Enabled by an historic shift in federal policy, the reduction of New York City’s once-massive welfare caseload was a landmark achievement of municipal government from the mid-1990s into the 2010s. Starting under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and continuing through the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, the city responded to the Clinton-era federal welfare reform by reframing its cash-benefit programs as a temporary bridge from dependency to self-sufficiency, steering needy New Yorkers to jobs as the surest route out of poverty.

The city’s welfare rolls, which peaked at 1.2 million recipients in early 1995, had plummeted to 425,000 by the time Giuliani left office at the end of 2001. During Bloomberg’s 12-year mayoralty, the number dropped further, to 346,000. In the process, hundreds of thousands of former cash assistance recipients found gainful, full-time private-sector employment. Thousands of others had simply dropped off the rolls once the city tightened its anti-fraud rules and insisted on minimal public service work as a condition for benefits. Defying naysayers, the official poverty rate was lower at the end of the Bloomberg era than it had been in the mid-1990s.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in 2014, had a notably weaker commitment to work-oriented welfare reform—yet after an uptick in de Blasio’s first term, welfare rolls began to decline again, hitting a new 57-year low just before the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020. At that point, however, the pandemic’s arrival became a pretext for the waiver or suspension of some key restrictions on welfare eligibility. Caseloads grew again, and at the end of de Blasio’s tenure they stood at levels last seen in 2006, early in Bloomberg’s second term.

Following de Blasio’s lead, Mayor Eric Adams seems bent on dismantling the last vestiges of work-oriented welfare reform. Even before a recent change in state policy cracked opened the door to welfare eligibility for more illegal immigrants, the Adams administration was expanding New York City’s welfare rolls at the fastest rate in decades.

During Adams’s first two years in office, the city’s total cash-recipient headcount rose by 23 percent, or 115,029 people, to a December total of 499,552—the highest level in 22 years. Of that number, 142,718 were children and their parents or guardians in the federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which added a net 25,567 recipients in Adams’s first two years. The remaining 356,748 additions to the welfare rolls were covered by Safety Net Assistance, a solely state- and city-funded program aimed mainly at single adults and childless couples.

In two years, the Adams administration bolstered the Safety Net rolls by nearly 90,000 people, one-fifth of whom automatically were caught by the city’s “net” after reaching the 60-month maximum on their federal TANF benefits. Some of the accelerated growth in the Safety Net caseload began in the fall of 2021, following the expiration of the extended employment-benefits program launched at the height of the pandemic. But the number of recipients continued rising well past the end of that program. After averaging 253,000 during in de Blasio’s final post-pandemic 18 months, the Safety Net recipient count attained new record highs for the program in 23 of Adams’s first 24 months in office. Newly released HRA data show the trend continued into 2024, as the welfare rolls swelled in January to a total of 510,007 recipients, up 10,455 (2 percent) from December—including an increase of 7,398 in the Safety Net program.

Adams’s welfare caseload surge has roughly coincided with the city’s illegal immigrant crisis but cannot be blamed on it. As of October 2023, the heads of household in 98 percent of TANF family assistance cases and 94 percent of the Safety Net Assistance caseload were either citizens or permanent residents of the U.S., according to the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA).

That’s about to change, though. A regulation that Governor Kathy Hochul promulgated last year has created a new Safety Net Assistance eligibility loophole for many of the roughly 170,000 illegal border-crossers who have flooded into the city since 2022. The governor’s budget forecasts that statewide Safety Net caseloads will grow by 14,000 in the state’s coming fiscal year, and by 54,349 over the next three years. With the number of Safety Net recipients holding steady or declining in the rest of the state, the governor’s fiscal year 2025 financial plan says that the increase will occur “particularly in New York City,” and the state’s budget projects that most of the additional recipients will be migrants.

According to Hochul’s budget, the state’s share of Safety Net costs will rise $67 million by spring 2025; assuming at least 90 percent of that amount stems from a growing city caseload, it would translate into an added city share equivalent to $200 million a year—atop the nearly $500 million annual rate of increased Safety Net spending driven by the caseload increase during Adams’s first 24 months in office.

In his response to the migrant crisis, Adams repeatedly has called on the Biden administration to expedite the issuance of work permits for migrants, calling it a crucial step on their “path to independence”—yet his welfare agency has led few of its existing cash-assistance recipients onto the same path over the past two years.

During Bloomberg’s last year in office, nearly 48,000 HRA clients were placed in jobs by America Works and other city contractors. Job placements stayed at that level for a few years under de Blasio, slumping a bit from 2017 through 2019, then dropped sharply amid the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, which temporarily wiped out the leisure and hospitality industry, in particular.  

As of late 2023, when payroll employment in the city had finally returned to pre-pandemic levels, reported job placements by HRA contractors remained low—headed for an end-of-year total of barely 10,000, out of a still-growing welfare caseload. Measured against federal standards, work participation rates for New York City’s family assistance cases have also fallen—from 34 percent in Bloomberg’s last term to 25 percent under de Blasio just before the pandemic to just 12 percent as of mid-2023.

True, unemployment and poverty rates in New York City both remain stubbornly high, especially among black residents. While business leaders cite obvious worker shortages in some industries, such as food service, the share of retail jobs in general remains below early 2020 levels. Yet despite similarly challenging circumstances, work-participation rates for family assistance cases in New York City never fell below 32 percent during the 2007–2009 Great Recession. Indeed, if the rise in welfare dependency and fall in HRA job placements can be attributed to the lingering pandemic hangover, why does Adams insist that illegal immigrants could easily find work if only they could get permits?

Economic conditions aside, the rise in dependency and slowdown in job placements of welfare recipients in New York also has been consistent with a clear shift in HRA’s operational focus and goals under the last two mayors.

For example, in Bloomberg’s final management reports, the chapter devoted to the performance of the city’s principal welfare agency carried a “What We Do” mission statement with a succinct lead sentence: “The [HRA] assists individuals and families to achieve and sustain their maximum degree of self-sufficiency.”

That narrative turned in another direction under de Blasio. In his first management report, all city agency chapters were given the same new subheading—“Focus on Equity”—and the lead of the HRA mission statement had mushroomed into a checklist of benefit categories: “The [HRA] provides economic support and social services to families and individuals through the administration of major benefit programs including Cash Assistance, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits (food stamps), Medicaid, and Child Support Services.” From that point on, all references to self-sufficiency vanished from HRA’s annual reports.

Another sign of the HRA shift in focus has been more visible to the general public—and to clients of city welfare programs, in particular.

In 1998, Giuliani and his then-HRA commissioner Jason Turner had given the city’s neighborhood welfare offices a new name: “Job Centers.” The purpose, as Giuliani explained, was to “provide an environment in which people receive meaningful help to transform their lives; moving them from dependency to self-sufficiency, enabling them to support themselves and their children as well as the gaining the sense of dignity that comes with getting a job.”

The Job Center name remained in use (on both building signs and the HRA website portal) through all eight years of de Blasio’s mayoralty—but it didn’t even last eight months into the Adams administration. On August 4, 2022, Mayor Adams joined his then-social services commissioner, Gary Jenkins, in issuing a press release announcing that Job Centers would now be known as “Benefit Access Centers.”

The renamed facilities, Adams said, would be “one-stop shops” for “everything from housing supports to food and cash assistance.” At a ribbon-cutting for the first of the new centers, Commissioner Jenkins all but explicitly renounced the welfare reforms of the 1990s and 2000s, saying that it was time to “take a fresh look at all aspects of decades-old policies and practices which may not be effectively serving our vulnerable communities today.” HRA administrator Lisa Fitzpatrick said her agency was “deeply committed to making things easier for New Yorkers seeking social services every step of the way.”

Ease of access had already become a more persistent HRA theme during the pandemic, when the state waived in-person application rules to allow online applications for welfare and other benefits. There’s even a smartphone app for that: NYC ACCESS HRA (Apple store slogan: “your benefits on-the-go!”).

Unsurprisingly, HRA was hit with a surge in demand for welfare and federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp) benefits, which rose from a monthly average of 27,000 in 2021 to 45,000 applications in 2023, creating unprecedented processing delays made worse by staff shortages and by “the expiration of New York State waivers that suspended [eligibility] recertifications,” the agency reported. Last July, ruling on a class action suit brought by welfare advocates, a federal judge ordered the Adams administration to come up with a plan for clearing up the backlog by early 2024.

The nine-figure cost to taxpayers of New York City’s swollen welfare rolls has worsened Adams’s dire budget outlook, though it almost pales in comparison with his projection that the total budgetary impact of the migrant crisis will come to $12 billion. However, a return to anything approaching New York’s pre-reform welfare dependency levels also would have consequences transcending mere dollar and cents.

To a striking degree—as recalled in Gotham: The Fall and Rise of New York, a 2023 documentary about the legacy of mayors from John Lindsay to Bloomberg—the reduction in welfare dependency unfolded roughly in tandem with a dramatic reduction in crime rates, with both ultimately falling back to early 1960s levels after peaking in the early 1990s. (Progress in fighting both urban scourges was even tracked bureaucratically in similar fashion—with the NYPD’s precinct-level Compstat inspiring HRA’s neighborhood-focused Jobstat.)

The reforms of law enforcement and social policy ultimately were rooted in a common emphasis on personal responsibility. To preserve civic order and public safety—not least in poor neighborhoods—the Police Department would effectively enforce the laws, even minor ones. At the same time, implicitly addressing the age-old “root cause” issue, the city’s welfare bureaucracy would strive to restore dignity and self-sufficiency to families and individuals in need.

“The reason welfare is bad is not because it costs too much, nor because it ‘undermines the work ethic,’ but because it is intrinsically at odds with the way human beings come to live satisfying lives,” Charles Murray once wrote. The city’s emphasis on “equity” and “benefit access” over jobs and self-sufficiency threatens to produce a new generation of chronically dependent and dissatisfied New Yorkers—with inevitable consequences for civic order.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images


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