Last night, I had the chance to attend a panel discussion as part of Baruch College Public Affairs Week featuring Linda Gibbs (the Deputy Mayor for Human Services) discussing the Opportunity NYC program, a bold experiment to test the idea of conditional cash transfers (CCT) in New York City. The idea is that low-income families receive cash rewards for completing certain positive activities, like attending parent-teacher conferences, getting health screenings, or passing Regent exams. Aubrey Fox commented on plans for a CCT program for New York City in this post from September 2006.
The leading thinker on the topic is Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer. Here's an article that talks about a recent visit he made to New York City and gives some information on his role in shaping policies here. The project in New York City is inspired in part by the very succesful Progresa program in Mexico and CCT programs in other countries.
Deputy Mayor Gibbs presentation at the Baruch event generated heated discussion and strong reactions from the assembled students and public policy professionals, perhaps fitting the adage that the best policy is one which offends liberals and conservatives equally. What excited me about the program was the willingness on the part of governement to experiment: to test a new idea even though success isn't certain.
Should the Opportunity NYC experiment show that CCT isn't effective in New York City, that would not necessarily be a bad outcome. All of us who are searching for solutions to the problem of poverty will be able to rule out one "big idea" and devote our energy to other promising possibilities. The space to innovate and even fail is rare in government. The Center for Court Innovation convened a discussion on what it means when innovations fail: "In general, it is human nature to shout about new ideas that have succeeded - while failure is discussed in hushed whispers, if at all . . . If we want to encourage criminal justice officials to test new ideas and challenge conventional wisdom, we need to create a climate where failure is openly discussed." Read more about that project here.