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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Mike Gets Halfway Radical

Cities, Cities, Culture, Energy, Economics, Education New York City, Race, Pre K-12

MAYOR Bloomberg has broken the most fiercely guarded taboo in the poverty industry. Unfortunately, his own solution to long-term poverty is worse than the ones he proposes to supplant.

The mayor wants to start paying the poor to make the right everyday decisions - showing up for school, free medical appointments or work; studying for exams; using free prenatal nurse services, etc. This pay-for-personal-responsibility program is part of the mayor’s newest initiative to cut poverty in the city, announced on Monday.

The insight behind the mayor’s proposal is politically incorrect in the extreme. For decades, the one thing one was never ever allowed to say about intergenerational poverty was that it’s largely caused by the long-term poor themselves.

A never-ending procession of welfare-rights, housing and homeless advocates told us again and again that poverty is the result of racism and economic injustice. The poor were helpless victims of a system that was stacked against them.

Anyone who dared to point out that such self-destructive decisions as having a baby out of wedlock or dropping out of school were the proximate causes of poverty was lambasted for “blaming the victim.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s cash-for-responsibility program implicitly rejects that conventional wisdom about poverty. It acknowledges, however covertly, that it is the underclass poor who need to change more than society or capitalism. If the long-term poor acquired the same simple habits that propel the more bourgeois members of society - behaviors such as deferring gratification or showing up for appointments on time (or at all) - they’d start climbing the economic ladder that America continues to hold out to people everywhere.

But paying them for such decisions is a foolhardy way to produce this behavioral change. It will inevitably set up an expectation among the underclass that they have a right to cash for simply conforming to the norms of civil society. The list of responsible behaviors for which bounties will be offered will inevitably grow. Not just attending classes, but refraining from hitting your teacher, not bringing a gun to school, showing up for an exam, taking your child to be vaccinated, bathing your kids and feeding them - all will be candidates for a bribe.

And what is the end-game? The mayor has not said how he proposes to wean off the subsidized poor from the inevitable pay-me-or-else mentality, nor how he’ll determine who gets paid for behaving in personally responsible ways and who has to act responsibly “for free.”

There is a far more effective action the mayor could take to reduce poverty in New York, one that would require violating the second-most dangerous poverty-industry taboo: promoting marriage.

The mayor’s own Commission for Economic Opportunity observes this all-important fact about poverty: It is irrevocably tied to family structure. Forty-one percent of female-headed households in New York fall below the federal poverty line, whereas only 11 percent of married couples do. This fact should have driven the entire agenda of the commission and the mayor. But, instead of acting on its obvious implications, they ignore it and say not a single word more about family formation in a 52-page report on ending poverty.

The most powerful social change that would cut poverty would be to increase the marriage rate among minorities. Rather than hitting up the private sector for bribes for the poor (the mayor’s proposed cash awards for good behavior will be privately funded), Bloomberg should call on private industry and ad councils to start a massive educational campaign about marriage. This would tell young girls that the most valuable gift they can give their children is a father. It would tell young boys that siring children that they have no intention of raising is cowardly and unmanly.

The mayor’s beloved anti-smoking campaigns and laws changed behavior - and being raised by a teen mother is a far greater hazard to a child’s future well-being than inhaling second-hand smoke. Bloomberg should put as much energy into stamping out illegitimacy as he has into stamping out smoking.

The rest of the mayor’s anti-poverty proposals are drearily conventional - boost use of food stamps, build more subsidized housing, merge job-training programs and other familiar ideas. They’ve all been tried before, and none has worked.

There’s one more radical idea that can truly make a difference: Restore rigorous order to classrooms.

Many of the poor children in the city’s schools come from home environments that are terrifyingly chaotic. They have few immediate contacts with adults who lead stable, self-disciplined lives. Their only hope for learning how to discipline themselves is at school. But too often, the chaos in the classroom only mirrors what they see at home.

The mayor should make sure that every school in the city embraces order and structure. Every child should learn in an environment that is governed by just rules, and where there are consequences for breaking those rules. With that legacy of self-discipline, the city’s children will be far better prepared to take up the many opportunities that this rich and vibrant metropolis will offer them in the future.