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Bill de Blasio’s welfare “vision” would return New York to a failed past. August 10, 2015
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing a full employment program for government-funded social-service workers. In the process, he will likely gut one of the most successful welfare-to-work initiatives in the country, and possibly return New York to its former status of America’s dependency capital, when one in seven New Yorkers were on the dole. The city’s gargantuan welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, has just issued its “new vision for employment and education services.” Welfare users will no longer be expected to immediately look for and take a job in exchange for taxpayer support, an expectation that was the key breakthrough of welfare reform. Instead, welfare recipients will serve indefinitely as receptacles for an endless array of taxpayer-supported services.

Delivering those services requires a Rube-Goldbergian contraption of mystifying complexity. There are “Target Cluster Sector-Specific Services (up to 7 qualified service contractors total),” “General and Alternative Sector-Specific Services (up to 3 qualified service contractors total),” and “Targeted Services (up to 7 qualified service contractors total),” defined by the economic sectors that the de Blasio administration finds most promising. These three categories of services will in turn intersect with geographically based service clusters: “HRA anticipates selecting up to five (5) contractors for Competition I [the ‘Target Cluster Sector-Specific Services’] and up to five (5) for Competition III [‘Targeted Services’], one per borough in each competition. For Competition II [‘General and Alternative Sector-Specific Services’], HRA anticipates selecting up to ten (10) contractors, two per borough. Services provided under Competition I, II, and III will be delivered in five Service Areas"—Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

Welfare applicants and recipients entering this complex new world of services will go through a three-tier assessment process. Those recipients deemed “fully employable” by HRA will get . . . not a job, but more services! They will be referred to off-site “contractor locations,” where the contractors will provide “in-depth assessments and direct clients to the proper set of services that are tailored to individualized strengths, interests, and needs.”

Does the “fully employable”welfare recipient now start looking for, or working in, a job? Not necessarily. According to HRA’s planners, “Individuals may then be referred to a combination of services,” which might include CareerBridge, a “new set of HRA contracted services for contextualized adult basic education, high school equivalency preparation, bridge training, English as a Second Language, and vocational training”; and CareerAdvance, “for clients who are job-ready, have high levels of skills/education, and/or others whose personal goals are immediate employment will be referred to CareerAdvance contractors to receive services.”

In a word, services.

This endless service orientation returns New York to the status quo before welfare reform. In that pre-reform world, clients stayed in the limbo of services and “education” for years without coming within sight of a real job. Such open-ended training was necessary, the advocates maintained, to prepare welfare recipients for work, especially high-paying work. The result? The welfare rolls soared, along with poverty.

Welfare reform rejected that education-and-training formula. The best way to prepare for work, iconoclasts in Congress and state governments argued, was to start working. Welfare agencies were retooled to focus on getting recipients into jobs as quickly as possible. The rolls plummeted, as welfare recipients formerly deemed “unemployable” by service providers were snatched up by employers. In New York City, the welfare caseload dropped from 1.1 million in 1993 to 360,010 in June 2015. And with workforce participation up—from 43 percent to 63 percent for single mothers—poverty declined. Child poverty in New York City was down almost 10 percentage points in 2011 compared with 1993, as former HRA commissioner Robert Doar and Manhattan Institute fellow Fred Siegel have pointed out.

Yet HRA’s current commissioner, Steven Banks, claims that work-oriented welfare reform was a failure. His proof is the following: Twenty-five percent of welfare recipients “reported to have received employment assistance” in New York City return to the rolls after a year, HRA’s data allegedly shows. That means that 75 percent are still working. Any other government program with a 75 percent success rate would be declared not just a resounding achievement but possibly a mirage. In the criminal justice field, for example, criminologists high-five each other if an anti-recidivism program ekes out a mere 7 percent decline in criminal reoffending.

Ah, but that 75 percent of still-employed former welfare recipients may be working in low-paying jobs, retort the welfare advocates. Such inconsequential jobs don’t do enough to “fight poverty and income inequality,” according to Banks, himself formerly one of the city’s most litigious advocates during his long career at Legal Aid. We need to “maximize education, training, and employment related services [to] create the basis for building career pathways out of poverty,” Banks says.

Even if this approach hadn’t already been tried and conclusively failed, it is wrong on its face. Those maligned low-wage jobs, above all in the fast-food industry, are often promotion machines. As Katherine Newman documented in No Shame in My Game, fast-food managers canvas their workforce continuously for employees to elevate into supervisory positions. Someone who shows up sober every day and on time, who treats customers courteously, and who doesn’t assault his boss won’t stay long at the minimum wage.

Welfare reform is not dealing with a population of electricians, say, who want to become electrical engineers. For them, education is indeed necessary to make a career advance. For the low-skilled, often dysfunctional welfare population, however, the most important step out of poverty is to get and keep a job—any job, because all work has dignity and because work is the best preparation for more demanding work.

There is a limit, however, to what even the most work-oriented welfare agencies can do to eradicate poverty, so long as out-of-wedlock birth rates remain so high among the poor. The overwhelming cause of poverty in America today is family breakdown, not inadequate government spending on welfare programs or low wages. Children in single-mother households are over four times as likely to be poor as children raised by married parents. And an adult can avoid poverty by taking just three simple steps: graduate from high school, work full-time, and wait until marriage to have children. Only 2 percent of adults who followed those rules are poor, according to the Brookings Institution’s Isabell Sawhill; 75 percent of adults who obey the rules have entered the middle class, defined as making at least $55,000 a year.

Those precepts rely on personal initiative and self-discipline. As such, they are not particularly useful or interesting to the poverty-industrial complex. But government can enforce the message that able-bodied adults should work full-time, especially if they expect taxpayers to support them.

Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Banks’ initiative, however, takes the city away from that reciprocal contract between taxpayers and those on government assistance and replaces it with a tried-and-true formula for dependency. (One of the oddest aspects of this old “new vision” is its designation of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning” individuals as a separate category of welfare-service recipient, along with “ex-offenders” and residents of homeless shelters. Who knew that a group that includes some of the highest earners in the country needs special help in order to find employment? Such specious specialization, however, creates more jobs for service providers.)

The de Blasio-Banks vision is a planner’s dream, in which government mediates everywhere between citizens and the economy, no matter how complex the mediation machinery becomes. For a planner, such complexity is in fact a feature, not a bug. The main beneficiaries of New York’s new service juggernaut will be social-service providers—not the poor.

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