When New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced his choice to lead New York’s $9 billion welfare agency, a collective gasp went out from the agency’s staff. As lead attorney with the Legal Aid Society, Steven Banks had been one of the premier litigators against the Human Resources Administration during the mayoralties of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Banks challenged the city’s implementation of welfare reform and helped create, through lawsuit, New York’s unique obligation to provide housing on demand to families claiming homelessness. So when Banks toured HRA’s offices on his first day as commissioner earlier this month, employees were undoubtedly eager for signs of his intentions. More worrisome than what Banks said was what he didn’t.
Banks uttered not a word about work, as reported by the HRA press office. Instead, he praised HRA staffers for their “commitment to help people in need.” Fair enough. He said that the agency’s mission was to “fight inequality and poverty every day.” Perhaps, but how? Welfare reform embodied the belief that the best way out of poverty (short of getting married before you have children) is work. HRA’s two great reform commissioners, Jason Turner and Robert Doar, transformed the agency from a check-writing operation into an organization obsessively focused on getting welfare applicants into jobs. It was probably not lost on Banks that the borough welfare offices he visited are now called “job centers”— the Legal Aid Society, after all, had tried to block the rollout of those centers until HRA paid out emergency benefits more quickly. Does Banks intend to move HRA back to its former role as ATM machine to non-working unwed mothers, dispensing taxpayer dollars with little asked in return? His inaugural appearance as commissioner left the answer to that question ambiguous, at best. (When asked in a subsequent radio interview if he opposed work as a condition for welfare, Banks ducked the question.)
Equally worrisome was Banks’s statement on his first day that Mayor de Blasio has asked him to “make sure the agency is aligned to [the mayor’s] vision and values.” That “vision” and those “values,” of course, posit a society of structural racial injustice, in which the poor are victims of economic forces (especially capitalist greed) beyond their control. In de Blasio’s world, government is the premier engine for economic and social uplift. But New York only shook off its status as America’s welfare capital when its leaders embraced the opposite philosophy: that individuals have the capacity to raise themselves up through personal responsibility and persistence in a job.
HRA’s mission is to “fight inequality,” in Banks’s phrase, only to the extent that it encourages self-help in the poor, as Doar recently explained. Otherwise, an “inequality” agenda threatens to turn HRA back into the politicized welfare-rights organization of the 1960s and 1970s that succeeded only in increasing dependency. The previous administrations’ focus on work was based not simply on the economic benefits of labor. It also represented an understanding that work unites us with other human beings in a complex system of mutually beneficial exchange.
Turner and Doar’s transformation of HRA into a vehicle for self-help was a managerial triumph, requiring an attitudinal sea-change on the part of staff. All that organizational effort could easily be undone. De Blasio and Banks have already reversed the city’s opposition to counting enrollment in a four-year college as “work” for purposes of welfare receipt. They have stopped recouping from immigrant sponsors the costs of welfare illegitimately collected by those immigrants. Banks is looking to make it easier to apply and qualify for welfare.
Not bad for less than a month on the job. “You can’t undo 20 years of difficult policies in only one day,” Banks said on-air. Maybe not, but he’s working on it.