Innovations to Build On

Report - November 2013

Innovations to Build On

The de Blasio administration will need to tackle a number of serious social policy challenges when it takes office in January, but there is much to build upon. This report profiles 10 important anti-poverty innovations from the Bloomberg administration that deserve to continue.

by Kahliah Laney, David Giles and Jonathan Bowles

Tags: economic opportunity

Click here to download the full report as a PDF.

When Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio takes office in January, he will inherent a number of serious social policy challenges. An estimated 1.6 million New Yorkers live below the federal poverty line, including nearly a third of the city’s children. New York’s homeless population is at an all-time high, as is the number of New Yorkers living in households without enough food. The number of working poor has been on the rise, and New York still suffers from a stubbornly high unemployment rate and an alarming skills gap. Making things even more complicated, the federal and state governments have been cutting back on funding for critical social services programs.

The mayor-elect will undoubtedly need to establish new programs and policies to tackle these challenges. The city could surely benefit from a clearer focus on helping those who failed to get ahead in the last decade.

However, it would be a mistake for the next administration to start entirely from scratch. There have been a number of important social policy innovations during the 12 years of the Bloomberg administration that deserve to be continued or expanded upon in the next administration. This report profiles 10 of the very best.

The Bloomberg administration’s social policy innovations are not nearly as well-known as its experiments in sustainability, transportation, economic development and health policy, where initiatives such as PlaNYC, pedestrian plazas in Times Square, a new applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island and a ban on trans fats in restaurants have garnered international attention. Yet the administration has launched groundbreaking social programs like the Center for Economic Opportunity, the Office of Financial Empowerment, CUNY ASAP and the Young Men’s Initiative. These and other new initiatives are addressing longstanding problems in new ways, and in many cases producing impressive results. The administration has also pioneered new approaches to social policy, including a greater emphasis on evidence and data, more interagency collaborations and a dramatic expansion of efforts to leverage private resources.

To be sure, there is a lot the Bloomberg administration has not accomplished in the social policy arena. City funding for a number of vital social programs—from child care to summer jobs for young adults—has been cut or flat-lined even as demand for these services has increased. Many of those we interviewed say that the administration moved away from partnerships with community-based organizations. And many low-income New Yorkers undoubtedly face a more arduous road to the middle class than when Mayor Bloomberg took office.

But as we detail in this report, there are a number of standout programs that deserve to remain intact or be scaled up in the next administration.


1. Center for Economic Opportunity


3. Jobs-Plus

4. School-Based Health Centers

5. Child support management and debt reduction programs

6. Office of Financial Empowerment

7. Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON)

8. Close to Home

9. Young Men’s Initiative (YMI)

10. Out-of-School Time

Innovative Anti-Poverty Approaches


Advisory Board

In any transition from one administration to the next, new mayors are often focused on developing a number of new policies and programs. But it is arguably as or more important for incoming mayors and their staffs to understand which existing policies are worth keeping.

This report aims to do just that.

Focusing on social services, the report shines a light on the policies and programs initiated by Mayor Bloomberg that are most deserving of being institutionalized or scaled up in the next administration. Made possible through generous support from the Blue Ridge Foundation, United Way of New York City, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and Capital One, the report was informed by extensive data analysis and interviews with more than 50 experts from New York’s social services sector, including nonprofit leaders in every borough, officials from philanthropic foundations, and former and current government officials.

The majority of those we interviewed didn’t think the Bloomberg administration’s record on social issues was unblemished. Far from it. The administration failed to adequately address a number of pressing problems, while some new initiatives clearly misfired. Several of the individuals we spoke with told us that there has been too much focus on launching small-scale pilot initiatives and not enough support for longstanding programs that address problems at a larger scale. “Shiny new things get all the attention, but things that have been done for years and are important have been neglected,” says Irma Rodriguez, executive director of Queens Community House.

Some of the people we interviewed also lament that the administration’s new social policy initiatives never became priorities in the same way that City Hall embraced the creation of new waterfront parks, bike share and the new applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. In a number of cases, the administration came up with promising new programs with widespread support among nonprofit leaders but then undercut those initiatives by providing inadequate funding or reducing funds soon after the programs were launched. Additionally, many of those we interviewed expressed deep frustration with the administration’s habit of proposing dramatic budget cuts to social services programs, knowing that the City Council would seek to restore as much as possible—a process that created insecurity among many different social service agencies and nonprofits.

Despite those problems, the vast majority of our interview subjects also acknowledged that the Bloomberg administration has made strides in a number of important areas and has put in place mechanisms that could continue to generate successful approaches to vexing social problems. For instance, the creation of the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in 2006 heralded an era of risk-taking and experimentation that was all too rare under previous mayors. The administration broke down institutional silos at dozens of social service agencies that had stifled previous attempts to address important social issues such as financial literacy, high minority unemployment, and persistently low community college graduation rates. Moreover, with programs like the Health and Human Services Accelerator, a procurement and payment system for nonprofit contractors, the administration has begun to implement a digital infrastructure that has the potential to revolutionize government policy-making and service delivery.  

During our interviews with leaders from the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, we heard about dozens of programs that are having an impact or which hold tremendous promise. After sifting through all of these ideas, we selected 10 policies and programs that came up again and again in our interviews. This report provides short appraisals of each.

They include:

1. Center for Economic Opportunity
3. Jobs-Plus
4. School-Based Health Centers
5. Child support management and debt reduction programs
6. Office of Financial Empowerment
7. Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON)
8. Close to Home
9. Young Men’s Initiative (YMI)
10. Out-of-School Time

There are many other promising social service initiatives that got their start during the Bloomberg administration. Those that we heard about during the course of our research include: the homeless prevention program called Home Base; the creation of an age-friendly task force; public health campaigns addressing health care disparities, from the smoking ban to the requirement that restaurants post calorie counts; the decision to integrate the operations of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Administration of Children’s Services; the use of social impact bonds; Early Learn; ACCESS NYC; the Health and Human Services Accelerator; CEO’s expansion of Earned Income Tax Credits for childless singles; the New York/New York III agreement that added a significant amount of new supportive housing in New York; new programs to expand access to healthy food in high-poverty neighborhoods; and the expansion of charter schools. Some of these programs elicited disagreement about their effectiveness, while others were only recently unveiled. Either way enough of the people we interviewed pointed them out as promising innovations that we felt they merited a mention. 

Of course, other mayoral administrations have tried out new social services programs and experimented with new approaches. What has set the Bloomberg administration apart are their attempts to institutionalize that process by creating space for experimentation and failure, and by coming up with alternative funding models that can support pilots and effectiveness studies. This has been significant and underappreciated advancement in New York City government. Mayor-elect de Blasio would be wise to embrace these achievements and find ways to build on them. In addition, he should consider building on the Bloomberg administration’s approach to cross-agency programming by using the power of the mayor’s office to hatch new strategies and initiatives.

The policy successes that we outline in this report should not be seen as a list of accomplishments alone, but a foundation to build upon. In more than a few cases, the programs we describe are but a first step in the right direction. A number of them—like Out of School Time—have been compromised by insufficient funding and deserve to be expanded, while others—like the Young Men’s Initiative—show exceptional promise but have yet to prove themselves. For instance, while speaking about one of the 10 initiatives we highlight in this report, one nonprofit leader notes, “One agency withdrew from the program because they were losing money, even though they thought it was a wonderful program and well within their mission.”

Others have proven highly effective but have clear room for improvement. For instance, we heard good things about the Early Learn program, but ultimately did not feature it among out 10 outstanding policy innovations because too many people also highlighted flaws and frustrations with the initiative. “It’s a great idea, but poorly executed,” says one nonprofit executive. 

In addition to improving upon some the Bloomberg administration’s promising social policy programs, the de Blasio administration has a huge opportunity to scale up the most successful policies, many of which have significant potential to benefit larger numbers of New Yorkers.

The pages that follow go into detail about the top 10 social policy innovations of the Bloomberg administration. Together these programs should serve as a hopeful reminder that, even though New York faces overwhelming social challenges in the next few years, policy innovation and success are still possible.

1. Center for Economic Opportunity

New York’s test lab for tackling poverty, CEO incubated dozens of innovative anti-poverty programs, got every city agency to focus on addressing poverty and helped break down silos between agencies

If Mayor-elect de Blasio were to continue just one social policy initiative that was started by the Bloomberg administration, there’s a strong case that it should be the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO).

No other program was mentioned more often than CEO when we asked dozens of social services leaders across the five boroughs which social policy innovations from the Bloomberg administration were most worthy of being continued. As we heard in our interviews, CEO incubated dozens of innovative anti-poverty programs that may never have gotten started otherwise, put poverty on the agenda of every city agency, made significant strides in cross-agency collaboration, created a new emphasis on rigorous testing programs and funding the ones that produced results, and brought in considerable resources from the philanthropic and corporate sector to support city anti-poverty initiatives.

CEO isn’t without detractors. Some say its focus on funding pilot initiatives only allowed the administration to have a small impact in tackling poverty, and that too few of the CEO initiatives that proved successful ended up getting additional funds needed to scale up.

On the whole, however, the vast majority of individuals we interviewed believe that CEO has been a remarkable success.

CEO has played a key role in the creation of over 50 different programs and initiatives since it was created in 2006, including Jobs-Plus, the Office of Financial Empowerment, Advance at Work, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), sector-focused Workforce1 Career Centers and skills building programs, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit targeting childless singles, and the Department of Probation’s Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeoN) program.

Many of these programs have already had a significant impact. For instance, CUNY ASAP raised the three-year graduation rates of community college participants by 30 percent. Participants in the Community Partners program, which works to place disadvantaged New Yorkers into the workforce, are four percent more likely to be placed in jobs. The Office of Financial Empowerment helped low-income clients shed nearly $12 million in debt between 2010 and 2012.

“CEO needs to survive into the next administration,” says Randy Peers, executive director of Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit that helps youth and adults work toward economic self-sufficiency. “From it all of these other social policy innovations came about and in some cases were expanded. I sincerely hope that the next mayor recognizes that.”

“It was a bold move on the part of the Mayor and his team to bring new solutions to longstanding, seemingly intractable problems facing the working poor, disconnected youth, and children,” says Jennifer Jones Austin, executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA). “Though we didn’t realize all of the outcomes desired, a renewed focus was given to these issues that affect many New Yorkers. Great strides were made in advancing ideas that have measurable and sustainable impact.”

CEO helped keep anti-poverty policy at the center of the conversation within City Hall. It got nearly every city agency to focus on addressing poverty across the five boroughs, and then worked to get everyone working together. Cathie Mahon, the former head of the Office of Financial Empowerment, CEO’s first initiative, says the office gave her the mandate and the tools to get things done. “We would never have been able to break down silos by ourselves,” she says. “It was CEO that was sort of wedging us in and breaking the silos down.”

Housing CEO in the mayor’s office and providing it with a separate source of funding has made it exceptionally effective at getting things done. Agency and department heads might not respond to each other quickly, but a summons directly from the mayor’s office often produces a speedy response. The “cityhall.gov” email address has made it easier for CEO to get different agencies to meet together when they might otherwise have been reluctant. No organization did all of this prior to CEO, and other agencies had a limited capacity to implement programs quickly and then regularly evaluate them.

“The silo issue is a huge issue and CEO is an important mechanism,” says James Riccio, director of the low-wage workers and communities policy area at MDRC. “Because it reports to the deputy mayor and mayor, they have a huge standing to pull agencies together.”

Importantly, CEO established a new evidence-based approach to anti-poverty initiatives. In an age of fiscal austerity, this was important and effective. It allowed the administration to be smarter with the limited funds at its disposal, and it was key to attracting private capital. “The money won’t come if the evidence isn’t there,” said one philanthropic leader.

The Center for Economic Opportunity has also put a number of poverty-related issues on the radar of local governments nationwide. CEO was the recent recipient of a $5.7 million grant from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service to replicate five successful CEO programs in New York City and in seven other cities around the country. It was the first city office to adopt an alternative poverty measure to incorporate housing and other costs that run higher in big cities like New York, despite the poor political optics of acknowledging higher levels of poverty than is reflected in the U.S. Census. More recently, CEO’s expanded EITC and Work Advance programs are being closely watched by policy makers around the country. For these and other accomplishments, it won the Innovation in Government award by the Harvard School of Government in 2012. In the current economic climate, combatting poverty is perhaps even more challenging than it was 12 years ago, making the work of CEO even more crucial going forward.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it in cities around the country,” adds Riccio of MDRC.

2. CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP)

A partnership between CEO and CUNY, this pioneering program has succeeded in more than doubling community college graduation rates for participating students, who receive an array of support services aimed at reducing barriers to college completion

With only a quarter of students graduating in three years, graduation rates at New York City community colleges are abysmally low. To address this problem, CEO worked with the City University of New York (CUNY) to create the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs or ASAP. The program, which was funded by CEO in 2007, blankets incoming students with support services designed to remove common barriers to graduation. It provides tuition aid and tutoring, while students also get free monthly Metrocards and take courses in clusters to make it easier for them to juggle the demands of coursework with outside obligations like part-time jobs and childcare.

CUNY ASAP advisors generally work with about 80 full-time students throughout their time in the community college system to mentor them and occasionally implement “intrusive advising” when students are at risk of failing. The program also uses a cohort effect to build a strong bond between the students who then encourage each other through the sometimes grueling experience.

The model has enjoyed phenomenal success. CUNY ASAP participants have shown marked improvement compared to the non-ASAP comparison groups. A recent randomized trial undertaken by MDRC found that ASAP students graduate at more than double the rate of non-ASAP students. Students who start ASAP needing remedial work graduate at the same rate as those who enter skills proficient. In both cases, 56 percent graduate within three years of matriculating, compared to just 20 percent of non-ASAP students needing remedial work and 25 percent of non-ASAP students who are skills proficient. The numbers look even higher when graduation and transfer rates are considered together. According to the study, 63 percent of ASAP students graduate, transfer to a four year college or both within three years of matriculation, compared to 44 percent of students in the control group.

Moreover, a cost-benefit study released last year found that, while the upfront costs of ASAP were higher due to the additional support services, the per-graduate cost was significantly less. By increasing graduation rates so much, ASAP reduced costs by approximately $6,500 per graduate, a remarkable achievement at a time when 79 percent of New York City high school graduates are not ready for college level work.

“CUNY ASAP’s multi-pronged and intensive approach eliminates many of the barriers standing in between low-income students and their college diplomas.  ASAP’s impact has been nothing short of remarkable,” says Deborah McCoy, managing director of early childhood and youth programs at the Robin Hood Foundation. “At Robin Hood, we’ve funded a large number of programs at community colleges. We have seen a large number of approaches, many of which show good results. But the impact of CUNY ASAP sets it apart from our other efforts.  You’re talking about more than doubling the current graduation rate within three years. That’s a huge feat.”

Without question, CUNY ASAP is one of CEO’s most successful programs to date and had such promising outcomes that CUNY has opened a new campus, the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College near Bryant Park in Manhattan, exclusively using the ASAP model. At a time when a person with a two-year degree will earn, on average $10,579 more per year than a high school graduate and 14 million new jobs in the next ten years will require two-year degrees, programs such as CUNY ASAP are critical to reducing poverty and building a reliable workforce. A recent Center for an Urban Future report on CUNY’s community colleges found that increasing graduation rates by just 10 percentage points would lead to $689 million in increased economic activity over 10 years. According to the MDRC study, ASAP improves graduation rates by 30 percent.

3. Jobs-Plus

Addressing the alarming rate of unemployment among public housing residents in New York, this place-based program offers a mix of services and incentives aimed at helping more NYCHA residents obtain and hold onto jobs

In many of the 334 New York City Housing Authority communities across the five boroughs, finding work doesn’t come easily. NYCHA residents represent fewer than 5 percent of all New Yorkers, but they comprise roughly 14 percent of all of New York City’s poor. Unemployment rates in NYCHA housing communities are twice the citywide average, with 57 percent of all the working age residents not participating in the labor force. But while NYCHA residents represent a disproportionate share of New Yorkers living in poverty, until recently there was no meaningful city initiative aimed at getting public housing residents into jobs.

The Bloomberg administration changed this with the introduction of Jobs-Plus, an innovative program that aims to improve employment outcomes for public housing residents.

Sponsored by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC and CEO, Jobs-Plus tackles unemployment and underemployment by providing job coaching, job placement, and training referrals along with rent-based financial incentives to work, personalized financial counseling, and resident-to-resident support for work. It offers assistance at or near the housing complexes where participants live. 

Importantly, this place-based initiative alters traditional public housing rent rules—to include a time-limited rent freeze—so that increased earnings won’t cause an increase in rent. This is key because in the past many low-income individuals shied away from taking even a low-wage job because the income they received from work would lead to higher rents and also jeopardized their ability to continue receiving public assistance, Medicaid and other government benefits.

“We all know that public housing `residents fare a lot worse on employment outcomes than their peers, but there was no targeted effort for this population,” says Jessica Nathan, director of special projects for BronxWorks, a Bronx-based social services organization which administers one of the city’s Jobs-Plus sites. “It was assumed that people in public housing were served under other systems. A program like Jobs-Plus has the opportunity to turn public housing into what it’s supposed to be: a safety net for working families, not a place that’s housing the chronically unemployed. It’s unique in the sense that it is place-based.”

New York’s Jobs-Plus program was based on a national demonstration sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Rockefeller Foundation and a number of other public and private funding partners. A careful evaluation of that pilot, conducted by MDRC, showed that Jobs-Plus, when fully implemented, increased residents’ work efforts and boosted their overall annual earnings by 16 percent over seven years. Moreover, the earnings gains were sustained during each of the three years after the demonstration ended.

This evidence of success led New York City, in 2009, to become the first city to establish a Jobs-Plus site at a public housing complex, the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem. 

Over the course of three years at Jefferson Houses, Jobs-Plus has made over 450 employment placements. Because the program serves all residents, including those not on the lease, it’s difficult to pin down accurate data on earnings and employment rates, but the number of residents of Jefferson Houses who report having an income rose from 38 percent to 42 percent between 2009 and 2013.

In 2010, CEO raised new public and private dollars as part of the federal Social Innovation Fund to replicate the model in the Mott Haven neighborhood in the South Bronx. More recently, CEO, in partnership with NYCHA and HRA, expanded Jobs-Plus more dramatically to seven additional areas of the city as a program under the Young Men’s Initiative.

With 84 percent (147,399) of NYCHA households earning below the NYC median income and almost half of NYCHA’s residents living in poverty, programs like Jobs-Plus that promote economic self-sufficiency are increasingly vital. “We know that Jobs-Plus works,” says Jeremy Reiss, deputy development officer at Henry Street Settlement, and former vice president at East River Development Alliance (ERDA).

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