The root cause of the Mieses family’s poverty can be traced not to poor parenting or decision-making but to the fact that Ruddy Sr. earns very little money for putting in 70-hour workweeks in a dangerous job in a dangerous neighborhood. His weekly earnings fluctuate between $700 and $1,100, but that’s before taking his costs into account. He pays $70 a week to his employer, 510 Car and Limo Service (motto: “We go anywhere, anytime”), and spends more than $200 a week on gas.
He rents the car for $250 a week from a friend who works the day shift. His friend’s car is cheaper than a regular rental, but the arrangement forces him to work nights. “At night, you have to be prepared for everything,” he says, putting his fists up and sounding like a combat veteran. One passenger put a gun to his head; another a knife to his throat (he has a scar from that experience). He keeps a wooden staff behind his seat in case of trouble. “You get used to it,” he says.
Ruddy’s net income works out to about $400 a week, or $20,000 a year. When I ask him about tips, he laughs. “Tips? Over here—East New York, Brownsville, Crown Heights—you don’t get any tips. Some people don’t even want to pay the fare!” Ruddy could get an extra $150 each month from Opportunity NYC, but when Maria signed up, she didn’t put down her husband’s name. By the time she learned Ruddy could earn money for being employed, it was too late.
Each month, then, Ruddy earns about $1,600, with $500 of that going to rent and nearly $800 to food. The family receives $432 a month in food stamps, but that’s not enough to make much of a dent in the grocery bills for four kids. The local Associated is too expensive, so Maria travels to Fine Fare on Pitkin Avenue, where she can buy items in bulk at discounted prices. After food and rent, there is only $300 a month left for items like clothing, movies, video games, and all the other expenses that come with raising a family.
The Mieses family stands to receive up to $500 a month in additional income from Opportunity NYC. The first funds will be deposited into their account in mid-December, and Maria already has plans for what they’ll go toward. “All my kids need winter clothes and new boots,” she says. “And then everything for Christmas.”
Paying the poor for good behavior may seem patronizing, but Opportunity NYC argues that they are simply trying to offset the financial disincentives to, say, a parent’s taking a child to the doctor (and thereby missing a much-needed shift at work) or a teenager’s finishing high school rather than getting a minimum-wage job to help with the family’s bills. And it is true that certain behaviors are inextricably linked with poverty: High-school dropouts earn less than graduates, children who don’t receive regular medical care are more likely to have health problems as adults. But the question, beyond whether the program can successfully change behavior, is whether these changes truly provide opportunities for social mobility.
At its core, the program is designed to enable poor kids to do better than their parents. With or without the cash incentives, the Mieses kids have plenty of ambition. Ruddyel wants to be a “drawer,” and he shows me an impressive rendering of a professional wrestler. Kilvis wants to be a pediatrician. “I like to help people,” she explains quietly. “Especially children.”
Ruddy Jr. isn’t quite sure what he wants to be, but he’s narrowed it down to three professions. “Maybe I’ll be an accountant,” he begins, then reconsiders. “But I don’t like math. So I could be a vet and take care of animals. Or maybe I’ll be one of those people…” He searches for the right word. “You know those people that, like, have someone come lay down on a couch and they tell you all about their feelings and their childhood, stuff like that? I’d like to listen to them. That could be fun.”
Maria is excited about her children’s dreams. “She’ll do real good,” she says of Kilvis’s future as a doctor. “She works so hard in school.”
But asked where the money will come from to pay for medical school, Maria becomes silent. “Maybe she will have some money from…” I wait for her to finish the sentence, but she doesn’t.