, July 14, 2008
A year ago, New York started a controversial and ambitious anti-poverty scheme which is now being closely monitored overseas.
The idea of Opportunity NYC is simple.
Some 2,500 families in the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods are paid for tasks that many people would deem to be normal parental responsibilities—taking their child to the doctor and dentist, say, or attending parent-teacher meetings.
Some people are even being paid to find a job.
The scheme is targeted at some of the toughest neighbourhoods in the city.
East New York in Brooklyn definitely qualifies—it is the vision of inner-city deprivation.
Half of the residents live below the poverty line—the majority are black or Hispanic.
Crime is high; there is even barbed wire around the local supermarket.
“You can see this is really like the inner city. The income here is pretty low. This area has a high crime rate; drugs and gangs. It’s underdeveloped, so many people are just sitting on corners, there are more liquor stores here than banks,” said Candace Perkins, one of the scheme’s local co-ordinators.
It is to combat this that the city has come up with the experimental approach, imported in part from Mexico.
The scheme is funded by private money but has the support of the mayor’s office.
One recipient is 37-year-old Natasha Dean.
She has 12 children and lives in one of the area’s notorious tower blocks, which she enters through the back door because she is too scared to go in the front.
“Since I’ve been here about four years, I’ve witnessed about 10 shootings. About four or five deaths,” she said.
Natasha heard about the project and was curious.
The appeal was obvious—it was a simple case of doing the sums.
“The finances definitely appealed. To get paid for things I normally do without any strings attached was wonderful,” she said.
In the past two months, she has received some ($992) £500 for things such as ensuring her children do not miss school, and have dental check-ups.
More tasks completed mean more money in.
It has helped her cope with a sick child and no job.
Natasha is almost in tears as she describes not having enough money for the $2 (£1) bus ride to visit her daughter at the hospital.
She has not told her children about the scheme, but she is using her own incentives to ensure they do what is needed.
“I have a son who wasn’t doing too well in school. By giving him these incentives, I would tell him if you do this in class Mum will get this and this for you. His behaviour has changed because I was able to . . . follow through, because of the money.”
It might be good for Natasha but it has raised questions.
“I think the manner on which this is done is completely wrong-headed,” said Herb London is from the conservative Hudson Institute.
“I’m not sure that it’s working and I’m not sure the message that’s being delivered is an appropriate message: that we need to reward people because their children do well in school, where people have to be compensated for engaging in what would normally be quotidian activities you would expect from a parent.”
The deputy mayor, Linda Gibbs, says it is too early to say whether it will work or not, but defends the idea of using cash as an incentive.
“It’s inherent in our economy. We are a capitalist economy—the tax code is full of cash incentives around behaviour,” she said.
“Everybody works hard during the year because they want a big bonus at Christmas time. This is not out of keeping with a lot of the way that we incentivize behaviour already in our economy. It just doesn’t happen for poor people as often.”
Natasha says the scheme works for her because it does not ask or judge why she has 12 children—unlike the social services.
She resents any implication that the scheme could be regarded as an income in place of a job.
“I want to work, I don’t see this as a crutch, I can’t just lay back and say OK. It’s wonderful that it’s there, but I can’t depend on it. This is just an incentive not a lifestyle, not a job. I need to find employment. I’m not sitting back”
Her small apartment is sparsely furnished.
She only just got enough money to buy beds and curtains.
She sits on the sofa with her kids around her reading their report cards. Her son is now getting As and Bs.
The incentives have worked for her children, and are working for her.
She may have done the basics anyway, but the cash ensures she does.
The idea is controversial, and it is too early to say if it is a sticking plaster on a larger problem or a constructive way to get people out of poverty.
It has helped Natasha out of her immediate problems, but will it help her children escape a future of struggling on the breadline?