After looking across the pond for his congestion pricing scheme (London introduced congestion pricing in 2003 and extended it westward this February), Mayor Bloomberg is travelling south of the border to Mexico on a fact-finding trip to fight poverty. The subject of the mayor's journey is a program dubbed Conditional Cash in the U.S., but called Oportunidades in Mexico. Oportunidades pays poor Mexican women unrestricted cash bonuses for behaving in a manner that officials hope will break that country's persistent cycle of poverty. Goals that must be met include regular school attendance by a family's children, showing up for scheduled medical appointments, and following dietary guidelines that may include feeding children necessary dietary supplements. Compliant women must then travel once a month to a distribution center where they are paid an amount of money dependent on their circumstances, such as how many children they have. Oportunidades is not an employment program, but an effort to increase people's social capital by inculcating self-beneficial values and behavior.
Mayor Bloomberg wants to adopt a similar program in New York City by the end of the year. Gothamist wrote about the pilot program called Opportunity NYC last month. It will be initially funded by private donations, but Bloomberg hopes that if it proves successful the government will step in with funding. From The New York Times:
Under the New York plan, which is still being developed, poor families would be paid up to $5,000 a year to meet goals like attending parent-teacher conferences, getting regular medical checkups and holding down a full-time job. Participants would get their money through automatic deposits, not by attending a large gathering.
A pilot program is scheduled to begin in September with 2,500 randomly selected families whose progress will be measured against 2,500 families who will not receive the benefits. The pilot program will be privately financed. The city has already raised $42 million of the $50 million needed to cover the initial costs. If it is successful, Mr. Bloomberg hopes that public money will eventually go into it.
This is certainly a novel approach to battling poverty. Conservative critics of past welfare programs have accused them of encouraging self-destructive behavior and fostering harmful values, e.g., multiple births by unwed mothers, discouraging marriage, and fiscally punishing people who seek employment. It's possible a program specifically designed to encourage positive behavior and values in order to help the poor may gain widespread support.
(Photo by Marco Ugarte, AP Stringer)