Center for Economic Opportunity Wins Harvard Innovations in American Government Award

February 12, 2012
Center for Economic Opportunity Wins Harvard Innovations in American Government Award

Cambridge, Mass. – Today New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) was announced as the winner of the Innovations in American Government Award by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. CEO was established by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to design, implement, and evaluate unique initiatives that combat urban poverty among New York City’s low-income workers, at-risk youth, and families with children. Over the last five years, CEO has collaborated with 28 city agencies to launch and scale up more than 50 programs and policy initiatives in the areas of asset development, employment and training, and education.

“Not only is the Center for Economic Opportunity innovative, it demonstrates a sea change in how a city can unite the disparate interests of previously siloed agencies, funders, providers, and businesses to tackle poverty, one of our nation’s major growing challenges,” said Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center. “In honoring CEO’s efforts as an Innovations in American Government Award winner, it is our hope that jurisdictions across the country can benefit from best practices in financial literacy, education, and employment training to move the working poor up the economic ladder.”

CEO’s commitment to reducing poverty expands to key policy efforts: as a result of CEO’s work, New York City was the first jurisdiction in the country to introduce an alternative to the much-criticized federal poverty measure. The new measure of poverty for New York City is based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences. Informed by CEO’s work, the U.S. Census Bureau released its first report on a new Supplemental Poverty Measure for the nation in 2011.

“Time and again New York City eagerly tries bold ideas even at the risk of failure – and that is precisely why our programs are so successful,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Not only are our results improving the lives of New Yorkers, but as the award from Harvard shows, we are a leading model for the nation in the charge to find solutions to deeply entrenched challenges.”

Poverty in the Big Apple
The Center for Economic Opportunity was established by Mayor Bloomberg in 2006, allowing the city to design and test effective programs before and during the economic downturn. According to CEO’s most recent metrics, 19.9 percent, or 1.6 million, of the city’s 8.2 million residents are classified as poor. Employers are increasingly making a high school diploma a prerequisite for employment, yet 18 percent of New Yorkers have earned less than a high school diploma and 23 percent have only attained a high school diploma. The Center’s evidence-based literacy, GED, and other employment and training programs offer important opportunities to the city’s low-income workers and job-seekers.

“Poverty is one of the great challenges of our time, and as someone who has spent a great deal of time working on the issues of poverty and social policy, I’m particularly pleased that the Center for Economic Opportunity was selected as our Innovations in American Government Award winner,” said David Ellwood, dean of Harvard Kennedy School. “The award honors the Center’s efforts to support the working poor at key transition points – starting school, entering the workforce, and having a family.”

Evidence-Based Evaluation
Anti-poverty programs are funded through CEO’s Innovation Fund – a mix of public and private moneys – and are subject to rigorous evaluation to determine their success in advancing economic opportunity and curbing poverty among New Yorkers. CEO works with independent, external evaluators to determine program impacts and also regularly releases evaluation reports on program implementation and impacts to share findings with providers, policymakers, and other stakeholders. The city finds that this evaluation process creates an environment of transparency and evidence-based accountability whereby future funding is based on a program’s successful performance.

CEO is housed within the office of Mayor Bloomberg and is overseen by Executive Director Veronica M. White – a structure that centralizes control over two dozen city agencies and fosters more cross-agency collaboration for solving key issues related to poverty. Among the 50 programs for which CEO has received high accolades are CUNY ASAP, a community college support program and the Sector-Focused Career Centers, a series of sector-based employment and training centers.

Programs In Focus: Increasing Graduation Rates & Improving Employment
With only one in five community college students in the nation graduating each year according to the National Center for Education Statistics, CEO’s City University of New York Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) model is designed to remove barriers to graduation and increase graduation rates. The 1,300 CUNY ASAP students at the city’s six community colleges benefit from increased interaction with faculty and staff through small, cohort-based classes as well as one-on-one involvement with academic and career advisors that play a proactive role throughout the student’s academic career. Students also receive financial support for tuition, books, and transportation. As a result of these innovations, CUNY ASAP has doubled its graduation rate among students in its three-year program (53 percent compared to 24 percent of non-ASAP students), and nearly tripled its two-year graduation rate (30 percent compared to 11 percent of non-ASAP students). In addition, 75 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges. The city’s newest community college will open later this year following CUNY ASAP’s unique model of student support.

Managed in partnership with the city’s Department of Small Business Services, CEO’s Sector-Focused Career Centers offer training, placement, and career advancement opportunities within specific high-growth industries, including transportation, healthcare, and manufacturing, at sector-specific career centers. Training materials and curricula are designed, with potential employers input, to best prepare workers for the changing industry demands and gain the necessary skills to be an attractive job candidate. For example, at the Transportation Center participants learn a host of key skills to secure or advance in a career in aviation, ground passenger transit, truck transportation, and air transportation support. Once placed, participants continue to work with program staff to prepare for career advancement. An independent evaluation of the Transportation Center found that participants had higher employment placement rates, higher hourly wages, and more weekly hours worked than individuals in a comparison group. In Fiscal Year 2011, of the 6,718 New Yorkers served by the Sector Centers, 2,834 secured employment and an additional 394 were able to advance within their existing careers.

Sharing Best Practices
In July 2010, CEO received an annual $5.7 million Social Innovation Fund grant from the Obama Administration to assist with the replication of five of its anti-poverty programs in Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Newark, Tulsa, San Antonio, Youngstown, and New York. Among the programs is Family Rewards, a family-focused conditional cash transfer program that seeks to reduce poverty in the short-term and build human capital in the long-term. In addition to the Social Innovation grant, CEO’s Office of Financial Empowerment, housed by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, is gaining recognition for its leadership in the Cities for Financial Empowerment Coalition, which supports cities’ efforts to adopt New York City’s best practices and adapt its asset development programs to their specific environments. As the first municipal office of its kind in the country, the Office of Financial Empowerment teaches low-income New Yorkers important skills to best use their financial resources and build assets.

Dean David Ellwood will honor CEO at its five-year anniversary conference in March 2012.

The Innovations in American Government Awards was created by the Ford Foundation in 1985 in response to widespread pessimism and distrust in government’s effectiveness. Since its inception, nearly 500 government innovations across all jurisdiction levels have been recognized and have collectively received more than $20 million in grants to support dissemination efforts. Applications are now being accepted for the 2012 Innovations in American Government Award. Government applicants are encouraged to apply here by March 15, 2012.

For more information, please contact:
Kate Hoagland
Ash Center

Allegra Blackburn-Dwyer
Center for Economic Opportunity

About the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
The Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation advances excellence and innovation in governance and public policy through research, education, and public discussion. Three major programs support our mission: the Program on Democratic Governance; the Innovations in Government Program; and the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia. For more information, visit