NYC program will try to buy good parenting

NEW YORK — Edith Gutierrez is quick to acknowledge her failings as a parent. And she knows what it's like to be poor.

So for her, a New York City pilot program that will link cash grants to good parenting makes a lot of sense.

"It could keep parents on the ball," Gutierrez said of Opportunity NYC, which the city plans to start as an experiment in September.

"A program like that would help parents get more involved in their children's lives, and at the same time it could help them get their own education and learn a trade," Gutierrez said. "Maybe something like that would have helped me stay out of trouble."

Maybe. But then, there are a lot of maybes connected to Opportunity NYC. Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged as much in unveiling the $50 million, privately funded initiative, the first of its kind in the U.S.

"It's new. It's innovative. And as with any good idea, there is always the possibility that it won't work," Bloomberg said in March. "But we can't be afraid to try new things."

The program is modeled after Oportunidades in Mexico, a 10-year-old aid initiative that has been credited with alleviating Mexico's direst poverty.

The Mexican system, like conditional cash-transfer programs in Brazil and other Latin American nations, makes demands on participants while offering small but meaningful cash rewards.

The cash goes directly to the family, almost always the mother or other female head of the household. Parents can receive from $40 to $100 a month if they fulfill such responsibilities as taking their children to the doctor or keeping them in school.

That approach has won praise across the political spectrum. A centrist government started Mexico's program, but it took off under a conservative administration. Brazil's Family Fund was founded by a fiscal moderate but expanded greatly under a left-of-center government.

Those on the right applaud the system because it relies on individual initiative and acts as an investment in the future: Children in the program are healthier, they stay in school longer and they grow up with a better chance to become productive citizens.

Those on the left say the program helps stabilize troubled families and gives poor children more consistent access to society's benefits.

Bloomberg, a Democrat until he ran for mayor as a Republican in 2001, drew an analogy to the business world. Just as bonuses and commissions are designed to produce better performance, the mayor said, so can these payments motivate more responsible behavior.

"The money could make a really big difference in a family's quality of life," Bloomberg said. "More importantly, it's the skills and the habits that families will learn through meeting targets that will pay the big dividends over the long term."

Yet the mayor is guarded in his optimism. Rather than using city money for the pilot program, he will rely on $50 million raised from private donors and foundations. Bloomberg, a billionaire, contributed an unspecified sum.

The test program will run two years, possibly three. It is expected to start in September and draw in 5,000 families. Half of the families will be in the control group, receiving a small stipend for their participation, while the other half will be beneficiaries.

The New York program will greatly resemble Mexico's. Bloomberg called upon the architects of Oportunidades to help New York design Opportunity NYC.

Though the health-care components will be similar, New York's education side will be more rigorous. Parents might have to attend school meetings. And benefits will be tied not to enrollment, which is mandatory by law, but to attendance and achievement.

The goal is to foster attendance because "in the very poor communities that we are targeting, attendance is lower, and it falls off dramatically in the older school years," said Linda Gibbs, deputy mayor for health and human services.

"And there are just huge achievement gaps in poor communities, closely correlated to race and socioeconomic status," she said. "We very much want to understand how an incentive might close that gap."