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.