Governor Pataki recently proposed to make welfare reform a reality in New York. That’s why the poverty promoters in Albany are fighting him tooth and nail.

The big idea behind the 1996 federal welfare reform law was this: If you want the government to support you, you have to do something in return. You must make some effort to become self-sufficient, whether through working or learning job skills or looking for work.

In most of the country, that bargain holds. Not in New York. The dirty little secret of New York’s version of welfare reform is that you don’t have to do a thing to collect your government check, just like in the bad old days of the entitlement culture. A welfare mother can thumb her nose at every demand the government makes of her—she can skip appointments with her welfare worker, refuse to take jobs offered her, and sit home all day watching Jerry Springer—and still pull down three-quarters of her welfare check, as well as her full allotment of food stamps and Medicaid.

The public may not know about this gaping hole in New York’s supposed welfare reform, but welfare recipients discovered it long ago. By now, 48 percent of New York City’s welfare caseload is refusing to participate in work activities, or violating some other welfare requirement, but they are getting paid anyway.

Don’t attribute this high non-participation rate to incapacity. These welfare scofflaws are all able-bodied; they just believe that they are entitled to government support whether or not they put out any effort in return. And don’t think that the work requirements may just be too onerous to comply with. New York City requires at most 20 hours a week in some sort of work activity, which can include simply looking for a job; mothers with children under six have to spend even less time trying to become self-supporting.

These entitlement holdouts are the untouchables of the welfare rolls. Welfare administrators have no leverage over them, since an administrator may impose no further sanction for rules violations beyond the 25 percent cut in the monthly check. The likely result? Lifetime welfare receipt.

The other secret of New York’s supposed welfare reform is that there are no time limits. In the rest of the country, after five years on the dole, you’re off. Again, not in New York. The state ignores the federal time limit and allows recipients to stay on its rolls indefinitely—at the state’s exclusive expense. Recipients long ago figured out that the alleged time limits are a sham: over a third of all welfare families stay dependent on the system beyond the federal five-year time limit, and 35 percent of those veterans violate work rules. By now, the number of recipients on the rolls who have exceeded the five-year federal time limit is 150 percent larger than the number of recipients who are still below it—a worrisome trend.

Governor Pataki wants to give welfare administrators an additional tool for pushing recipients toward independence. If a mother refuses to work or prepare for work, she would gradually lose her entire check—though her food stamps would increase, and she would retain her Medicaid benefits. As soon as she started obeying welfare rules, she could collect her monthly check again. This proposal is far less stringent than the real working world: try approaching an employer and demand to get paid without working and see how far you would get.

The poverty advocates are predictably playing the child card to block full-check sanctions. Cutting off a recalcitrant mother’s full check, they say, will punish her children. But nothing is more punishing to children than a lifetime of welfare receipt, which guarantees poverty and creates an entitlement mentality in family members. The results of real welfare reform are indisputable: radically lower child poverty rates—by 2001, reaching the lowest rate in history for black children—and radically higher workforce participation of single mothers.

But New York’s fiscal health depends on real reform as well. Congress will undoubtedly increase the percentage of each state’s welfare caseload required to be in a work activity when it reauthorizes the 1996 welfare law. New York will not be able to meet that higher participation rate as long as so many recipients are defying the rules. As a penalty for not meeting federal participation requirements, the state will lose a portion of federal funding and have to pay a still greater percentage of welfare costs itself.

Mayor Bloomberg and his welfare commissioner are expressing no opinion on the Pataki bill. They should break their silence and support a long-overdue reform that can only help families join the world of work and responsibility.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next