It’s time for the best-kept secret about welfare reform to come out: if a New York welfare mother thumbs her nose at her work obligations and just sits at home collecting the dole, virtually nothing happens to her. Sure, her monthly check will be docked about $100, to $475 for a family of three, but she’ll still receive her full allotment of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance—the most valuable part of the welfare package. So much for welfare reform’s famed new work requirements: for an increasing portion of the welfare caseload, they are meaningless.
This end run around the 1996 federal reform law (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) comes to us courtesy of Albany’s left-wing legislators, who couldn’t stand the idea of work requirements with teeth. So they dictated that the welfare gravy train would continue flowing for recipients who refuse to cooperate with the new work and job search rules of the 1996 law. Sixteen other states, including California, likewise eviscerated TANF’s participation requirements by letting work scofflaws continue collecting a slightly diminished welfare check.
In the vast majority of states, by contrast, a welfare mother who refuses to make any effort at self-sufficiency will eventually get cut from the rolls. Not surprisingly, the caseload has dropped dramatically in those reform-minded jurisdictions, and employment rates of former welfare mothers have shot up. The 17 reform-phobic states, on the other hand, have run up against a seemingly intractable hard core of welfare users, who can’t be budged off the couch. In New York City, for example, a whopping 46 percent of recipients assigned to work, training, or job search are refusing to comply. These so-called happily sanctioned cases are the despair of welfare administrators everywhere, because they are untouchable—the system has little leverage over their self-defeating behavior.
Hoping to help local welfare agencies inculcate the work ethic, congressional lawmakers recently wrote a provision into the draft reauthorization of TANF that would require a modified, limited total sanction for all recalcitrant recipients: one month off the dole for every two months of work refusal. But California Republican Rep. Bill Thomas introduced a last-minute amendment that would exempt New York and California from the full-check-sanction process and perpetuate the reform-defeating status quo. New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, also on the House Ways and Means Committee with Thomas, fully supports the amendment.
This exemption could not be worse for recipients or taxpayers. It is now clear that the threat of sanctions is an essential tool for changing behavior, not just in the area of welfare but in most human activities. Welfare recipients need to learn that there are real consequences for the choices they make. If they can continue to break the new rules of welfare with virtual impunity, they are that much further from joining the world of work and responsibility.
Taxpayers have shown themselves remarkably generous in helping people get back on their feet: even as the welfare rolls have dropped by half, funding has remained at its historically highest level to help people enter the workforce. If taxpayers learn, however, that their tax dollars are continuing to support a dysfunctional system that rewards dependency, not work, expect to see support for welfare spending plummet. Mayor Bloomberg and every state legislator who cares about breaking the dependency culture should demand that New York implement full check sanctions for welfare scofflaws.