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Why not see if Gotham can help us tackle poverty?

Contributed by Stacey Shortall


The early 1990s on New York City’s so-called “mean streets” saw record-breaking levels of violent crime, especially homicides, fuelled by the heroin and crack epidemics. Muggings and other unprovoked attacks, including on the subway, were commonplace. But by the end of the decade the crime rate had fallen by half and the murder rate by a third. When I arrived in 1999 to take up a job as a lawyer in Manhattan, New York was safer than it had been since the 1960s, its population was growing and people were back riding the subway without fear.


Many people attribute New York City’s crime reduction to the “get tough” policies championed by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Increasingly people recognise that better policing provided a turning point. Police officers became actively engaged in the community and focussed on restoring public order. Other people believe that the economic boom of the 1990s, which included an increase in some minimum wages, also helped deter criminal behaviour, as did the national decline of hard drugs.


But whatever actually helped reduce crime did little to tackle the poverty challenge that afflicted New York City in 1999.


Just like it was and still is in New Zealand, poverty was one of New York’s toughest issues at that time. According to reports based on census data, over 20% of New Yorkers lived in poverty in 1999. Similar reports had almost 1/3 of children in New York City living in poverty, particularly in communities like Harlem and the Bronx. The City reportedly budgeted to spend more than USD$4 billion each year on welfare initiatives, providing food, clothing, housing and medical care to disadvantaged people. To state the obvious, while New York City was widely celebrated by 1999 as a success story for American revitalisation because it had successfully curbed crime, many New Yorkers remained trapped in poverty without any obvious means of escape.


20 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, this has all become much clearer to me. In 1999 there was no YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to disrupt my perception of the issues facing New Yorkers. Instead, my screen time was largely focussed on watching Friends, Sex and the City or re-runs of Barbara Walters’ TV interview with Monica Lewinsky about her affair with President Bill Clinton. The Internet was still relatively new, Google had only launched 12 months earlier in 1998, and smartphones were something for the future. My ability to probe for answers and search for anti-poverty solutions was limited.


Fast forward to 2019 where we have instant access to information. There can no longer be any excuse for not exploring more solutions for the high levels of poverty we see in our own country (even putting aside whether or not it was a valid excuse for me in New York City at the time). Literally at our fingertips is data, analysis and commentary that might enable us to better tackle our own poverty challenges.


With 23% of New Zealand children reportedly living below the poverty line (after household costs are deducted from income) and many adults suffering material hardship in our country, New Zealanders can readily access information about what has, and has not, worked internationally with an eye to what we could try here.

We can take the New York City experience to know that taking a tough stance on crime policies, increasing community-focussed policing, economic booms and minimum wage increases may help us deter crime but are unlikely to make a real change to our appalling poverty statistics. Instead, we need a different course of action, which is why I return to New York City.

In the mid-2000s under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City began its “war on poverty.” Using a flagship agency called the Centre for Economic Opportunity (CEO), a multi-faceted approach was initiated which included collecting and analysing data and identifying the communities that needed the most help. In some areas, immigrants were more in need while in others inter-generational poverty for Latino and African American people was highlighted.


Once a fundamental level of understanding was obtained, tailored programmes for each identified community were proposed. For example, asset-building and savings strategies designed to promote self-sufficiency were proposed to help the City’s working poor adults. Internship and education programmes were proposed for the City’s at-risk youth.


An Innovation Laboratory was then established to develop collaborative programmes between traditional government agencies and external parties such as non-profits and corporate entities. Aware that public funding would require lengthy consultation and government buy-in, real efforts were made to bring philanthropic funders on board for many of the programmes.


The final stage involved data collection and evaluation of the programmes to determine if they were sustainable and effective. Those that worked were expanded and those that did not were cancelled. Within 10 years, by 2016, as the poverty rate in large US cities continued to grow, New York City bucked the national trend. Its poverty rate had declined.


New York City’s anti-poverty programmes are a click away for all of us. The story of New York City’s successes, its failures and the evidence supporting its numerous replicable initiatives can be found through simple Google searches. Controversies around, for example, the (ultimately unsuccessful) Family Rewards programme in which poor people were given cash payments if they took positive actions like sending children to school are explained in detail. Compelling reports about the success of its community college completion programmes are accessible. The evolution to focus on anti-poverty strategies rather than specific populations is discussed.

Reducing crime and fighting poverty are both key issues for New Zealand and while our government is rightly focussed on both, the New York City experience suggests that they require quite different solutions.

At least some of those solutions are ripe for the on-line picking and easily accessible. Success will undoubtedly require considerably more effort and expense than some Googles searches or social media interactions. But all of us could perhaps start there, better inform ourselves, choose to participate in public discussion around potential options to explore and play our small role in helping tackle poverty in New Zealand.

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