MDRC Finds New York Conditional Cash Transfer Program has Mixed Results

Apr 12, 2010

By Abigail Newcomer

At the end of March, the City of New York and MDRC released a preliminary report showing mixed results for Opportunity NYC, an experimental, conditional cash transfer (CCT) program run by New York City's Office of Economic Opportunity. The program is using private money to experiment with a new strategy to promote healthy actions and self sufficiency by giving cash incentives to low-income families that display positive health, education and work-related behaviors. After the third and last year of Opportunity NYC, the Bloomberg Administration says it will discontinue the pilot program.

Opportunity NYC led to an 11 percent reduction in poverty and an increase in average monthly income of $338. The poverty reduction was due to payments to participating families for completing desired actions. These are among the clearest outcomes of the program so far. At most sites, the program appears to have had only a small impact on employment outcomes. Longer term impacts of many of the incentive tasks relating to health and education may not be evident for many years.

MDRC found behavior change largely in the areas families could control. Participants were significantly more likely to seek out routine dental care and to open mainstream bank accounts. Outcomes were less clear for the incentive behaviors complicated by challenges such as school quality, transportation and child care. For example, the incentives did not improve elementary and middle school student outcomes, and only among the best prepared high school students did "school attendance, course credits, grade advancement, and standardized test results" improve. The families that struggled most in earning incentive payments were those who had less education or earnings at the start of the program, or those who experienced hardship such as illness, divorce or domestic violence.

These interim results show that many of the challenges faced by this population are not easily remedied. Children attending failing schools may not be able to pass graduation exams simply by studying harder; and adults may not be able to find full time employment, even with additional effort or training, during an economic recession.  They also provide evidence that problems faced by families in poverty cannot be attributed solely to a lack of effort, but to a combination of forces that affect the quality of their education, health care and employment opportunities.

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