Failed welfare regimes never die; they just wait for the poverty industry to resuscitate them. The New York City Council is about to obliterate welfare reform and return the city to the days when one in seven New Yorkers lived off the labors of the other six. Under a bill steaming through the council, welfare recipients would no longer need to work or look for work in exchange for benefits. Instead, anyone expressing a preference for “education and training” as an alternative to workfare will be able to attend classes and avoid work.
It’s impossible to overstate the regressiveness of this bill. For decades, welfare advocates touted “education and training” as the best route off of welfare. The rolls only skyrocketed. The radical insight of 1990s welfare reform was that the best way to move welfare recipients into work was . . . to send them to work. Both the 1996 federal welfare reform law and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s workfare program recognized that the most crucial skill that welfare recipients needed was the discipline to show up to a workplace every day on time. The only way to acquire that skill was by working.
That insight proved revolutionary. Nationally, the welfare rolls dropped over 50 percent in five years; New York’s rolls dropped 60 percent from 1993 to 2001. Black child poverty is at its lowest point in history.
Why, then, would the City Council want to move back to the failed status quo ante?
The answer lies in a combination of self-interest and ideology. No-expectations welfare may not have done much for the women and children it purported to support, but it kept a vast network of social service workers in lifetime employment. Non-profit “job trainers” lived off of city contracts that paid—regardless of whether they found anyone a job. CUNY got tens of thousands of welfare students who spent countless years in a no-standards holding tank without graduating, but whose presence supported droves of counselors, tutors, group-learning facilitators, and sundry bureaucrats. These non-profit beneficiaries of no-expectations welfare in turn provide the votes that keep the City Council in power.
The nonprofit voting brigade showed up in force before a lovingly appreciative City Council recently to argue for the repeal of welfare reform. A social sciences professor at LaGuardia Community College provided a peerless lesson in why CUNY was for so long a drag on the city’s fortunes. Referring melodramatically to workfare participants as “the disappeared” (i.e. as victims of right-wing death squads), Lorraine Cohen testified that welfare reform belongs to the “continuous history of America . . . of punishing those who are poor.” Oh really? If America has so punished the poor, why have the world’s poor sacrificed all to get here since the 1600s? Why aren’t poor Americans migrating to Africa, China, or Latin America, if conditions are so punishing here? How is it that the U.S.-earned wages of immigrants support whole villages—no, whole economies—south of the border, if American society is so inimical to self-betterment? Don’t expect Professor Cohen to address these questions with her students.
But a subtler form of self-aggrandizement than just votes is also at work in the council’s anti-reform bill. The philosophical premise behind the bill is that ordinary citizens are incapable of helping themselves outside the framework of government social programs. The bill states that most of those welfare recipients “allowed” to earn a college degree move off of welfare. But where in any welfare reform law is there a ban on attending college? There is none. Welfare recipients have always been “allowed” to seek any kind of education they choose, beyond what the city already offers them. What welfare reform legislation does not contain is a specific provision stating that college attendance may substitute for the work activities required of welfare recipients. In council-think, the absence of a government-designed and -subsidized program for welfare college attendance is equivalent to prohibiting college attendance, because it is simply inconceivable that someone could seek education on his own initiative—almost as inconceivable as the idea of someone working his way through college.
Contrary to the claims of reform opponents, the city already provides job training to welfare recipients. On average, welfare recipients spend 40 percent of their required participation hours in education and training; over 2,500 welfare recipients are engaged in education activities alone. Again, nothing precludes a recipient from increasing that amount of training on her own initiative.
The biggest problem with the bill, however, is not the political self-interest behind it, its philosophical absurdity, or its superfluity. The biggest problem is its inequity. Hundreds of thousands of poor New Yorkers have put or are putting themselves through school by working one or more jobs. This bill tells those hard-working New Yorkers that they should work even more hours so that their tax dollars can support another category of able-bodied New Yorkers: those who would prefer not to work but to collect welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, and housing allowances while going to school—and not even full-time school at that. The bill credits recipients one hour of imputed study time for every hour of class time, so a recipient would need only ten hours a week of class time to meet federal work requirements.
New York already provides free full-time education and job training: we call it high school. No other item on the city’s budget comes close to sucking up such immense quantities of taxpayer dollars. After high school, New York provides a massively subsidized college education. Amazingly, the council cites the fact that the “vast majority” of welfare recipients have dropped out of high school as justification for offering them more obligation-free education at taxpayer expense.
But that’s asking too much of people who have played by the rules—who attended their high school classes, did their homework, and graduated on time. Why should they forfeit more of their salaries so that people who ignored the rules can take a second bite of the apple? Do people deserve a second chance? Of course. But that second chance should come under different conditions from the first, to avoid encouraging yet more irresponsible behavior.
The greatest contribution of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s welfare reform program was philosophical. He articulated a new version of New York’s traditionally one-sided social contract: if you ask taxpayers to support you, and you’re able-bodied, he said, you must give something back to the city. The rhetoric surrounding the council’s welfare reform repeal could not be more different: at the recent hearing, both council members and advocates called the expectation that welfare recipients should work “slavery.” The council’s actions could soon teach a new generation of New Yorkers to think of themselves as victims who owe only resentment to those who support them.