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CityLaw Breakfast: Linda Gibbs

Linda Gibbs began her new job as Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services on the day Nixmary Brown, a seven-year-old Brooklyn girl, was killed, allegedly at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

“It was very painful for me,” Ms.Gibbs told the audience at a CityLaw Breakfast on November 17th.

Ms. Gibbs explained that earlier in her career, she had worked in the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) with the agency’s former Commissioner, Nicholas Scopetta, and current Commissioner, John Mattingly, to develop procedures to prevent child abuse. Ms. Gibbs said real progress had been made, but the case of Nixmary Brown proved that “systems can slip backwards.”

As Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Ms. Gibbs oversees numerous City agencies, including ACS. She is determined, she said, to nurture greater collaboration between agencies and to monitor and assess identification and reporting procedures constantly.

“We have to look at the strength and integrity of each agency to accomplish great things,” Ms. Gibbs noted.

Mayor Bloomberg has given all City agencies a mandate to strengthen their internal structures and develop new policies aimed at reforming the ways in which business is conducted. Ms. Gibbs said that some agencies have made enormous progress already. She cited the Health and Hospitals Corporation as one example of an agency that has changed completely in the past few years..

“Who would have thought our Health and Hospitals Corporation would be among the strongest in the nation?” she asked.

Ms. Gibbs said the Department of Corrections recently inaugurated a new initiative to look at what happens to inmates after they are discharged. By developing more educational and vocational training opportunities in communities, the Department hopes to reduce the rate of recidivism among ex-prisoners.

Ms. Gibbs also spoke about the need to continue developing programs that help people move off of welfare. Currently, New York City has about 300,000 people on public assistance. “The numbers continue to decline,” Ms. Gibbs commented, “helped by a strong economy and the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years.”

Poverty, however, remains a serious problem in New York City. Ms. Gibbs explained that one result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was an increased awareness of the conditions of poverty in many areas of the country. She said she had made a personal vow not to let this new awareness pass as the media moved on to other events and tragedies.

Ms. Gibbs gave Mayor Bloomberg a large measure of credit for addressing a number of issues that strongly influence the city’s rate of poverty, including education, the need for affordable housing, and economic development in every borough.

“The foundations are now in place so that we actually have the ability to talk about poverty at the local level,” Ms. Gibbs said. She added that while many of the factors that influence poverty rates are controlled more at the state or federal level of government, “we believe we can make a difference. We believe we can have an impact.”

One key issue is the way poverty is measured. The federal government sets the poverty level for a family of four at an income of $19,800 per year. A Commission of government and private sector representatives established by the Mayor to study City agencies and issues, has declared that a family of four in New York City needs an income of $58,000 per year to avoid poverty.

The Mayor’s Commission is expected to issue recommendations very shortly, but in its initial report, it advocated focusing more programs on three groups of people most likely to stay in poverty for a significant amount of time. Ms. Gibbs identified the three groups as the working poor, young adults between 16 and 24 years of age, and children from birth to five years of age.

Ms. Gibbs said there had been a huge increase in the percentage of poor families in the City with a working adult. Currently 46 percent of poor families have an employed adult. Ms. Gibbs stated that assisting this population requires looking at ways to develop more educational programs, job training, and supports.

Ms. Gibbs said that there are around one million young adults in New York City between 16 and 24 years of age, and 30 percent of them live in poverty. She called for an effort to bring together “multiple agencies that each have a little piece of the picture” in order to take a more holistic approach.

Finally, Ms. Gibbs said that “there are many investments that can break the cycle of poverty” for young children, including early childhood education for the children and more parenting skills classes for young mothers and fathers.

Ms. Gibbs stated that developing new methods for counting, measuring and evaluating the ways in which we gauge poverty are her next priorities. She vowed to “build our own local measurement system” in an open and accessible way.

“We want to do good over the next four years, but we want to do it in a way that has long-term success,” she concluded.

Ms. Gibbs fielded questions from the audience on a variety of subjects. She said that “as long as we don’t have a national solution” to the crisis in health care insurance, the City will need more support from Albany to enroll more people and expand coverage. She stated that even though New York City has many residents living in poverty above the income line set by the federal government, City agencies would focus on those below the federal line because “you have to choose where you can make the most impact.”

Ms. Gibbs several times endorsed the idea of multi-agency collaboration, although she added that such efforts are often complicated by confidentiality rules. As a result, she said she believed that the best chance for success is to work at the community level.

She also endorsed the concept of additional cash transfers, used in many other countries. Additional cash transfers involve cash incentives provided to families who reach stated goals in specific initiatives, such as school attendance or health care activities.