Click to visit City Journal California

By Heather Mac Donald, Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga

The Immigration Solution.

By Heather Mac Donald

Are Cops Racist?

City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
Compassion Gone Mad
New York City’s social service programs target every stage of life. But by refusing to give moral guidance, they do more harm than good.
Winter 1996

In 1984 the New York Legislature passed the Teenage Services Act (TASA), targeted at teen mothers on welfare. It is the perfect expression of New York City and State's failed war against social disintegration.

The city and state already spend millions on pregnancy prevention, pre- and neonatal care, day care, welfare, parenting classes, and drug abuse prevention and treatment—none of which has had the slightest impact on spiraling teen pregnancy and its accompanying social pathologies. So who needs another program? But TASA is cleverly premised on that very glut of services. It creates a new category of social worker, whose sole purpose is to shepherd teen mothers through the maze of existing social workers and services. 

TASA, one might say, is a rational response to an irrational situation. Over the last 30 years, New York City and State have devoted an increasing share of their revenues to the most dysfunctional members of society, and now social service spending constitutes the largest share of both city and state budgets. Yet as spending grew, so did the social problems that spending was supposed to solve. The government responded by adding more programs. The result is a tangle of entitlements and services so complex as to require a guide service like TASA and many similar programs. 

All you need is the evidence of your senses to know that New York City's enormous commitment to social welfare spending has not stemmed social breakdown. The question is: has it made things worse? The answer is yes—on two counts. Social service spending has sucked out of the private economy capital that could have been used to create jobs, the best mechanism for ending poverty. But in response to inner-city poverty, welfare advocates call for further social service spending, thereby accelerating the flight of business from the city. This vicious circle characterizes welfare's impact on the family as well. The two parent family is all but extinct in some neighborhoods, rendered superfluous by welfare's subsidy for illegitimacy. The resulting increase in juvenile delinquency, truancy, and teen pregnancy brings in more social services, which in turn further erode the incentives for personal responsibility. 

The message social service programs convey is all too often the polar opposite of what the inner-city poor need. Typically, such programs reward dysfunctional behavior and subordinate the well being of children to dubious ideology—such as the belief that even a flamboyantly neglectful single-parent household, riven by drugs, possesses basic strength and goodness. Above all, the basic purpose of these services to provide the spiritual and material benefits of a stable two-parent family is largely futile. Families create sound individuals by imposing discipline and moral values on children. Even if a government program could do this, these programs don't: for years, imposing values has been anathema to social workers, who studiously avoid making judgments about the "life-style choices" of their clients.

The best way to see the social service apparatus whole is to trace the life cycle of a family moving through it. Each stage has its appropriate service; the city even envisions "transitional services" in one program to ease a child's passage from children's to adult services. 

Start with a woman below the poverty line, pregnant with an illegitimate child. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits begin in her sixth month of pregnancy. She can also get free or low-cost medical care from the city's clinics, as well as a host of "preventive" services, such as Healthy Start, a nationwide effort to reduce infant mortality.

In Healthy Start, which pumps $8 million of additional federal aid a year into nonprofit social service agencies in Mott Haven, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Central Harlem, we can see the outlines of many services to come. Like TASA, it is a "case management" program, a hot social service trend. Case management takes a "case" that is, an individual who has made some very bad decisions and "manages" it by directing the individual to other services, above all to various entitlements for which the client may have failed to apply. Healthy Start directs clients to pre- and neonatal medical care, for example, and to such welfare benefits as Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children food program. "Case management is a real scam," judges University of Massachusetts sociologist Peter Rossi. It's a "marvelous way to keep social workers from dealing with clients. All they do is deal with the 'case' and talk to each other as to how to manage it." 

Healthy Start employs an extremely fuzzy definition of infant-mortality prevention. It funds programs that train tenant organizers, that encourage teens to pursue careers in health and social services (thus perpetuating the life of the social service establishment, if not of infants), and that deliver "life skills" and self esteem training for teens. The link between any of these services and the prevention of infant mortality is remote. 

But in today's social service programs, nearly any service can count as " prevention" of nearly any social pathology. The same nonprofit agencies, such as the ubiquitous Puerto Rican Family Institute or Victim Services, Inc. are under contract with a variety of government agencies, including juvenile justice, child welfare, youth services, and mental health, to provide the identical set of services, appropriately repackaged as "pregnancy prevention," "delinquency prevention," "truancy prevention," or "child-abuse prevention." While the logic of prevention may sound convincing—it's cheaper to intervene early to prevent social problems than to respond after the fact—there is little evidence that prevention programs make a difference. 

Imagine the baby who's had this supposed "healthy start" a few years later. Assume his mother's parenting class didn't take, as parenting classes so often don't. The child, or children by now, start asking neighbors for food and appear unwashed and ill clothed. A neighbor calls the Child Welfare Agency (CWA) to report neglect. A CWA caseworker investigates the home and finds the children sleeping on the floor, no food in the refrigerator, and a filthy kitchen and bathroom. Just as the birth of illegitimate children provided the mother with an income, so will deplorable child-rearing bring her a benefit. The CWA worker might conclude that the mother is overwhelmed with being a parent and assign her a homemaker to help with her chores. The caseworker might also order still more parenting classes. Meanwhile, the neighbors next door, a poor working couple struggling to provide a decent home for their child, are left to scrub their own floors. 

If the maltreatment is serious enough to warrant placing a child into foster care—the temporary custody arrangement for victims of parental abuse or neglect—the CWA may decide to provide the mother with "family preservation" instead. A relatively late arrival on the social service scene, dating from the 1980s, family preservation is its current queen. It is prototypical in its confusion of moral deficit with material need. 

Family preservation works as follows: for six to eight weeks, an abusive or neglectful parent gets several visits a week from a social worker, who is on call 24 hours a day. The social worker provides home based therapy to the family on such topics as "anger management" and "rational-emotive control." Equally important, the social worker provides a host of material services: she may buy groceries for the family, pay any outstanding rent arrears, drive the mother to medical or other appointments, help with home repair, or buy furniture, all at tax payer expense. Meanwhile, the working couple next door, who also could use new furniture, is again out of luck. 

Family preservation presupposes that many families "at risk" of losing a child to foster care are in a short-term crisis. Give them the psychological skills and financial assistance to weather the storm, the theory goes, and the risk of foster-care placement will recede. But many target parents suffer from problems too deep for a short term fix. A drug addicted teen dropout who happens to have gotten pregnant in all likelihood lacks the maturity to raise children; propping her "family" up with an array of services will never make it whole.

The animating philosophy of family preservation that all "families," however dysfunctional or fragmentary, deserve respect epitomizes contemporary social work's refusal to make moral judgments. To family preservationists, a single mother on crack who neglects her children is equal to a family of two working parents who can't afford day care. This ideology has profoundly affected child welfare agencies nationwide, making them see their dominant mission as "keeping families together" rather than protecting children.

Even in those cases when the city must conclude that preventive services haven't worked, that doesn't dampen social workers' zeal for keeping deeply troubled families together. Under an arrangement known as kinship foster care, the city pays relatives—usually grandmothers—to care for their kin's children. It's a lucrative arrangement: the monthly foster-care payment ranges from $400 to $1,000 a head, depending on the children's "special needs" far more than they are worth living with their mother.

Not only parents are eligible for family preservation. The practice has spawned several clones directed at the children of troubled families, with the same aim of preserving the often toxic family trait. Imagine a 12-year-old boy—"Johnnie" (a composite based on interviews with dozens of social service providers)—whose drug-addicted mother has already received various " preventive" services, maybe even full-blown family preservation. His chaotic home life starts erupting at school. He fights with fellow students and falls ever further behind in reading. The system will start prescribing services. His school is likely to conclude that he suffers from a "behavioral disorder" and a learning disability. It will put him in the special-education program and give him his own social worker as part of his special-education School-Based Support Team. 

Nevertheless, Johnnie grows increasingly unruly and agitated. One day he threatens his teacher with a box cutter. His school psychologist recommends that he be temporarily hospitalized. But the emergency-room doctor feels that hospitalization can be averted by providing the family with—no surprise—social services. He refers Johnnie to the Home-Based Crisis Intervention Program, overseen by the state's Office of Mental Health but run by community based nonprofits. A social worker from a nonprofit, on call 24 hours a day, will provide six to eight weeks of intensive "anger management" and "problem solving" training for the family in its home. The caseworker might teach Johnnie's mother how to budget or how to help her children with their homework. The worker will also meet with Johnnie's teachers and develop a " service plan" with them.

Sound familiar? It should. Home Based Crisis Intervention is the brainchild of the same Washington-based organization—the Behavioral Sciences Institute—that developed family preservation. The program models are identical.

The families in Home-Based Crisis Intervention are, with few exceptions, from the most dysfunctional subset of the welfare population. This subset consumes a disproportionate share of service spending and has become so embedded in various service systems that "caseworkers from different agencies are tripping over each other," says Anita Appel, who oversees Crisis Intervention. Such families' entry into the social service universe is a foregone conclusion; the only mystery is the exact point of entry. "The typical scenario is a mother on crack who has lost custody of her mentally disabled child to CWA," explains Denise Arieli of the city's Department of Menial Health. "If the child's point of entry is mental retardation, and in the mental program he sets a fire, he becomes a mental health child. If he happens to set the fire first, however, he will be a juvenile-justice child. The kids touch multiple systems, and the larger system struggles hard with where they should go."

The system is certain, however, that kids should not go to an institution. The clumsy dance of social workers serving the same family grows out of the social service system's commitment to "community care," closely linked with the philosophy of "keeping families together." Rather than taking children or adults away from destructive environments, the reigning service ethic dictates that they remain "in the community" and "in the family" for treatment. This ethic, born in the 1960s, when "community" was a code word for minority "empowerment," is based on a romanticized view of both underclass communities and the troubled families they produce. "We don't listen to families enough," says Anita Appel of the Office of Mental Health, in defense of her agency's various community-based programs. 

The greatest fallacy of community based treatment is that usually there is no real community to go back to. Treating a juvenile delinquent in the war torn environment that produced him does not look like a recipe for success. Some observers also question the worth of the community-based organizations. "The staff is usually one baby step above their clients in pathology," observes a teacher who works with disturbed children. "They're from the same population, without education." 

As a child placed in special education or in the Home-Based Crisis Intervention program progresses deeper into the social service world, one pattern will become dominant: the transfer of parental functions to his social workers, themselves often very ill-qualified to be parental surrogates.  For example, in the Intensive Case Management program, which often follows the Crisis Intervention program, "the intensive case manager is just like family," explains Jeffrey Holliman of the city's Department of Mental Health. The manager will sit in on planning sessions at the child's school to develop a service plan for him and will try to line up yet more services for the family to ensure that the child stays at home, rather than in an institution such as foster care, a psychiatric hospital, or a juvenile detention center.

The children in any of the city's social services could just as easily have landed in its criminal system. Many ultimately do. Family Court, which adjudicates juvenile crime along with foster-care proceedings, is the very vortex of the social service system. All social problems that haven't been solved by other agencies end up there only to meet the usual services.

Imagine that Johnnie, at age 15, pulls a gun on a grocery clerk but runs away when he sees a guard coming. At his arraignment for attempted robbery and assault, the judge may order him into the Probation Department's Alternative to Detention (ATD) program, a pre-trial probation program for chronically truant kids. It is the most desperate of the city's social services: faced with the obvious failure of every other institution in a child's life, it tries to do everything that those other institutions did not.  "Because we have a captive population, once we're monitoring a child, we want to address as much as we can for the time we have them - reading, writing, literacy, math issues, drug counseling," explains Michael P. Jacobson, commissioner of probation. ATD places kids in a small school like setting during the day and offers them schooling, individual and group therapy, and field trips. If a child does not show up one day, a social worker will try to find him. 

After three months in ATD, Johnnie's case comes to trial, Johnnie admits to the attempted robbery. But rather than sending him upstate to prison, the judge orders him into Family Ties, the most remarkable offshoot of family preservation yet. Run out of the city's Department of Juvenile Justice, Family Ties gives convicted juvenile delinquents and their families eight weeks of the usual litany: cognitive restructuring, behavioral modification, anger management, and rational emotive therapy. Then the Family Ties worker recommends a sentence usually probation to the judge. If the original idea of family preservation—that six to eight weeks of intensive counseling and material aid could cure child abuse and neglect—seems fanciful at best, the claim that short term therapy can overcome the 13-odd years of lack of socialization that produces juvenile delinquency seems preposterous. 

From this point, Johnnie's future is hazy. He may go straight, finish school, and stay out of trouble. But if he doesn't if he ends up homeless or on drugs or HIV-positive or in and out of prison the city will have social services for him at every stage. 

Many social programs treat as short term crises what are in fact unsustainable ways of life. The city's huge "homelessness prevention" efforts are typical. Consider a family living in an apartment that costs nearly twice as much as its welfare housing grant. The rent is far in arrears and the landlord is threatening eviction. The mother's social worker advises a trip to the Homeless Prevention Unit in her local welfare office. 

The obvious thing to do would be to talk to the mother about finding a cheaper apartment. But the city's welfare agencies seldom do the obvious. " The overriding policy in the Human Resources Administration is to prevent the loss of accommodations at all costs," explains HRA spokesman David Ortiz. After paying the back rent to forestall eviction, the homelessness-prevention worker decides to go for the gold: a "Jiggetts" supplement.

Named after a lawsuit filed by homeless advocates, Jiggetts supplements pay the difference between a client's monthly welfare shelter allowance and her actual rent forever. The monthly shelter allowance for a three-person family is $286 a month; Jiggetts will double that to $572. Brokers and landlords frequently game the system, striking agreements to rent welfare clients apartments well beyond their means, and to forgo a few months' rent, with the understanding that the client will apply for a Jiggetts grant once she faces eviction. 

The Jiggetts program exudes misguided beneficence. While the average rent in New York City is, in fact, well above the welfare shelter grant, Jiggetts money anchors indigents to a locale they can't afford, instead of leaving them to migrate to places with lower costs of living or better job prospects, as the poor have traditionally done. Further, tenants often face eviction because of personal irresponsibility, such as a drug habit that consumes the rent money. Propping them up only abets their underlying problem.

If homelessness prevention fails, more social services beckon. Thanks to court cases that gave the homeless the unconditional right to emergency shelter on demand, the city now operates the nation's largest, most expensive shelter system. All told, the city's expenditures on the homeless amount to an estimated $790 million a year, exclusive of medical costs, or $39,500 per homeless person, which includes transportation to visit renovated apartments, moving expenses, furniture allowances, and payments to landlords for renting to homeless families. 

Homeless families, as distinct from homeless single individuals, get the most elaborate services. Visit, for example, the Westside Intergenerational Residence, a clean, orderly family shelter in an apartment building on Manhattan's staid West End Avenue. The shelter assigns each resident, almost always a single mother with one child, a social worker and a preventive services worker, who provide entitlement advocacy, counseling, referrals, and parenting-skills training. The residence requires enrollment in an educational program though self esteem and parenting-skills classes will sometimes suffice and it provides two on-site day-care programs for its mothers. According to administrators, the residence's GED program uses an " unconventional" approach to teaching, emphasizing such activities as journal writing, along with academic subjects. "Our ladies won't come in just for reading and writing; getting up to go to math is very boring," explains director Linda Sergeant. And if a mother's attendance record is spotty, her social workers, instead of asking her to change, will create a less structured and less demanding program for her.

The residence has an informal program to help its mothers write to their political representatives in support of welfare, Medicaid, and child care. The residence's program isn't unique: students in a city high school for teen mothers recently traveled to Washington, at taxpayer expense, to lobby against welfare cuts. Such a program sends precisely the wrong message to homeless mothers: that more government spending can rebuild their lives. What that spending can do, of course, is preserve the jobs of the social service workers who assist their clients' lobbying efforts. 

The social service imperative not to make moral judgments has a corollary: a social worker's job is to shield clients from the consequences of self- destructive behavior. This philosophy ends up normalizing bad behavior, nowhere more than in the city's response to teen pregnancy. The Board of Education has five high schools for pregnant and "parenting" teens, which supplement the regular curriculum with parenting classes. That's not all: the school system's Living for the Young Family in Education (LYFE) program operates highly enriched day-care centers in 35 regular schools and in several homeless shelters, at an annual cost of $7.6 million, or $12,666 per teen mother. Its purpose is to increase the chances that a teen mother will graduate from school by removing the burden of travel to an off-site day care center. And LYFE is just one leg of the city's day-care empire, which cost $557 million in fiscal 1995.

The LYFE program epitomizes the way social services can feed the very problems they're supposed to cure. The program responds to the argument of necessity: ignoring the baby won't make it go away, so now we have to make the best of a bad situation. This argument is a powerful one. It motivates program after program intended to sop up the mess caused by socially destructive behavior. But the inevitable result is to legitimate that behavior. Day care centers in schools cannot avoid sending the pernicious message that society not only tolerates but expects teens to have babies. By removing the pain from very bad decisions, such programs simply enable further bad behavior. 

The LYFE program goes out of its way to insulate teens from the consequences of bearing illegitimate children. Teen mothers don't even have to visit the day care center to feed their babies during the lunch period. " Lunch is the only time they get to hang out with their friends," explains Joan Davis, assistant principal of the program. "The hardest thing about being a teen mom is not being able to be a teen." 

This is "compassion" gone mad. The last thing a child needs is a parent who acts like an adolescent. Yet with an unfailing instinct for doing the wrong thing, the social service establishment has made preserving adolescence a goal of the statewide Teenage Services Act for teen mothers on welfare. Director Harriet Nieves explains the TASA philosophy: "We try to give them support so that they can have some of the immaturity and giddiness of being a teen, yet still say to them: 'You have a child.'" TASA nurtures adolescent " giddiness," Nieves explains, by helping teens to "negotiate the school system and the dating scene," and to develop such crucial life skills as "how to budget and go to fashion stores."

The numbers shrew how dismally the whole social service effort has flopped. While city and state spending to fight poverty in New York City totaled between $100 billion and $150 billion between 1970 and 1990, the city's poverty rate increased from 15 to 19 percent in the same period. In 1970, 15 percent of poor households in the city were single parent families; in 1990, 25 percent. The dependency rate in the city—defined as the percentage of the total population receiving means-tested public assistance, medical assistance, or Supplemental Security Income—is 19 percent. In Brooklyn it is 22 percent, in Manhattan close to 30 percent, and in the Bronx 30 percent.

The city's vast array of "preventive" services hasn't prevented much. Despite widespread sex education and pregnancy-prevention programs, teen birthrates rose 15 percent between 1986 and 1989. Drug-abuse prevention programs notwithstanding, 62 percent of preschool children in foster care in 1991 were at risk of serious health problems because of prenatal drug exposure, more than double the rate in 1986. And countless violence prevention initiatives haven't made inner-city life more civil.

The cost of all this is mind boggling. New York City spends over one fifth of all local social service dollars in the nation. Local governments—cities and counties—spend an average of $6.74 on social services for every $1,000 of personal income within their jurisdictions; New York City spends nearly $40, though $11 of that pays for the New York City Medicaid contribution, a mandate on localities nearly unique to New York State (see "Medicaid's Fatal Attraction," page 69). Largely because of its huge social service commitment, the city collected twice as much in taxes in 1992 per $1,000 of personal income as the national local government average and had a total budget that in 1994 was larger than 46 state budgets. 

Profoundly undemocratic, New York's social service industry consumes billions of tax dollars but is largely unaccountable to taxpayers. No one even knows exactly how much, in total, government spends on social services in New York City. All existing estimates are incomplete, since they don't include the vast social service operations tucked away in a host of city agencies, from the Board of Education to the Health Department to the Parks Department. The city comptroller's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for fiscal year 1994, for example, put social service spending at $8 billion, or 26 percent of the city's budget the largest share of city spending. The Board of Education was the next-largest share, consuming $7.15 billion, or 25 percent of the budget—but that includes school-based social services and massive spending on special education. The comptroller's estimate of social service spending includes only four agencies and excludes state and federal Medicaid spending.

No budget anywhere in the city lays out every social service program and its costs. Though the nine-volume city budget breaks down costs in infinitesimal detail, it doesn't link them to recognizable programs. The comptroller's annual financial report, considered the city's most accessible budget document, divides agency spending into two vast, murky categories: personnel spending and "other than personnel spending." Again, it doesn't break down spending by particular programs. 

At the state level, the budget consists of five separate documents, once again lacking complete programmatic analysis. "People have worked hard for many years to make sure the budget is difficult to understand," explains Tim Murphy, director of fiscal research in the state comptroller's office. "It means nothing to say that an agency spent $21 billion. The question is, on what?" 

The best rough estimate of spending in the city is the state Department of Social Services total expenditures within the five boroughs $19.5 billion in 1993. This represents the total federal, state, and city spending on the anti-poverty programs DSS administers though it excludes spending by city agencies such as the Board of Education and the Department of Homeless Services.

On the basis of the 1993 DSS figures, one can make certain broad observations about the city's social service spending. The lion's share goes to Medicaid ($11.4 billion, of which the city contributed $2.2 billion), followed by welfare "income maintenance" programs ($2.7 million total; city share, $924 million). The city's almost unique jurisdictional structure explains part of this huge cost. Unlike most cities, New York has no county government to share the burden of local welfare spending. Moreover, New York State requires localities to pay a greater share of non-federal welfare spending than any other state. New York is one of only two states the other is North Carolina that require a full 50-50 split for the non-federal share of AFDC. California, by contrast, picks up 90 percent of the non-federal share; New Jersey, 75 percent; 43 states require no local matching at all. Even fewer states require local matching of Medicaid spending.

The city has no direct control over most of its welfare spending, concentrated in programs for which Albany sets the benefit levels and eligibility criteria. Whenever the state increases spending, the city must pay. Rudolph Giuliani seems to be the first mayor to have understood this: he made history in 1995 by asking the state to decrease its welfare budget. The city's social service establishment, however, has considerable muscle in the State Legislature, which ultimately determines such matters. 

But don't conclude that New York City bears little responsibility for the making of this vast municipal welfare state. Though recent mayors have chafed under the burden of state social service mandates, the city was an enthusiastic co-conspirator in the creation of the welfare establishment. During the New Deal, the city, regarding itself as more progressive than the state, seized control over new federally established welfare programs by volunteering to assume fiscal responsibility for them. Albany happily gave the city, much richer than the rest of the state, free rein in developing programs.

The other turning point came in 1966, the year John Lindsay was elected mayor. Lindsay came into office criticizing his predecessor, Robert Wagner, for his lukewarm embrace of the War on Poverty, which the new mayor, red-hot, had helped plan as a congressman. Convinced that social welfare programs would bring blacks and Puerto Ricans into the mainstream, Lindsay took the mandate in federal poverty initiatives for the "maximum feasible participation" of the poor quite literally. He devolved all authority for anti-poverty programs onto community groups, so that within a few years no one knew what programs or groups were out there or what their spiraling budgets were. 

Just then, too, the welfare-rights movement, led by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward of Columbia University, sought to sign up every eligible person for welfare, to hike grant levels sharply, and to remove "demeaning" conditions on the receipt of aid. In an influential 1966 article in The Nation, Piven and Cloward had advocated mass protest and the disruption of welfare offices as a means of forcing these changes-Welfare clients obediently stormed the city's welfare centers, terrifying workers. 

In response, the city boosted welfare grants and made procedural changes that proved costly. No longer would social workers visit applicants at home to confirm eligibility; the system would be based on trust. Welfare-rights attorneys won the right to a hearing before the termination of welfare eligibility; the U.S. Supreme Court would later adopt the ruling. 

The movement's impact on New York City was jolting: welfare caseloads, already climbing 12 percent a year in the early sixties, rose by 50 percent during Lindsay's first two years; spending doubled. By the end of Lindsay's first term, welfare costs had reached $1 billion; the new Medicaid program cost another $1 billion.

The welfare-rights movement failed in its ultimate goal of overwhelming the welfare system and forcing a national guaranteed minimum income to take its place. But it succeeded in greatly weakening the stigma attached to welfare, in teaching the poor to view welfare as a right, and consequently in vastly increasing the rolls. The city had 150,000 welfare cases in 1960; a decade later it had 1.5 million.

The procedural changes of the 1960s, meanwhile, turned welfare into a check writing system and took social workers out of the business of influencing their clients' behavior. Ironically, that suited the once-radical welfare workers just fine. Though many had entered the profession in the 1960s out of sympathy for the poor, years of harassment had taken their toll. By 1970 the caseworkers "were thoroughly in terror of the clients: they didn't want to go near them," says Charles Morris, who became Lindsay's welfare chief in 1971.

For Lindsay, too, the bloom had come off the welfare clientele. By his second term, he "hated welfare recipients," says Morris. "He had done all these good things for them, and they had fucked him. My job was to cut them." The public, once almost universally pro-welfare in the 1960s, was growing wary as well; good intentions seemed to have created a monster. Even liberal Governor Nelson Rockefeller warned in 1971 that, without reform, "the welfare system will eventually overload and break down our society." 

Modest reform did come a few years later. In 1975, New York City with the highest AFDC grant and the highest Medicaid costs per recipient in the country, the largest drug-addiction and methadone programs in the world—was bankrupt, and the state nearly so. Hugh Carey, the new governor, introduced anti-fraud measures in welfare and started to reform Medicaid. He slowed the rate of new program creation and kept spending growth below inflation.

But with the 1980s economic boom and the administration of Mario Cuomo, the growth of the welfare state barreled full speed ahead once more. New initiatives rolled out of Albany, designed to capture ever more federal matching dollars. State government spending rose at twice the rate of inflation; welfare rolls increased 24.5 percent statewide during Cuomo's three terms. In the city the same spirit of profligacy reigned. "The attitude was," says former city human resources chief William Grinker, "'We have the money; let's spend it.'" 

Today, with the city's fiscal condition parlous and its economic growth anemic, with the federal government shifting responsibility for welfare spending back to the states, Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have wisely begun to challenge the welfare establishment. Both leaders stress personal accountability. Giuliani has implemented the nation's most comprehensive fraud detection program for Home Relief recipients, producing an astounding drop in the rolls. He is rigorously enforcing the work requirement for able bodied recipients. Pataki has introduced commonsense regulations requiring homeless shelter clients to refrain from violence and drug use, as well as to contribute a portion of their welfare check to their rent. He has persuaded the Legislature to enact a fingerprinting requirement and more rigorous work demands for Home Relief recipients; he also won a measure to dock welfare mothers if their elementary school age children are truant. But Assembly Democrats shot down Pataki's proposal for time limits on Home Relief. In December, Pataki announced a set of more dramatic reforms that would bring New York's AFDC payment into line with New Jersey's, impose a five-year lifetime limit on AFDC and Home Relief, and allow localities to test welfare recipients for drugs and to require those with positive results to participate in treatment as a precondition of receiving benefits.

The fate of Pataki's reforms in the Legislature is uncertain. But their passage is crucial, for New Jersey and Connecticut remain way ahead of New York in reform. New Jersey has implemented a "family cap," so that a client's AFDC grant doesn't go up when she has additional children; Connecticut has enacted strict time limits for AFDC as well as for Home Relief. These changes make New York's more generous system all the more attractive to would-be migrants.

New York needs to challenge foursquare the credo that has guided social work for too long: "Thou shalt not judge." Lacking any moral compass for determining who is most deserving of help, the city has, perversely, spent most on those who act the most destructively, because by definition they have the worst problems. The evolution in the city's day-care programs is a case in point. Fifteen years ago most parents using city day care worked, according to Rhonda Carlos-Smith of Child Care, Inc., an advocacy group. Now working parents are at the bottom of the priority list. At the top are parents who have abused or neglected their children. Between 1989 and 1994, the number of teen parents using day care increased by 94 percent, and the number of homeless families by 21 percent.

lt's time for New York to junk the demonstrably false shibboleths of social services as well: the reflexive worship of "community care" or "family preservation." With no real community to go back to, no real family to preserve, community-based drug treatment, pregnancy prevention, family preservation, foster care, and juvenile rehabilitation can do little other than to enrich the coffers of the nonprofits. In an extraordinary development, some juvenile delinquents are now refusing probation and requesting incarceration upstate, recognizing that they need the structure provided by an institution and fearing the mayhem on the streets.

The city ought to restore the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. For the poor who do deserve and can benefit from help, especially children, the state and city should consider the use of boarding school like institutions outside the city. But those who behave the most irresponsibly should no longer have the greatest claim on city revenues. And for the most part, the city should get out of the business of social uplift, which three decades' experience has proved is beyond the capacity of municipal government to accomplish.

The view that society is to, blame for socially destructive behavior—a hallmark of elite liberal thinking for 30 years and the premise behind much social welfare policy—has now trickled down to children in the streets.

"I'm what you call a 'product of society,'" Humberto Cruz, a 15-year-old drug dealer and mugger, tells me. "If I had a life like you, I wouldn't commit crime , but I'm underprivileged." A large, pleasant fellow wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt, Cruz is in the lobby of Manhattan Family Court waiting for his friends' criminal proceedings to finish. He says that he has been in "the mix"—the drug trade—for ten years; he graduated to selling when he was 11.

Cruz has a ready made explanation for his criminal behavior: consumer culture. He needed to sell drugs, he explains, because "everyone at school is wearing Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Tommy Hilfiger. If you're wearing Payless, they make fun of you." Couldn't he have worked for his spending money? lt's "degrading" to work at McDonald's, he says, and besides, it's bad for your skin. "I did what I had to do," he says philosophically. "Do you know how good it feels to say, 'I'm hungry,' and just walk into a restaurant?" 

He was finally arrested in March 1995 for selling drugs. He received pre- trial probation, but in September, still awaiting trial, he joined a group that robbed a token clerk as the clerk was entering his apartment in Chinatown. This time he got pre-trial detention. After he'd spent three days in Spofford, the city's juvenile detention center upstate, his grandfather bailed him out with $1,004 from his Social Security money. Cruz is now in a Boys Town facility awaiting trial on the robbery charge. 

Cruz thinks Boys Town is finally teaching him positive social values. Life there is highly regimented; each child keeps a daily scorecard on his behavior and interactions with others. "If you do good now, you'll do good later. It took me getting locked up to understand that," he says. Yet the habit of blaming dies hard: "It's not kids that need rehabilitation," he maintains. "It's society that needs rehabilitation."

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: