Welfare Reform in the Balance
New York’s new welfare commish sometimes sounds like a Dinkins-era throwback.
Reforming welfare and the welfare culture was one of the Giuliani era’s great triumphs. It couldn’t have happened without the mayor’s constant efforts to change the language we use about dependency. That’s why a recent speech by the city’s new welfare commissioner, Verna Eggleston, is so worrisome, for in it she started slipping back into the discredited thinking and rhetoric of old.
Among his first and most important welfare initiatives, Mayor Giuliani strengthened welfare eligibility controls. Working New Yorkers shouldn’t have to fund a multi-billion-dollar welfare empire, he reasoned, unless the city could assure them that their tax dollars supported only the truly needy. So he instituted electronic fingerprinting for welfare applicants and sent welfare eligibility specialists to recipients’ homes to verify that their application information was correct.
The payback was enormous. In 2000 alone, the Giuliani administration uncovered 40,000 cases of welfare fraud and ineligibility; from 1994 to 2001, it found on its welfare rolls 10,000 felons wanted on open warrants, including at least 12 suspected murderers.
The advocates went berserk. They called fingerprinting “stigmatizing.” (Of course, if anyone were to suggest that welfare itself is stigmatizing, the advocates would howl “insensitivity.”) They objected to the home visits. And, of course, they sued. Fortunately, this was one of the few suits against the Giuliani welfare reforms that the dependency industry lost.
Speaking at the New School in early March, welfare commissioner Eggleston, former head of a homosexual- and transgendered-youth advocacy group, sounded disturbingly like the advocates with whom she has constantly consulted since taking office. As reported by Newsday, she criticized the welfare eligibility process on the grounds of “compassion”—the most loaded and contested term of the welfare ideology wars. She called the eligibility reviews “grueling” and questioned the need for fingerprinting. She even objected to the identification cards that the home interviewers wear.
This kind of hypersensitive hand-wringing, remote from commonsense reality, is a specialty of the dependency industry. It shows that the welfare war of ideas is not over. Take the term “compassion.” For decades, New York’s elites defined compassion as: 1. putting as many people as possible on welfare, and 2. exempting certain preferred victim groups from the rules and responsibilities that others live by.
Giuliani tore into that orthodoxy. Compassion doesn’t consist in making people dependent, he argued, but in helping them to become self-sufficient. Compassion doesn’t mean winking at welfare cheats on the assumption that they’re probably poor anyway, so why bother holding them to the rules? It means respecting someone enough to believe that he can meet obligations like everyone else—and rise above his current predicament.
Just how “grueling” is the welfare application process, anyway? Applicants must go to Brooklyn to verify their eligibility. But people go to Brooklyn for job interviews and jobs all the time, and they’re not even asking for a possible lifetime of taxpayer support. As for fingerprinting, many states require it for a driver’s license, and many employers, including New York City, require it for employment, without causing a self-esteem crisis in the printee. Then there’s those threatening “Welfare Investigator” shields that eligibility verification specialists wear. Last summer, I accompanied two welfare eligibility checkers—a cheerful and courteous young man and woman—on their rounds in Harlem. We entered apartment buildings where most of the doors were bound to their frames with massive chains and padlocks, securing burned-out crack dens. Attack dogs barked furiously behind bolted doors. Of course the welfare checkers wear identification badges—no one would let them into their homes otherwise. If the new welfare commissioner sees badges and fingerprinting as uncompassionate, rather than simply good management, she should step across the aisle back into the advocates’ camp.
Unfortunately, Eggleston’s cavils with the Giuliani regime did not end at the eligibility review process. Judging by the Newsday report (her office would not provide a transcript), she delivered much of her speech in code—a code developed by advocates over the years to block welfare reform. The code’s advantage is that it often sounds reasonable, until you know what it really signals.
Commissioner Eggleston derided Giuliani’s welfare reforms as a “heavy-handed . . . numbers game.” Translation: what’s the urgency about dependency reduction. But it is
ignorant to caricature the Giuliani changes as merely “numbers-driven.” Former commissioner Jason Turner transformed the welfare agency from a mindless check-processor into a far more creative institution dedicated to getting people into work. Did people leave the rolls in droves? Yes—because many people decided that if asked to do anything for their welfare check, look for a job, say, they would rather not bother.
Eggleston also repudiated the “cookie-cutter” approach of workfare. Translation: Let’s bring back “education and job training,” those favored dodges from work responsibilities. Was Giuliani’s workfare industrial-strength reform? Sure. When you had over half a million predominantly able-bodied adults collecting government checks for a living, it is unrealistic to demand that every workfare assignment be custom-tailored to each person’s inclinations. But no one has to take the deal: if you don’t want to give something back to the city for your welfare check, don’t take the check.
Commissioner Eggleston vowed not to measure the fight against poverty by the rise or fall in the welfare load. Again, this sounds sensible—of course a small welfare population does not necessarily mean a small poor population. But the welfare rate has been a darn good indicator of the poverty rate: the unprecedented drop in the welfare rolls over the last eight years went in tandem with the biggest drop in poverty on record. And long-term welfare usage is a perfect indicator of dependency and the culture of poverty, which do a lot more harm than low wages. By defining her mission as fighting poverty, rather than increasing self-sufficiency, Eggleston opens the door to a host of new social programs. And indeed, she promised to involve social workers more intimately with her administration—a sure crowd-pleaser with New York’s massive advocate lobby, but bad news for taxpayers who want a good return on their dollar—and a city with a culture of enterprise.
Testifying before the City Council a week after the New School speech, Commissioner Eggleston sounded far more supportive of reform, pledging, for example, to “ensure that only those who are eligible get assistance” and lauding the new professionalism of the Human Resources Administration. She also stood by her sound decision to require work of food stamp recipients. This is reassuring. Yet she continued to qualify her support with heavily freighted code words. While she would continue Giuliani’s “work first” philosophy, she said, she would bring to it “integrity and compassion.”
Maybe this is just Eggleston’s way of speaking. Maybe she doesn’t really mean to imply that a work-first philosophy is not compassionate, or that it lacks integrity. But she should realize that in New York’s war of welfare ideology, neutral territory no longer exists. You are either for reform or against it. And unless Eggleston is willing to seize the moral high ground from the advocates—and that means fighting constantly over who gets to control the language—the far superior forces of New York’s advocacy-judicial complex will once again control poverty policy, to the detriment of the poor and the social fabric.
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