One afternoon last month, in the ornate windowless chambers of New York City Council, Deputy Mayor Linda I. Gibbs found herself facing one of the toughest grillings of her career.
Council members were firing questions at her from every corner of the room over an issue they should have been welcoming with open arms. It took Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat who heads the Youth Committee, to sum up the frustration..
“We've been trying for months now to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
Fidler was referring to the Young Men's Initiative (YMI), a potentially groundbreaking three-year $127 million initiative launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with great fanfare last August—and hailed at the time by many commentators as a new, innovative approach to ending the cycle of poverty and educational disadvantage that has condemned thousands of young men of color to a bleak future.But since the program's launch four months ago, details have been hard to come by, and skeptics inside and outside City Hall have been left wondering whether the project is as innovative and ambitious as it claims to be.
The answer could matter far beyond the borders of New York. The YMI initiative stands out because of the way it mixes philanthropy with tax dollars in an effort to help revenue-starved municipalities promote innovative ideas at a time of economic crisis.
Financier George Soros pledged $30 million to the project, and Bloomberg, one of America's richest men, is kicking in $30 million of his own money. (Taxpayers would provide the remaining $67 million).
Could it serve as a model for other cities?
So far the jury is out, with critics charging that the net result of the project—based on its actions so far—will be to shore up programs that already have been in operation, rather than creating new ones. While that may still be a laudable result in the current economic situation, the critics say it doesn't justify the game-changing claims of proponents.
“Why should we believe this initiative will have a systemic impact?” said Council member Albert Vann, who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights in the borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., during the tense meeting with Gibbs last month.
Gibbs, who is in charge of getting city agencies involved and supportive of YMI, didn't help matters.
A long-time advocate of criminal justice reform, Gibbs has been one of Bloomberg's most powerful officials since 2006. But at the hearing, she brushed off the pointed questions, telling the council members that details on money allocation could be accessed through the YMI website.
But in an interview later with The Crime Report, Gibbs conceded that she had made some tactical mistakes in getting the initiative off the ground.
“They should have been included,” Gibbs said. “Lesson learned. We know for the future to include them.”
What makes the sniping between New York Council members and Gibbs particularly tragic is that nearly everyone agrees that the problem targeted by the initiative should be high on the city agenda.
Diagnosing the Problem
In 2010, Mayor Bloomberg commissioned a report to help provide a blueprint for the Young Men's Initiative. The report, “Portrait of a Crisis,” found that African-American and Latino children “are two times more likely to live in poverty than their white peers” and are as a result likely to become caught up in the juvenile and later adult courts and prisons. Some 84 percent of those admitted to city jails the previous year were African-American and Latino.
The stark conclusion that young African-American and Latino males are more likely to end up in prison is borne out by researchers who have studied the situation nationwide.
The report was produced by David C. Banks, president of The Eagle Academy Foundation, and Ana Oliveira, president of the New York Women's Foundation. It advises Bloomberg to set out for five major areas where targeted help can improve the odds for at-risk minority males: education, mentoring, employment, justice and health.
The initiative will be overseen by New York's Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), a program created by Bloomberg in 2006 (the same time Gibbs' job was created).
The first recipient of an initiative grant will be the Young Adult Literacy program, created in 2008 and operated by the Center for Economic Opportunity.
Cathleen Collins, a media representative, said via e-mail that the programs $3.3 million allocation for next year was about $1 million more than last year, thanks largely to YMI funding. The money, she said, will be used mainly to “expand the Young Adult Literacy Program to serve an additional 400 participants,”
The literacy program helps young adults develop work related skills through internships and GED classes.
The Shell Game?
At a time when local governments around the country have been forced by the national fiscal crisis to cut funding to social services, the notion of leveraging scarce government funds with targeted philanthropy provides, to some, an attractive model.
“The initiative is a bold new program that grew from the research to correct the problems that slow the advancement of our young black and Latino men,” Banks, one of the authors of the initiative's blueprint, said via email. “The initiative brings the public and private sectors together.”
But in New York, many council members charge that in effect the program amounts to a shell game.
The $67 million in public funds designated for the YMI come from tax levies set at the beginning of every fiscal year—raising concerns that the initiative merely channels money already allocated to a city agency for budgeted programs into a new project.
Council member Elizabeth Crowley from the New York City borough of Queens said the way the money is reallocated calls into question the effectiveness of the initiative.
“It's not entirely clear how the money is going to be spent,” she told The Crime Report. “I'm a little skeptical.”
New York's Department of Probation, which starting in 2012 will receive $4.7 million over three years under the initiative, illustrates the challenge.
The department oversees over 25,000 probationers in New York City. The initiative has tasked them with opening probation offices in five neighborhoods: Harlem, South Bronx, East New York, Jamaica and Brownsville.
While these offices will open early next year, according to the department's media representative Ryan Dodge, the one in Brownsville opened on Dec. 7. The press release states that all five offices will be “funded through existing DOP resources.”
That means the DOP will have to reallocate its existing funds to make room for the initiative. According to department documents, the program will target “869 young adults annually” at a “per person cost of $5000.”
This comes out to $4 million, annually. The DOP will spend $12 million of its own budget over the course of the three-year initiative.
Gibbs believes that the opening of the probation offices is evidence that the council is already beginning to work with the initiative. She pointed out that council member Darlene Mealey was present on Dec. 7 when the Department of Probation set up its first probation to Brownsville as a way of showing that Gibbs and the city was already working in tandem with the council.
But during the Nov. 2 meeting Julissa Ferreras, a council member for Queens, cautioned against sending probation officers to Brownsville because they would see it “as an invasion” and it would not help achieve the goals of the initiative.
Following the Money
Council members say they haven't been told how much of the money will come from funds already allocated under the city budget and how much of it will be new money. And it's not clear to them who decides the question.
If the money comes entirely from the public sector, the department will need to pull $4.7 million out of one part of its budget and reallocate it to YMI priorities.
Council members say this makes little sense.
“Every year we cut and cut and cut. And then we get word that we're getting new money? Impossible,” Crowley said.
“I think this was not thought through enough,” said Jumaane D. Williams, a council member from Brooklyn, at the Nov. 2 session.
Gibbs told The Crime Report during a discussion forum on social entrepreneurship in the 21st century that she hoped the council would be included in future initiative-related actions.
Still, how many programs and activities will come out of the project in the next three years is unknown—and the criteria and methodology for disbursing funds and choosing programs is not clear.
More significantly, it is not certain how the Initiative will be evaluated and by whom.
But the one certain thing is the money is there to spend. Juvenile justice and criminal justice advocates in New York and around the country will be watching closely to see whether it makes any measurable difference to the otherwise tragic futures faced by thousands of young urban males.
Eric Jankiewicz, a senior at John Jay College, is the Fall news intern at The Crime Report. This article is his internship project. He welcomes comments from readers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to probationers being monitored by the DOP as ex-prisoners.