Laws dictating a "prevailing wage"—whereby private government contractors have to use union pay scales—have long inflated the cost of construction for public works. Now this dreadful idea is about to destroy welfare reform in New York City. A State Supreme Court judge ruled in May that the city must pay welfare recipients a prevailing wage for their workfare assignments. The city currently calculates the hours a welfare recipient must work by dividing the minimum wage into his monthly grant; now it will have to divide by the same wage that city workers in comparable jobs receive. The result: far fewer hours.

One might easily mistake Judge Jane S. Solomon's decision for judicial activism—but it's not. She grounded her ruling on solid authority. In its wisdom the State Legislature declared in 1990 that localities have to base their calculation of workfare hours for AFDC recipients on the minimum wage or the wage received by public employees in the "same or similar occupations," whichever is higher. A 1995 state regulation says essentially the same thing for Home Relief, the state welfare program for childless single adults, as does a dubious (but still binding) 1977 State Supreme Court decision based on the State Constitution.

The state and city argue that workfare assignments do not, in fact, replicate government jobs. Indeed, participants in workfare work far fewer hours, are held to much lower standards, and assume far less responsibility than city workers. As the state and city see it, since there are no civil-service categories that match the work done by welfare recipients in every particular, the government should be free to use the minimum wage in calculating required hours.

This would be a convincing argument, except that it renders meaningless the relevant statute and regulation. A workfare position will hardly ever be an exact copy of a city job; the Legislature and state social services agency must have assumed that a rough correspondence would suffice. They clearly intended to impose a prevailing wage, undoubtedly hoping to score points with municipal unions at a time when welfare reform was still only a dream.

Now that welfare reform has become a reality, these decisions are coming back to haunt those who made them. The federal welfare reform law requires AFDC recipients to work 30 hours a week by the year 2000. But under the prevailing-wage decision, the city will have to cut almost in half the mere 20 hours a week that welfare recipients are currently working. Paying them a union wage for more hours would be unaffordably costly.

The public officials who've toiled so hard to bring about welfare reform must see to it that they have the tools to make it work. For the governor and Legislature, this means repealing the law and regulation underlying Judge Solomon's decision. For the city, it means challenging the 20-year-old court ruling that ties its hands on Home Relief. For all of them, it means making the all-important argument that there is a world of difference between workfare and work.


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