Soundings

Heather Mac Donald
Welfare Reform Rollback
Autumn 1999

It's not too soon to start worrying about the fate of welfare reform in post-Giuliani New York City. Two bills in the City Council foreshadow what could happen if Gotham returns to its big-government status quo.

How about 10,000 new government and nonprofit sinecures for welfare recipients? That's what one Council bill would create over a five-year period, turning the philosophy of welfare reform on its head. Instead of preparing welfare recipients for private-sector employment, the Council bill would place a third of all workfare workers into 7,000 newly created government jobs and 3,000 private social-service jobs (increasing, as a bonus, the constituency for social-service spending).

DC 37, the municipal union, is already smacking its lips at the prospect of new recruits, who will receive union-scale pay. The bill preposterously allows the union to help select the city agencies that will hire the new workers in new positions.

Besides inflating government beyond any proven need—at a huge cost of nearly $400 million a year—the jobs program will only reinforce a self-destructive sentiment audible at every workfare site today: that the government owes people a job. Many welfare recipients under this new regime would simply wait for government to take them in without bothering to look for private employment.

The second bill adds a new grievance procedure to an already ample set of worker protections for workfare workers and ensures that the truant or unruly can delay sanctions for as long as possible. Let's say a welfare recipient has regularly not shown up to his workfare site. Merely by making an oral complaint, he can prevent his supervisor from notifying HRA of his truancy until the grievance gets resolved. If he alleges that the work is "injurious to his health and safety," the new rules would absolve him of any duty to work, pending the grievance's resolution. Given city bureaucracy's sloth-like pace, lax welfare recipients can look forward to many additional months on the obligation-free dole. Grievances will pour in.

The Council's two laws are almost charming in their big-government obviousness. The jobs bill purports to be a "demonstration program." Should the next mayor be a throwback to the old urban orthodoxies, this "demonstration" likely will become the norm, and welfare will again become a huge drag on the city's economy.

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