Ahistorical anger and slow-witted oafishness were front and center on the steps of City Hall New Year’s Day, as Mayor Bill de Blasio took his ceremonial oath of office. There was significant irony, too, even if it wasn’t quite so obvious.
Harry Belafonte’s bitterness; a black pastor’s fantastical ramblings on race relations; Public Advocate Letitia James’s embarrassing presentation of Dasani Coates, the 11-year-old homeless child from Brooklyn; the seething dismissal of Mike Bloomberg and his real accomplishments—they’re all part of the Inauguration Day record now, and there’s not much new to be said about them.
Except perhaps for this: if nothing else, New Yorkers got a glimpse of how leaders of the de Blasio coalition really think. By and large, they are new to the big tent; before de Blasio’s ascension, nobody cared what they thought about anything, and so it never occurred to them to hold their tongues. Certainly they didn’t Wednesday, and the new mayor’s implicit acceptance of the ugliness was sad and ominous. The speakers represent a large part of the de Blasio base, and his refusal to admonish them sent an unhappy message of its own: stand by for more.
Not to be caught up in the amateur-hour antics, however, was former president Bill Clinton. He cheerfully administered the oath of office to de Blasio—and that’s where the irony comes in. For wasn’t Clinton the architect of welfare reform as we know it, a largely successful effort to crack the cycle of dependence that owned the souls of so many Americans? And isn’t de Blasio more or less dedicated to dragging New York back to the days of no-questions-asked, no-stigmas-attached, multi-generational addiction to government dollars?
The Clinton-era reforms were embraced enthusiastically—on New York terms, anyway—by then-governor George Pataki and mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. The fundamental assumptions of public assistance were reordered; time limits were imposed, as were real work requirements. And stringent eligibility standards were established and enforced. The results? A dramatic drop in social-services caseloads and dynamic welfare-to-work progress, as thousands entered the economy—many for the first time. It would be fanciful to suppose that they all went willingly, and of course not all succeeded. And of those that did, many remain on the cusp of return; they know the pride of self-sufficiency, but that can be cold comfort compared with the rigors of earning a living in an economically unforgiving city. And none of this takes into account the untallied thousands who have never been dependent on government to make ends meet, even though their circumstances are only marginally different from those who have managed to work their way off the rolls.
The progressives think that both sorts are chumps, of course, because progressives don’t really understand those who strive to better themselves and their children. Nor do they respect their struggle for self-reliance. For progressives, more government is always the answer.
Which explains the utility to them of Dasani Coates, who had a starring role Wednesday, both literally and symbolically. Public Advocate James presented Dasani to the inaugural assembly as a victim of the Bloomberg administration’s callous indifference, the face of the city’s income-inequality crisis.
She is neither, of course, the New York Times’s epic profile of her notwithstanding. She’s a victim, all right—not of municipal indifference, but of the enduring drug addiction and related failings of the two adults in her life. The culprit is not a lack of tax revenue—New York City will spend close to $1 billion on the homeless this year—and most certainly not welfare reform. The city’s welfare caseload has dropped by some two-thirds since 1996, from more than 1 million to 340,000. While that embodies many more success stories than failures, it also represents a distillation process—the truly hard cases leave last, and some never leave at all. (Number Dasani’s parents among the latter.)
This isn’t to suggest that the city has no obligation to Dasani, one of 22,000 homeless children in the five boroughs. Each case presents a unique challenge, and each needs to be engaged individually. But horror stories like Dasani’s don’t represent sufficient cause to roll back or even seriously question welfare reform.
When Letitia James falsely declared herself Dasani’s savior on Inauguration Day, it was to establish her own place on the municipal stage, not to help the child in any meaningful way. That would require doing something about the nearly criminally negligent adults at the center of the case; James had not a word for them. Her silence was a profound insult to thousands of New York parents who labor bravely to raise their children with dignity and self-respect.
As for de Blasio, he’s committed to the politics of “income inequality”—or, rather, unfocused income redistribution—as was virtually everybody else present at City Hall Wednesday, but for Bill Clinton. How ironic it would be if such a singular achievement of Clinton’s presidency begins to unravel in the hands of a man the former president swore into office. For New York, irony would be the least of it.