In 2006, in spite of great economic growth and expansion in New York City, one out of five New Yorkers and a third of New York’s children lived in poverty: over 1.5 million people – almost three times the entire population of the city of Boston, Massachusetts. This represented 19.1 percent of residents of the five boroughs.
In the Morrisania/East Tremont section of the Bronx, 60 percent of young children were living at or below the federal poverty line (for a mother and two children, for example, this was an annual income of US$ 15,375). The poverty rate for households headed by a single woman was 41 percent, as compared to 11 percent for married couples with children. Nearly 20 percent of native-born workers, and almost 35 percent of foreign-born workers, earned less than US$10 an hour.
Additionally, while these statistics pointed to the severity of the problem, it was well-known that the federal poverty measure itself failed to capture differences in the cost of living across the United States, suggesting that poverty in New York City was likely higher than the federal measure reported.
Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs decided to attack the problem first of all by creating, in 2006, the Commission for Economic Opportunity. It was charged with seeking out the most effective approaches to poverty reduction from across the US and around the world.
Learning and adapting the best of these led to the creation of NYC Opportunity, originally structured as an innovation team and fund to:
- Create and implement anti-poverty initiatives.
- Develop a new measure of poverty that better captured geographic differences in cost of living.
- Continuously monitor and evaluate them to determine what works and what does not.
- Discard those that did not work.
Sometimes, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity develops the original idea for an initiative, while at other times a city agency approaches NYC Opportunity with the problem and potential solutions. In all instances, NYC Opportunity works closely with one or more partner agencies to design and implement the intervention, but partner agencies are always responsible for delivery.
The public impact
NYC Opportunity has achieved significant impact in its 12 years, throughout the city:
- It has launched over 70 programmes in collaboration with 40 different city agencies, for example:
- Its City University of New York (CUNY) ASAP programme, one of the most successful community college completion programs in the US, has doubled graduation rates for students in the program.
- Additionally, NYC Opportunity has received two grants from the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF), one to replicate five promising models in New York City and other US cities, and a second to test the impact of integrating mental health and social services.
- NYC Opportunity also considerably influenced the federal government to publish the US Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, which provides “a realistic picture of poverty by accounting for both families' resources and their expenses”. 
- Along with a statistically significant decline in near poverty - the state of living on an income marginally above the poverty line-, there have been statistically significant declines in poverty rates among several subgroups of New York City’s population, both in the year-over-year change from 2014 to 2015 as well as over the six post-recession years 2010–2015.
This enhanced case study is part of our policymaker interview series. For the series, we talked to policymakers from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government. The interviewed protagonists for this case study are Matthew Klein and Carson Hicks from the Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity.
Public Confidence Good
Michael Bloomberg was elected as the Mayor of New York in 2001 and re-elected for two subsequent terms. His popularity gave the then called CEO broad public confidence, particularly as it was clearly aimed at improving the lot of citizens.
This was complemented by public confidence in Mayor de Blasio’s, his successor’s, commitment to issues of poverty at scale, reflected in his establishing the first concrete poverty reduction goal with an “aim to move 800,000 people out of poverty or near poverty over 10 years”, said Matthew Klein, the Mayor’s Office current Executive Director. He added that the public understood the office as “not just using data on very small programs, but thinking about broad scale impact”.
Stakeholder Engagement Good
The city administration, academic and research experts, politicians, service providers, government officials and community members were the major stakeholders in this initiative, each participating actively in planning NYC Opportunity’s programmes.
At the outset, the Commission for Economic Opportunity’s 32 civic leaders divided into workgroups that focused on poverty-related topics, such as education, employment, health and housing. Through a series of meetings, they explored how best to improve city services, building on existing initiatives and exploring new ways to help low-income New Yorkers rise out of poverty.
During the planning process, with support from the United Way of New York City and CUNY’s graduate centre, the NYC Opportunity (then called the CEO) hosted a two-day conference that brought together stakeholders and key business and labour leaders in a series of roundtable discussions with low-income New Yorkers of their major concerns.
Political Commitment Strong
The programme was initiated by Mayor Bloomberg who was committed to its success throughout the final two-terms of his incumbency. The political weight behind NYC Opportunity can be judged by the continued support it has received from his successor, Mayor de Blasio. When he took office in 2014, Mayor de Blasio brought with him a further commitment to reduce inequality and moved the then called CEO into the Mayor’s Office of Operations, “with the intention of applying the insights and evidence developed through its work at a city-wide scale.” 
Clear Objectives Good
NYC Opportunity’s objectives were well defined at the outset and have remained constant ever since: to address the issue of poverty in New York and reduce it effectively. Linda Gibbs described NYC Opportunity as a laboratory, with the mission to pilot and innovate, as is apparent in its principles of Equity (working towards a more equitable New York City), Evidence (supporting and promoting evidence-based policy making in New York City and beyond) and Innovation (serving as a proving ground to influence how government addresses poverty and its related challenges).  Additionally, at its outset, the office specifically targeted three distinct, yet overlapping, populations with high degrees of poverty: poor working adults, young adults aged 16-24, and children of five years old or younger. Together, these groups represented nearly 700,000 New Yorkers in 2006. This focus evolved over-time to employ evidence-based anti-poverty strategies rather than focusing on specific populations. Matthew Klein maintains that it “is critical to be able to identify what it is we're trying to do and then to evolve based on what we're finding about our progress”.
NYC Opportunity was established to carry out the programs and strategies that had been proposed by the Commission for Economic Opportunity. For their recommendations, the commission reviewed about 60 strategies for poverty reduction.
This evidential approach is also present in NYC Opportunity’s individual programmes, which are committed to the use of rigorous evidence. For example, the Justice Scholars program, which served young adults involved in the criminal justice system, was discontinued after its evaluation failed to demonstrate sufficient evidence for its benefits.
Matthew Klein believes in prioritising evidence: “To the degree that cities have funds to do new things, I think they ought to invest in the capacity to do performance management and evaluations. I think even for cities that don't have a lot of free dollars to do lots of new things, they ought to be investing in the different approaches to evidence-based policymaking - whether that's in collaboration with universities or in other ways. I think there's no question that anyone can do more when it comes to data and evaluation of evidence.”
During the planning phase, the financial, HR and other issues were not given major consideration, mainly due to the fact that the Commission had come up with strategies and approaches to tackle poverty in the city, but not planned to set up NYC Opportunity to carry them out.
There was a desire to use local government agencies’ existing relationships to connect directly with low-income families. It suggests that the office tried to use the existing agencies to carry out its various programmes. The large amount of funding contributed to its feasibility: CEO used New York City Government funds to leverage philanthropic and federal investment, thereby creating an annual PPP fund of approximately US$90 million.
NYC Opportunity’s management had the requisite mix of political and operational talent for implementing programmes that demand the coordination of multiple partners, including government agencies and the private sector. The Deputy Mayor was heavily involved until 2013 and had people of experience working with her. She had over 20 years’ government experience and worked with Mayor Bloomberg to create the space for the office to operate in. As mentioned, the current Executive Director of the office, Matthew Klein, is likewise dedicated to the use of data and evidence and to fostering economic mobility in New York City and beyond.
There was a small in-house evaluation team which focused on collecting ongoing monitoring information and working with agencies to use performance data to improve services and client outcomes. In order to ensure that all the initiatives were thoroughly evaluated, NYC Opportunity chose an independent, external supplier to evaluate each programme objectively. The office’s model includes clear definitions for success and failure and it regularly runs randomised evaluations along with applying other evaluation methods. The core indicators were data about those citizens who were “entering, leaving, or remaining in poverty”.
One aim of NYC Opportunity was to remove inter-agency barriers within the city government to achieve the shared objective of overcoming poverty. Particularly, the office’s programmes got agencies talking to each other more. Carson Hicks, Deputy Executive Director at NYC Opportunity, said: “The team learned early on that it was very important that the city agency partner and the proposed intervention had to be aligned, otherwise the agency was never going to embrace the strategy and give it a fair shot. We also made it a point to bring all of our city agency partners together at quarterly intervals to ensure that they were in alignment and understood themselves to be part of the broader innovation that was CEO.”
Thus, by cutting across the portfolios of the different deputy mayors and offering flexibility, the then called CEO encouraged collaboration and promoted innovation. According to Anthony Saich, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center, NYC Opportunity demonstrated how a city can unite the disparate interests of previously separate agencies, funding organisations, service providers and businesses to tackle poverty, “one of our nation’s major growing challenges”.