Early last year, the Kennedy School of Government gave its Innovations in American Government Award to the administration of then–New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for its approach to fighting poverty. Kennedy School Scholar Julie Boatright Wilson, who evaluated the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity for the awards program, told The New York Times that CEO impressed her because “you really get his sense of measuring performance and wanting to know how you’re doing.” Bloomberg’s innovative approach to poverty also earned him an award this autumn from the Children’s Aid Society because, while the mayor had not, as he pledged in 2006, reduced poverty, he had at least kept it steady. These were just a few of the accolades Bloomberg’s anti-poverty push earned from editorial writers and academics impressed with its experimental approach to trying new ideas to fight poverty.
On Friday, Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, announced that he was going to support a change in city law on paid sick leave. A lukewarm compromise passed last year by Speaker Christine Quinn, who had held up a vote on the issue at Bloomberg’s request but finally succumbed to pressure from the left, had extended the basic human right of paid sick days only to employees of firms with fifteen or more workers, subject to industry-specific carve-outs, delays in implementation and a trigger mechanism that relied on a set of economic indicators to determine whether to go through with the policy or not.
De Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito new bill will extend the right to firms with as few of five workers, eliminating the carve-outs and dropping the delays.
There is absolutely nothing innovative about paid sick leave, which most workers have enjoyed for their entire working life. And that’s the great thing about it.
According to the most recent report on its website, Bloomberg’s CEO in fiscal 2012 ran an impressive array of small-scale programs that, added up, helped 45,367 people. Two other programs grouped under the CEO umbrella—tax credits—benefitted 25,000 households. (A separate tax prep program helped roughly 100,000 households file their returns, but didn’t necessarily confer any benefits on them.)
There are 1.7 million poor people and 600,000 poor households in New York City.
De Blasio’s change to the sick-leave law will benefit some 500,000 people. Not all of those beneficiaries will be poor, but you get the drift—this move is going to impact a lot more people a lot faster than any economic innovation put forward by the Bloomberg team. There’s no way paid sick leave will cure poverty, but it will prevent many thousands of low-income workers from falling behind on rent or having to skip a meal because they got strep throat or that terrible barfing disease that New Yorkers share with one another this time of year.
Bloomberg’s anti-poverty team came up with many good ideas—tackling health problems that hold poor students back, getting internships for low-income kids, building in support for students in community colleges, training people for careers as nurses—for fighting poverty. The problem is, by its very nature as a policy test kitchen, none of the CEO programs was ever given the funding to go to a scale where it would actually make a dent against the breadth or depth of poverty in New York.
Many policy experts agree that de Blasio ought to continue several Bloomberg era anti-poverty programs, including CEO itself. The fiscal and political challenges to mounting a sustained effort against poverty are enormous, so it helps to have CEO-type research so you can say that something definitely works.
But in this context and others, the glorification of “innovation” for its own sake can be as harmful as it is stimulating. The premise behind innovation is often that “the old approaches just plain didn’t work” but that’s plainly untrue when it comes to the US fight against poverty, which, while imperfect, achieved some impressive gains. And there are times when the answer to the problem is so obvious that it’s just wasting time to innovate a new program and wait to see what the metrics say. We’ve known for twenty years that the inability of low-wage workers to get their heads above the poverty line was a threat to the social contract, but that didn’t sway the Bloomberg administration on the importance of paid sick-leave or requiring living wages at developments lavishly subsidized by the taxpayer.
Moving from pilot programs to broad changes isn’t easy. The obstacles to making big moves are obvious: people who enjoy the status quo aren’t itching to change it, and they use the power they’ve accrued to maintain it. But de Blasio’s move Friday is proof positive that they can be overcome. Compared to the sound and fury that greeted talk of paid sick leave in years past, the business community was pretty quiet after de Blasio’s announcement. On one hand, that’s because business interests saw this move coming and braced for it. On another, the business community may have been sufficiently cheered by de Blasio’s appointing trusted insiders to the key posts of NYPD commissioner and first deputy mayor—because, let’s face it, for many business leaders in the city, public safety and basic competence are all they expect from municipal government.
But it’s also clear that business leaders recognize de Blasio’s landslide election (terrible turnout notwithstanding) represents a real shift in the city’s direction. “Elections matter,” is how Public Advocate Letitia James put it on Friday, and the timing couldn’t have been better, going into Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. How many times have you heard that voting makes no difference, because Republicans and Democrats are so fundamentally alike? The sick-leave saga refutes that notion soundly, with the different paths pursued by a liberal Republican (Bloomberg), centrist Democrat (Quinn) and progressive Democrat (de Blasio) now clear to see.