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Winter 1996
 
City Journal Winter 1996.
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In  P rospect

 

You’d think a welfare state ought to produce, at the very least, welfare. But no. Every year yields its sad array of stories like that of six-year-old Elisa lzquierdo, killed in November by her mother, who lived on AFDC payments supposedly intended to ensure Elisa’s welfare. As always with such stories, the Child Welfare Agency workers hired and paid for the same purpose stood by, dithering. The Family Court, charged with—what else?—ensuring Elisa's welfare, sent her back to the mother who murdered her.

“Dead, your Majesty,” expostulated Dickens over the death of a neglected pauper boy in one of his novels. “Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.” How can it be that they are dying still, a century and a half later, when all those authorities and citizens Dickens exhorted actually heeded his call and constructed a vast public apparatus to protect such children from want and neglect? And how in New York City, where that apparatus has reached its vastest?

Much of what we do to safeguard such children—from paying their mothers an income to support them and telling them there’s no shame in taking it, to removing the stigma of illegitimacy—only increases the likelihood that more children will be born to women too young, too irresponsible, too unprepared to be good mothers. So, all too often we have compromised their well-being from the very outset. Moreover, as Heather Mac Donald shows in “Compassion Gone Mad” on page 84, the social service programs that minister to them usually proceed from the wrong assumptions and send the wrong messages, subordinating the interests of the children to some implausible ideology. Most important, Mac Donald argues, no program can possibly do what most programs attempt: to substitute for the family, which good intentions have done much to undermine.

But if New York’s welfare state began with good intentions, less commendable motives helped sustain and expand it. Ned Regan shows on page 69 how Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, grew like some invading extraterrestrial spore, because it served politicians as a patronage reservoir that at first seemed a bargain. Since neither New York State nor New York City pays the full non-federal share of Medicaid, legislators, governors, and mayors could add on benefits without having to take full tax-raising responsibility. Now that the non-federal cost of Medicaid in New York tops a stratospheric $23 billion a year, the program threatens to devour the state and city budgets. But users of the government-financed services feel gratitude to their elected representatives and applaud their “caring” and “compassion.” More to the point, hospital unions, medical societies, home health care aides, nursing-home owners, and nonprofit service providers are grateful, too. And they are among the state’s biggest campaign contributors and lobbyists, as well as ready suppliers of campaign workers.

The growing political influence of those who profit from it is one of the welfare state’s most troubling tendencies. As those who serve the public increasingly become masters of the polity, their interest, rather than that of citizens, comes to take precedence. Sol Stern’s “The School Reform That Dares Not Speak Its Name” (page 28) shows how the teachers’ unions have become the biggest obstacle to the education reform crucial to the future of New York's kids. As a body, teachers have balked at giving up the excessive perks and inflexible work rules that have turned teaching in New York into something more like assembly-line work than a human connection that sparks a human response. Stern suggests that New York needs a limited tuition voucher plan, so that the city's poorest students can escape their dead-end schools to better, private institutions and that a challenge to their monopoly can force the teachers’ unions to change with the times. For a sense of how hard a municipal monopoly fights back when challenged by a private alternative, see Howard Husock’s story on page 60.

All this helps answer the question raised by Elisa’s fate: whose welfare is the welfare state about, after all?

 

 


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