The Good-Behavior Bribe

Ruddy and Maria Mieses, with their children, from left, Rubbay, Ruddyel, Ruddy Jr,. and Kilvis. Photo: Alessamdra Sanguinetti

At 5:30 in the morning, Ruddy Mieses, one of the first participants in Michael Bloomberg’s radical new antipoverty plan, parks his rented white Crown Victoria in front of a forbidding brick complex in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and takes stock of his finances. The livery-cab driver’s ten-and-a-half-hour shift has earned him $145. Not too bad. Last week, business was slow, and he had netted less than $100 on two consecutive nights. On especially slow nights, he could work a ten-hour shift and actually lose money after figuring in costs.

Bleary-eyed and ready for bed, Ruddy (pronounced like “Rudy”) goes into his apartment in the low-income Riverdale Osborne Towers, kisses his wife, Maria, and falls asleep watching television.

Just as Ruddy’s long night is ending, Maria’s shift begins. At six, she wakes up their four children, and as they take showers and put on their school uniforms, she makes pancakes and eggs. They’re out the door at 7:30 a.m. and off to P.S. 156, where the two youngest boys, Ruddyel and Rubbay, are enrolled. Sixth-grader Ruddy Jr. and his seventh-grade sister, Kilvis, go to I.S. 392, a gifted middle school in the same building, where the scores are outstanding and three-quarters of the students receive free lunches.

After dropping them off, Maria catches a subway to downtown Brooklyn. By a quarter to nine, she’s sitting in class at the ASA Institute, working her way toward a certificate in criminal justice. Maria used to work as a day-care assistant, but she lost her job three years ago when the center closed. She’s taken out $13,000 worth of loans to go back to school in the hopes that she’ll eventually get a decent-paying job in the New York City court system. But for now, the family is making do with one income.

At 2:30, Maria picks up the kids and starts preparing their dinner: rice and beans with seasoned chicken. By 4:30, they’re doing their homework. Eight-year-old Ruddyel is learning the word vanish. Vanish means when you disappear, he writes in his notebook, gripping the pencil tightly. Across the table, Ruddy Jr. is discovering how to determine whether 3,464,870 is divisible by 3. “You, like, add up the numbers and see if 3 goes into that number,” he says. He does the addition in his head. “It equals 32—it doesn’t go in!”

When he finishes his math homework, Ruddy Jr. stands up and bounces from one foot to the other. Asked about his favorite subject, he answers, “ELA”: English-language arts. “We get to write memoirs, like events that happened,” he says, looking at me to make sure I understand. He shifts his weight again and seems on the verge of exploding with energy. “For my memoir, I wrote about the time we went to Medieval Times! I got to go there last year. They took a picture of me with the king!”

By 7 p.m., the homework is done and the kids are watching television. The household is in bed by nine, all except Ruddy Sr., who has already said good-bye to his family and begun his shift. The next day promises to be nearly identical. “Here, everything is about time,” Maria tells me. “It’s always the same. We’re working, but we never have any money.”

The Mieseses are poor—a family of six living on $20,000 a year—which qualifies them to become one of the approximately 5,000 families enrolled in Opportunity NYC, a two-year Bloomberg initiative begun in September that gives low-income families money when they complete certain activities, such as attending a parent-teacher conference, obtaining a library card, or taking a child for an annual checkup. The technical term for this approach is conditional cash transfers. Pay poor families to do things that are in their best interest, the thinking goes, and maybe their kids won’t be poor—the “intergenerational cycle of poverty” will be broken. Although the cash will undoubtedly help families pay bills, the real hope is to change behavior by adding an extra incentive to focus on long-term goals, which often get lost in the stress that characterizes a life lived from paycheck to paycheck. “Poverty,” as George Orwell wrote, “annihilates the future.”

Bloomberg’s initiative takes its inspiration from Mexico’s primary antipoverty program, Oportunidades. Since its launch in 1997, Oportunidades is credited with increasing the number of kids starting high school in rural areas by 85 percent and cutting the poverty rate by 5 percent. Its success has led more than twenty other developing countries to implement similar programs.

“At the beginning, we looked at it with interest but didn’t think it applied,” says Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It was being used to get kids out of the fields and into the classrooms. But as we dug deeper, we started asking, ‘Gee, if something works in very poor countries, could it work here?’”

Mayer Bloomberg in Brownsville, announcing Opportunity NYC. Photo: Andrea Mohin/New York Times/Redux

The program is funded by Bloomberg himself, along with the Rockefeller Foundation and a number of other private philanthropies, and focuses on families living in poor neighborhoods like East Harlem and Brownsville. Half of the 5,000 enrollees, chosen by lottery, are given a list of education, health, and employment goals for which they can receive funds, and are encouraged to open bank accounts (the program starts them off with a $50 deposit). Every two months, as they submit proof of completed activities (attendance records, medical receipts, test scores), rewards are deposited electronically into the family’s account. If a family completes all of the listed activities, it can earn up to $6,000 a year.

The other half simply live their lives, serving as the control group. After two years, it is hoped, the city will be able to see whether the money was effective in motivating parents and children to pursue productive behavior. If so, it could lead to an expanded, publicly funded program.

Like the majority of families in Opportunity NYC, the Mieseses didn’t have a bank account, and Maria opened one immediately (thus far, participants have opened 625 new accounts). But there doesn’t seem to be much more room for changes in behavior: The family already does most of the things the program encourages. The kids all have library cards, attend school, and pass their standardized tests. They regularly go to the doctor and the dentist, and Maria meets frequently with the kids’ teachers. She also receives educational training (for which she can earn up to $3,000 a year), and her husband works seven nights a week, at least ten hours a shift.

Indeed, families like the Mieseses—working hard, looking out for their children’s interests, but nonetheless poor—seem to fill the ranks of Opportunity NYC participants. Delores Owens, the project coordinator for Opportunity NYC at the Brownsville Multi-Family Health Center, one of the program’s nonprofit partners, estimates that half of the parents in the program are employed, a much higher percentage than the population she usually works with. The reason seems to be that the Opportunity families are a self-selecting group: Families already waging an all-out battle to provide a better life for their kids jump at the chance to get a little more money. Those caught up in depression, addiction, or any of the other afflictions that often coincide with poverty are less likely to fill out the forms and show up for the appointments, or do any of the other initial tasks needed to enroll.

The cause of the Mieses family’s poverty is not poor decision-making, but the fact that Ruddy doesn’t earn a living wage.

“We have not been as successful as we would have liked in reaching the deep pockets of poverty,” says Owens. She is seeking out eligible families in local shelters, but it’s difficult. “People are thinking, ‘Can I keep the lights on, can I get food?’” she says. “It’s not that their children aren’t a priority but that they are trying to survive.”

The program has come with its share of controversy—which is one reason that Bloomberg decided to launch the pilot without taxpayer money. Critics on the right bemoan its big-government approach (even though it is privately funded); critics on the left characterize it as condescending to the poor—or at best a tiny Band-Aid on the gaping wound of poverty.

Especially controversial is the money for school activities. The program will pay high-school students $50 for each month that their attendance record is at least 95 percent, $50 for taking the PSAT, $600 for each Regents exam they pass, and $200 when they graduate from high school. Parents, too, get money for their children’s academic success—for example, they earn up to $300 a year if their elementary-school child passes his or her standardized tests.

This focus on grades and relentless testing doesn’t sit well with education activist Jonathan Kozol, who e-mailed me that “bribing parents to cooperate with testing is an utterly misguided and dangerous idea.” Paying for performance, critics like Kozol argue, diminishes the value of curiosity and learning for its own sake—attitudes that are just as critical to a child’s success as doing well on tests.

One day, I put the question to the Mieses kids. Do they think the promise of money will make them work harder in school? Kilvis, an honor student who is nearly as tall as her mom, answers without missing a beat: “No, I’ll do the same things I’m doing right now.”

Still, she thinks the program is a good idea. Ruddy Jr. agrees. “I’m already working pretty hard,” he says. “I don’t know if I could work any harder!” He pauses. “Well, it might make me do a little bit more.” Now he’s bouncing back and forth, getting excited. “’Cause, like, if I get enough money then I might go back to Medieval Times!”

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.

The Good-Behavior Bribe