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

9. The Young Men’s Initiative

This $43 million three-year initiative provides mentoring, training and rehabilitation services to young black and Latino men who drop out of high school and experience much higher rates of incarceration than their white and Asian counterparts

For years, New York has witnessed an alarming achievement gap between young men of color and their white and Asian counterparts. For instance, less than half of all African American boys finish high school and only 18 percent of black males aged 18 to 21 are enrolled in college. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for black and Latino young men is 60 percent higher than white and Asian young men, and their poverty rate is 50 percent higher.

In 2011, the Bloomberg administration launched the first comprehensive city-led initiative to address this widening problem. Titled The Young Men’s Initiative, this three-year initiative set out to invest more than $43 million a year in programs that aim to better engage young men of color with employment, education and mentoring opportunities, and to improve their health and reduce rates of recidivism in the criminal justice system.

While the initiative is still a work in progress, many individuals we interviewed applaud the bold and multi-disciplinary approach to the problem. “To have City Hall focus on that issue, it’s groundbreaking,” says Colvin Grannum, president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. “It recognizes that [young men of color are] facing unique challenges and their achievements are significantly lower than males of other ethnic groups in the city.”

Under YMI, the city has been implementing a suite of programs, carried out by more than a dozen city agencies and departments. Having so many different agencies involved in the initiative is an attempt to reach these young men at every point that they come into contact with city services.

For example, in the area of education, efforts include adding metrics to school progress reports to measure the achievement of black and Latino male students; the Expanded Success Initiative tasked with improving graduation rates for participants and getting them college and career ready; and a mentoring program for middle-school boys run through community-based, afterschool programs. In the area of criminal justice, YMI includes Close to Home, a program that brings New York City juvenile offenders back to their communities to receive the family support and resources they wouldn’t receive upstate, and  Ban the Box, which decreases barriers to getting city jobs for the formerly incarcerated by not asking them about any criminal history until they are further along in the employment application process.

The initiative is funded through a public-private partnership, with the city providing $67.5 million in funding and another $60 million from philanthropy—$30 million from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement of the Open Society Foundations and $30 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. As it does with all its pilots, CEO will assess the effectiveness of all the initiative programs managed and operated by over a dozen city agencies and even more nonprofits.

There is not yet substantial data on its effectiveness, but an initial report identified promising progress. By the end of fiscal year 2012, YMI programs had reached 9,565 young black and Latino males. With the initiatives falling into three buckets—employment, education and justice—the employment outcomes were particularly impressive. Of the 411 young adults participating in internships, 326 had successfully completed it, exposing them to job opportunities within their reach. The expanded men’s training program, implemented by the Department of Small Business Services, has trained approximately 1,000 men and placed 800 of them in jobs. Meanwhile, the justice community initiative aimed at lowering recidivism has placed a third of its participants in education or employment programs.

“Anecdotally I feel like YMI works. I [recently] sat in on one of the YMI classes up at Castle Gardens and the transformation that these young folks are going through is just phenomenal, unlike anything I’ve seen in any other area of our agency,” says Glenn Martin of the Fortune Society.

Black and Latino males make up 25 percent of the city’s population. Reversing the negative trajectory of these young men has positive implications not only for their immediate success but for future generations.

“The focus on this population will probably have an important impact over time on educational attainment and incarceration rates,” says Denise Scott, managing director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s (LISC) New York City program.

10. Out-of-School-Time

At a time when the public schools are cutting back on extracurricular course work and working parents are struggling to find affordable child care, Out-of-School Time brings after school programming to communities that need it most

The end of the school day often signals the end of academic study and the beginning of fun. But in New York City, too often that fun goes awry. Studies show juvenile crime occurs most frequently between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., right after school lets out. Kids are also at the highest risk of becoming a victim of violence after school, particularly between the hours of 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Out-of-School Time (OST), a Department of Youth and Community Development afterschool program initiative rolled out in 2005, helps to keep tens of thousands of kids off the streets during these critical times, during the summer and on holidays. It brings afterschool programming to neighborhoods that need it the most, streamlining what had previously been a disconnected collection of different afterschool programs to create one citywide, city-sponsored system.

A goal of the OST initiative was to provide support to working families in New York City. The programs offer a range of services from academic support and recreational activities to cultural activities. OST targets high-need communities by looking at demographics and working with schools and organizations to implement programming in existing parks, housing authority and Department of Education sites around the city. High-need neighborhoods are characterized by large youth populations, a high volume of English language learners, high poverty rates and a large number of single parent homes eligible for subsidized childcare. These communities also have some of the lowest performing schools in the city and the highest rates of juvenile arrest; they gain the most from initiatives that can keep kids off the street.

A number of the social services leaders we interviewed lauded the program. “It’s an incredible thing for working parents,” says Judy Zangwill, executive director of Sunnyside Community Services.

Parents of elementary and middle school students in 15 OST programs said in response to an evaluation survey that the programs enabled them to work more or pursue more education. Among all responding parents, 74 percent agreed that the program made it easier for them to keep their jobs, and 73 percent agreed that they miss less work than they had previously. In the same three-year evaluation, 54 percent of families “agreed a lot” that the program helped students finish their homework and 44 percent “agreed a lot” that the program helps them get better grades in school.

Despite these positive outcomes, however, many of those we interviewed say that Out of School Time has not fulfilled its incredible potential because it has been underfunded and has consistently failed to meet the substantial demand. “Conceptually it was good, but it was never funded adequately per child,” says Nancy Wackstein with the United Neighborhood Houses of New York. “I think it should continue. I don’t think we should go back to the old system, but what doesn’t make sense is that it’s not totally funded.”
According to Judy Zangwill, over the last four years both OST locations managed by her organization have had 150 to 200 families on the waiting list, and still each year the Bloomberg administration proposed significant cuts to their funding, only to be restored by City Council.

Citywide, the program’s enrollment rose from 58,586 in fiscal year 2006 to 87,256 in FY 2008. But by FY 2013, because of funding cuts, enrollment had fallen to 65,957—a 24 percent decline from its peak. The OST budget has fallen from $110.7 million in FY2010 to $90 million in FY 2013. “The Out-of-School Time initiative, the after school program, [was] hugely immensely successful,” says Ester Fuchs, a professor at Columbia University who formerly served as an advisor to the Bloomberg administration. “The big challenge now is funding.”

Innovative Anti-Poverty Approaches

While this report profiles 10 stand-out social policy innovations that were implemented over the past decade, there are other important takeaways from the Bloomberg administration’s work in the social services arena. One is that so many of the most successful policies benefited from similar approaches and principles. These include:

A willingness to experiment and rigorously test the results of new policies.
In many ways, the Bloomberg administration was marked by a refreshing spirit of experimentation and openness to failure in the social policy arena, making things like pilot initiatives, metrics monitoring and third-party evaluations standard. This was best exemplified by the Center for Economic Opportunity, which served as the administration’s social policy sandbox, a place where new ideas could be realized and rigorously tested in pilot programs before being applied more broadly or heading in a new direction.

“The elevation of data has been huge,” says Matthew Klein, executive director of the Blue Ridge Foundation. “You can now see what works and what has an impact.”

“We as a city are becoming more receptive and innovative around what the data is showing,” says Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Center (BRC), a social service agency. “The [administration’s] whole approach has been about evaluation management and data. [Mayor] Bloomberg always says if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, so what he’s done is put systems in place to help agencies manage operations better.”

In previous years, the standard procedure in local government had been to introduce new programs without a commitment or mechanism to track their effectiveness. But under the Bloomberg administration, many pilots weren’t funded through the city’s general budget until they proved themselves. CEO even goes the extra step of implementing randomized trials with control groups to firmly establish whether their interventions are really working and not benefitting from other unrelated factors. “Their embrace of evidence building is quite remarkable,” says James Riccio of MDRC. “[This administration] has been willing to take the risk and subject their programs to these more rigorous trials.”

One early CEO program that allowed residents to create savings accounts using their federal and state tax refunds served as a model for similar programs in other cities. But, every year since its creation, CEO has chosen to discontinue other programs that did not prove to be as effective as was originally hoped. In other cases, it reworked programs to address problem areas. For example, in 2008, CEO launched a test of the nation’s first comprehensive conditional cash transfer program that early evaluations showed to be flawed. With additional evidence in hand, CEO sponsored a new pilot in 2011 to test a revised approach that it hopes will be more effective.

The vast majority of the people we interviewed for this report agreed that basing policy decisions on reliable and rigorous data has been a huge step in the right direction. Angie Kamath, executive director of the New York operations of Per Scholas and former deputy commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), says the city’s workforce system, in particular, benefited enormously from this approach. Kamath says that SBS received seed funding from CEO to try out things that funding from the federal Workforce Investment Act doesn’t allow. And although the experiments didn’t always succeed, the lessons they learned have led to important strategic changes in the way the agency delivers workforce training. “Without question our system would never have been transformed without that local investment,” says Kamath.

Cross-agency collaboration.
Although counterproductive silos still exist across city government, the Bloomberg administration has spurred dozens of cross-agency initiatives in the social services. Youth unemployment, obesity, truancy, homelessness, recidivism, child support, and job placements—to name just a few key challenges—have all been tackled through partnerships established in the mayor’s office.

One recent example was an effort spearheaded by the Office of Child Support Enforcement, located in the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to identify families in the city’s homeless shelters that are entitled to child support but don’t receive it. Because of this partnership, the number of families in DHS shelters with child support orders increased from 1,803 in May 2007 to 3,722 in May 2012.

Another recent example is the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), which leverages private dollars to battle minority unemployment across a dozen different agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Probation and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. According to one administration veteran, every month the mayor would bring together the point people for each of YMI’s initiatives and they would go over the data and whether they were meeting their targets. The mayor would interrogate staff members about recidivism, felony charges, school absentees, literacy, unemployment and more.

Investments in digital infrastructure.
The administration’s recent efforts to update the city’s digital infrastructure have improved consumer services and transformed the city’s contracting process with nonprofits. Using ACCESS NYC, a one-stop website that gives New Yorkers an easy way to see which city and state programs they qualify for, the administration has taken the first big step toward automating the application process for over 30 different government programs, including school lunches, food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 housing and the Summer Youth Employment Program. Visitors can apply for free school lunches directly and learn whether they qualify for the other programs without having to visit a caseworker in an HRA office, a huge advantage even if further advances are clearly possible. Information is also available in seven different languages. According to HRA, digital applications for the food stamps program have skyrocketed since ACCESS NYC went live in 2006; during the last quarter of 2012, nearly 25 percent of food stamp applications were received electronically.

Another significant advancement in digital capabilities is the Health and Human Services (HHS) Accelerator. The HHS Accelerator is meant to streamline the procurement and payment process for the city’s nonprofit partners. Prior to its inception, there was no centralized or standard procurement process and no standard reimbursement rate. This piecemeal approach compelled contractors to file duplicate sets of paperwork for different contract applications, making the process time consuming, costly and frustrating. When the procurement process is fully digitized later this year, providers will be able to submit application materials once, and any agency considering that vendor for a contract will be able to access those documents.

New funding models.
Facing an environment of mounting social problem but stagnant or declining funding from the federal and state governments, the Bloomberg administration dramatically increased the city’s ability to tap private dollars to pay for innovative new social services programs, mainly from philanthropic foundations and corporations. More than just plugging budget holes, the new resources from the private sector enabled the administration to experiment. CEO’s Innovation Fund, which has raised millions from private sources, has been the chief source of funding for most of its programs, and because it can use these funds without going through the city budget process, launching pilots and effectiveness studies can be done relatively quickly.

While these additional resources are incredibly value, it is far from clear if the next administration will be anywhere near as successful as Mayor Bloomberg was in attracting these funds. After all, Mayor Bloomberg had his own foundation, not to mention close relationships with philanthropists and corporations. John Sanchez, executive director of East Side House Settlement, was far from the only one we interviewed to bring this up: “Mayor Bloomberg has been successful bringing in private resources, but how does that continue when he’s not around?”

The city has also started to experiment with Social Impact Bonds (SIB). SIBs—also known as “pay for success bonds”—enable governments to tap private funding sources for promising new programs without incurring new debts. In 2012, New York used an SIB backed by Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg Philanthropies to fund a new education and therapy program for 16-to18-year-olds at Rikers Island; the city will repay the SIB through the cost savings of reduced recidivism rates—and if the program doesn’t reduce those rates it won’t have to repay the bond at all. In the current economic climate, this new program and the effectiveness testing it requires would not have been possible without private funding sources.

On the other end of the spectrum, in some cases the Bloomberg administration has shown a willingness to add government dollars to federally funded programs if doing so gives city agencies more latitude to experiment and innovate. For example, over the last decade, not only has the city has been receiving declining amounts of federal aid for workforce development programming, the funds it receives come with restrictions that prevent experiments in sector-based workforce training rather than simple job-placements. For that reason, the city began to blend its own tax levy funds with federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds to gain more flexibility.


With so many New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet, the city badly needs a bold new anti-poverty agenda—one that goes well beyond what was attempted during the Bloomberg administration. Given his platform during the recent election campaign, there’s little doubt that Mayor-elect de Blasio plans to make this a major priority.

But having a major impact in this area will not be easy. The problems run deep and are incredibly complicated, and the new mayor will inherit a number of enormous obstacles. Chief among them are budgetary constraints. The city faces a growing budget deficit, magnified by escalating pension costs and union contracts that need to be negotiated in the coming months, and the federal government has been greatly reducing its support for social programs.

As the de Blasio administration attempts to navigate these challenges, it is important to not just start but scratch, but to build on some of the most effective anti-poverty policies from the Bloomberg administration—from CEO to Jobs-Plus. Every one of the 10 social services initiatives profiled in this report could be improved upon, and most should be greatly expanded, but it would be a shame to see them tossed aside altogether. In addition, the new administration would be wise to embrace some of the broader approaches to social services policy that held sway in the last several years. For instance, the de Blasio administration would benefit from continuing to rigorously test new initiatives. This not only ensures that scarce government funds go to initiatives that are proven to work, but it will help the administration attract funds from philanthropic foundations and corporations. And, at a time of extremely limited resources, the new administration should continue to innovate and experiment with new initiatives.

Advisory Board

We acknowledge the helpful support we received from the members of an advisory board created for this project. Advisory board members, who provided
suggestions and guidance but were not asked to endorse the final study, included:

  • Catherine Abate, Community Healthcare Network
  • Richard Buery Jr., The Children’s Aid Society
  • Joel Copperman, Human Services Council and CASES
  • Daniel Delehanty, Capital One
  • Wayne Ho
  • Igal Jellinek, Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, Inc.
  • Michele Kahane, Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy
  • Matthew Klein, Blue Ridge Foundation
  • Rick Luftglass, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund
  • Gail Magaliff, F.E.G.S.
  • James Riccio, MDRC
  • Carmine Rivetti, United Way of New York City
  • Irma Rodriguez, Queens Community House
  • Davon Russell, WHEDco
  • Denise Scott, Local Initiatives Support Corporation
  • Peter York, TCC Group

Click here to download the full report as a PDF.

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