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City Receives Anti-Poverty Award, Draws Critics

Monday, February 13, 2012

The city was honored with a prestigious award from Harvard for its anti-poverty efforts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in his weekly radio address Sunday – but critics say the award is “mostly undeserved.”

The award was given to the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), a center funded with public and private money housed within the mayor’s office that was founded in 2006 to combat poverty among the city’s low-income workers, at-risk youth and families.

Nearly 20 percent, or 1.6 million, of the city’s 8.2 million residents are classified as poor, according to CEO’s most recent estimates.

“The world’s leading science and technology companies have set up research and development divisions to pioneer new products,” Bloomberg said Sunday. “Why not do the same in the fight against poverty?”

Harvard received around 500 applications for the award, and CEO was chosen by a committee of former civic leaders, policymakers and experts in key policy areas, according to the Harvard University’s spokeswoman.

Julie Boatright Wilson, senior lecturer in social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who made a site visit to the CEO, called its programs “terrific” and said the city “should be a model.”

“The city really took control of its economic development and agenda,” Wilson said. “I think the mayor set the agenda as wanting to increase the earnings and economic well-being of lower-income New Yorkers, but really focusing a lot on those who were entering the labor market or who were already in the labor market and had the capacity to increase their earnings.”

But some anti-poverty advocates expressed reservations about the award.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City’s Coalition against Hunger, said it was “mostly undeserved,” because CEO’s programs have reached a tiny part of the city’s poor population.

“If NYC had a police department or a fire department that helped less than half of one percent of people in need, those commissioners would be replaced by noon,” Berg said. “The only reason that the city gets any credit for its poverty efforts is that the standards of our elites when it comes to fighting poverty are so abysmally, absurdly low.”

Over the last five years CEO has collaborated with 28 city agencies on more than 50 programs and policy initiatives. The Harvard University award cited two programs: CUNY ASAP, a community college support program, and the Sector-Focused Career Centers, a series of sector-based employment and training centers. The two programs had a $12.3 million budget in fiscal year 2011.

According to CEO, the CUNY ASAP program doubled its graduation rate among students in its three-year program and nearly tripled its two-year graduation rate.

Of the 6,718 New Yorkers served by the Sector Centers in fiscal year 2011, 2,834 secured employment and an additional 394 were able to advance within their existing careers, according to CEO.

In July 2010, CEO received an annual $5.7 million five-year grant from the Obama administration to replicate five of its programs in New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Newark, Tulsa, San Antonio and Youngstown.

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