Thursday, May 31, 2007

Opportunity NYC: Can Bloomberg Buy a Happy Family?

"I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love"
–The Beatles

Last week New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled Opportunity NYC, a plan which basically would pay parents of poor children to ... parent. Duties such as keeping their kids in school and taking the children to the doctor's are worth between $40 to $100 a month, so if the needy parents reach all their incentives, they can earn an extra $5,000 annually. But should moms and dads be paid to perform tasks they are supposed to tackle for free?

"It's new ... It's innovative. And, as with any good idea, there's the possibility it won't work," said the Democrat-turned-Republican Bloomberg. "But we can't be afraid to try new things ..."

Indeed, on the surface, there is little downside. The fifty million dollar initiative is privately funded (Bloomberg, himself a billionaire, contributed a significant but undisclosed amount of cash to the project) so taxpayers do not have to pony up a single penny. And while the initiative is new to the U.S. a similar program in Mexico seemed to work better than welfare, where parents got money regardless of whether they care for the kids or not.

But are we not paying parents to do something they should already be doing? As far as I can tell, almost everyone asking that question has never known poverty. Many working-poor parents would much rather attend a parent-teacher conference or help their kid with their homework than work a second job, second-shift stint at McDonald's, but they can't afford to. However, if Op NYC paid them $30 (or the same as a $5/hr. minimum wage shift) staying home or visiting teachers would be a no-brainer. And while the cash incentives cannot promise the poor a better life, a parent working two low-wage jobs to support an unsupervised child who then takes to the streets often leads to the premature death of both.

Having been in this situation to a certain extent, I'd say Bloomberg's proposal sounds way better than what's in place now. When I worked at Target, the corporation boasted that a (small) percentage of their profits went into their own charity organization which helped inner city youths learn to read. They even signed perhaps the most popular athlete in the world, Tiger Woods, to be their spokesman, and Tiger would willingly donate his Target sponsored golf tournament check (which could reach one million dollars if he won) to the cause, as all applauded. But as much as I admire Tiger as a golfer, this check is pocket change to the champ—and Target. If the company truly cared about the poor, they would follow the Catholic Social Encyclicals and pay their discount store employees a living wage instead of the legal minimum, and—you guessed it—one parent could afford to be home after school to help educate their kids themselves.

And so, while any social program run by godless men has a real chance of failing, I believe if Bloomberg can staff this initiative with sympathetic souls who grew up in the hood rather than Ivy League grads with doctorates in condescension, he should be alright. I'd rather "King Michael" spend a few million in a place where it can make a difference (with the NY poor) than five hundred million on a vainglorious attempt to expand his empire as an Independent presidential candidate.

For while the Beatles' assessment that "money can't buy me love," is essentially correct, cash can often buy the poor a little time to care, which at least gives love a chance.

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