Standing uncertainly in the middle of a lavish high school day-care center on Manhattan's Upper West Side is the future downfall of welfare reform. Eighteen-year-old Tamiesha has just dropped off her two-year-old and now watches impassively as the baby throws his bowl of Cheerios over his head. While a host of beaming day-care workers rush to clean up the child, Tamiesha, tall and so thin that her slacks hang from her hips in folds, distractedly pours a gold necklace from one hand to another. As usual, she has arrived late and is at that moment missing her second-period class, but no one seems in a hurry to get her on her way. The day-care director has tried to persuade her to come on time, without much of an impact. "I tell 'em I can't give them a 100 percent guarantee," Tamiesha explains. Tamiesha may not strike an observer as an overwhelmingly fit parent, but she has no intention of getting help from a husband. "I don't want to get married," she says emphatically. "My aunts 'n' stuff tell me what's going on, and it's, like, a hassle."
Unless girls like Tamiesha stop having babies, the 1996 federal welfare reform law will surely disappoint. The law unleashed a flurry of activity to get welfare recipients off the rolls; unfortunately, no one is watching the front door, where the next two generations of dependents are forming right now. Illegitimacy is the greatest cause of long-term poverty in this country; unless it comes down, the poverty rate won't, either. While some welfare mothers will thrive under the new welfare-to-work regime and will succeed in creating a stable home for their children, the majority will drift in and out of low-paid work for the rest of their lives, futilely seeking the grail of a permanent, "living-wage" job.
But the most pressing goal for welfare reform is ensuring the welfare of the children. While having an illegitimate child often dooms the mother to a life of poverty, illegitimacy may doom her child to far worse. Prisons, foster-care homes, and homeless shelters teem with fatherless children. Tamiesha's baby is three times more likely to fail at school, three times more likely to commit suicide, and from 20 to 33 times more likely to suffer child abuse than are the children of low-income married parents. His prospects in later life are just as grim: 70 percent of long-term prisoners, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers. The risks to children living outside a two-parent home go beyond social failure, as witness New York City's never-ending cortege of tiny coffins containing children beaten, suffocated, and scalded by their mothers' boyfriends.
No urban reform could have a greater effect, if successful, than attacking the culture of single parenthood. Taking on the problem in New York City, however, requires great audacity. Not only does New York State have the sixth-highest incidence of illegitimate births in the nation—38 percent in 1995, just below such backwaters as Mississippi and Louisiana—but the city's official ideology has for decades treated single "parenting" as simply one "lifestyle" choice among many. What's more, social policy faces natural limits when confronting a problem as vast, complex, and personal as out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
Even so, the arena for action is large. New York's last mayoral term demonstrated the moral force that a strong leader in public office can generate. By speaking clearly about the obligations of people receiving public assistance, Mayor Giuliani shifted the ethic of welfare and made work part of the equation in New York. He should now set a national precedent and do the same for illegitimacy—the other, and much more important, part of the welfare equation. He should announce unequivocally that the most pressing issue affecting child welfare is the breakdown of the family. The persistently lagging well-being of the city's black children, he should point out—from low birth weight to school failure—is inextricably linked to the prevalence among blacks of teen pregnancies and illegitimate births. More social services, the mayor should emphasize, can never compensate for the absence of a father.
Such a message will amount to a declaration of war. Any political leader who dares to voice a preference for marriage over single "parenting" will face fierce opposition from the city's elites. Most perversely, the mayor can expect resistance from the city's child welfare advocates, who are determinedly agnostic regarding family structure. When asked if her organization takes a position on the two-parent family, Gail Nayoweth, director of the Citizens Committee for Children, responded that family configuration "does not matter to us"—an astounding admission. She quickly added, "I shouldn't say it doesn't matter to us. We will say, you need a family"—not much of a concession, since the question is: what kind of family? Like virtually every advocate and service provider in the city, Nayoweth apparently believes that government services are more important than a resident father: "When we talk about the family, [our goal] is to help them access services." Here, in a nutshell, is the ideology that New York's leaders must refute. To repeat: the city can offer "services" from here to eternity; they will never provide the crucial nurturing and support of two married parents.
Any defender of marriage can expect charges of racism and "classism." Emily Marks, head of the United Neighborhood Houses, a coalition of local settlement houses, accused me of bias against the poor when I asked if her organization was concerned about family breakdown. Then, displaying a favored debating tactic of the single-parent lobby, she established a precondition for marriage: "It all goes back to the job situation," she maintained. "Jobs are just not available."
This is doubly specious. First, plenty of poor people find jobs and marry. Second, Marks's reasoning presumes that children are an inevitability and marriage a mere add-on—when conditions permit. But if, as Marks claims, no jobs exist that would allow men to support a family, why are women having babies with them anyway? The question answers itself: because they expect the state to pick up the tab. Marks belongs to the right-to-have-a-baby school, which holds that regardless of the economic and emotional stability of the parents, a woman has a right to a baby at the government's expense. The question turns only on her rights, not the baby's fate.
It is this entire constellation of apologetics and destructive thinking that the city—in its role as a national model, if Mayor Giuliani chooses to assume it—will have to combat. City administrators should call in their social service contractors and ask them to fight vigorously the prevailing belief that unwed teens can raise babies, given the proper support. The city should also demand that the providers promote marriage for adults who want or have children. Those providers who put up an argument should be dropped. The city should also make sure that providers bring the concept of adoption out of deep freeze. From the moment an expectant single mother walks into a city health clinic, and above all if she is a teen, the nurses should make clear that she is embarking on a remarkably difficult path. City health workers should be required to discuss adoption as the most loving alternative for the child. Many illegitimate children will end up in foster care anyway, from which adoption is much harder to achieve.
Isn't it quixotic and self-destructive for the mayor to try to change attitudes so deeply ingrained and hotly defended as all these? Isn't he doomed to failure? In taking on this challenge, Mayor Giuliani can look not only to his own success in changing assumptions about welfare and work but also to the national campaign against smoking, which created a stigma practically out of thin air and virtually overnight. Today, no politician with a taste for media acclaim ignores teen smoking; yet if just one-quarter of the energy dedicated to that issue could successfully come to bear on illegitimacy, the public health benefits, not to mention the social benefits, would be vastly larger.
Accordingly, the mayor should have the city launch a media campaign, arguing that bearing a child out of wedlock is irresponsible and, for men, cowardly. Children need resident, married fathers, the advertisements should say; furthermore, the government will bring all the weight of the law against men who evade their parental obligations. The mayor should also call on church leaders, school principals, and youth leaders to join him in advocating marriage as the proper environment for raising children. Changes like this will take more than one mayoral term to achieve, but if Mayor Giuliani can begin to shift local attitudes, he will have won the hardest part of the battle.
But in addition to conducting a battle of ideas, the city should comb through its policies and eliminate all explicit or hidden encouragements for illegitimacy. To be blunt, rather than easing the way for single mothers, the city should restore the burden of having a child out of wedlock. Only in the last three decades did society facilitate illegitimacy, with predictable results. First to go should be the LYFE centers, as the high schools call their day-care centers. If there's any doubt that the centers have put an official stamp of approval on teen childbearing, just ask high school students what they think about them. A Brandeis ninth-grader, sauntering to class, summed up the prevailing attitude nicely: "Sure it's normal; schools are supposed to provide shit like that." Many of the nurseries are placed front and center; at Brandeis, the large, cheerful room is virtually the first classroom students encounter on entering the building. They are extravagantly funded at $10,000 a girl and boast lavish staffing ratios and employee perks. The obvious message is that the city considers teen parenthood a normal, highly valued part of school.
Like many of the city's social services, the LYFE centers embrace precisely the wrong values. Mothers don't have to feed or visit their children during their lunch hour (or at any time during the day, for that matter), so they can hang out with their friends. Such freedom, LYFE center advocates say, helps teen mothers preserve some of the "giddiness" of adolescence—just what a teen mother should lose as soon as possible. The LYFE workers don't even dare ask the mothers to stay after school for parenting classes, for that would infringe on their autonomy. Instead, some centers regularly pull the mothers out of class for parenting and group therapy sessions. But, after all, the ostensible purpose of the program is to help young mothers graduate by facilitating child-care arrangements; missing classes violates that purpose.
The LYFE centers are a corrosive presence in the schools. They should be closed. In their place, the city should open a school for pregnant teens and teen mothers in each borough and require all unwed teen mothers to attend. Those schools should insist on the highest standards of behavior for the mothers and include a mandated curriculum in child care, over and above the full academic curriculum.
Does such an arrangement "stigmatize" teen mothers, as advocates will immediately charge? Perhaps; and if it does, so much the better. By having a child out of wedlock, a girl has embarked on a course destructive both to herself and to her child. Society once understood this, and understood as well that attaching an onus to bad behavior was the best way to prevent it. (Stigma prevented illegitimacy from rising for the first three decades after the adoption of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.) But more important than the stigma, removing unwed teen mothers from their regular schools destroys the harmful fiction that they are still entitled to a carefree adolescence. Having decided to become mothers, they must become adults as quickly as possible.
The mayor should lobby the State Legislature for authority to withhold additional benefits from mothers who have more children while on welfare. In New Jersey the birthrate among welfare mothers has fallen more than 20 percent following the introduction of such a policy. As an alternative to cash payments for teen mothers, the mayor should issue a challenge to both the State Legislature and to the city's many philanthropists: let's build a public assistance system that actually ensures the well-being of children. Following the suggestion of City Journal editor Myron Magnet, the city should help create a pilot program requiring teen mothers on public assistance to live in group homes supervised by responsible adults (not by social workers imbued with the conventional don't-hold-the-poor-responsible attitude). The purpose of these group homes would be to give the children of children an upbringing that will allow them to break the cycle of poverty. They would, in other words, make good on the long-deferred promise of AFDC: that it protects children.
The homes' supervising adults would teach the teens how to be parents and provide them with the moral formation that may have been missing in the teens' own upbringing. They would strictly monitor the mothers' school attendance, homework, and alcohol and drug use. To learn household management and responsibility, the teens would help cook and clean. Again, the overriding point of such instruction is to teach the mothers how to provide cognitive and moral, as well as maternal, nurture for their children. The mayor should call on private donors to fund the experiment; the teens' government benefits could help defray the costs. The program should be rigorously evaluated. If the pilot succeeds in improving the welfare of teens' children and can be replicated cost-efficiently, it could be the best hope for breaking the perpetuation of the underclass.
The city should reward marriage, not illegitimacy. Each year, for instance, New York sets aside many thousands of public housing units and federal housing vouchers for homeless families, the vast majority of them, almost by definition, families without fathers. The city should give preference to married families in the distribution of public housing, explicitly articulating its reasons for doing so: that a home in which both parents have publicly committed themselves to each other and to their future children is the safest environment for children. So, too, with day care: many of the categories of applicants that now take priority for it, such as parents who have abused their children, teen mothers, and homeless families, are near stand-ins for single parents. Here, too, as in all its discretionary benefits for families, the city should give priority to married parents—and at the very least should not give preference to single parents.
It takes two to make a baby, yet the city has been lax in placing any responsibility on fathers. Fewer than 25 percent of the city's recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, previously AFDC) have child-support orders, in large part because many welfare mothers refuse to cooperate in establishing paternity, despite the law's requirement. Fewer than 5,000 have suffered any sanction for noncooperation. The city should step up enforcement of the cooperation requirement and institute an aggressive program to establish paternity in its hospitals. Elsewhere, such programs have had good results.
Once the city has established paternity and obtained a child-support order, it should enforce that obligation with the same zeal with which it enforces the welfare work requirements, for doing so strengthens the value that fathers, not the state, bear responsibility for their children. New York State has foolishly exempted low-income males from support obligations, as if poverty were an excuse for evading parental duties. Persuading the Assembly to remove the many roadblocks it has placed in the way of child-support enforcement is a distant hope. But the city should at least begin to make the case for encouraging responsible fatherhood. It should argue that if a father has little or no income, he should have to participate in the workfare program; if he is already in it, his hours should increase. If the mother is on welfare, she should have the option of requiring the father to perform her required workfare duties. Such a right would increase the mother's incentive to identify the father, and would give her greater bargaining power over him. If the unwed father is still a student, he should be banned from playing on his school's sports teams or from student leadership positions, as was the practice into the 1960s. In the schools, sex education should mean only one thing: etching indelibly into the teen brain that if you have a child out of wedlock, you will face extraordinary burdens, including having to pay years of child support. Kids should hear that sex is for adults, mature enough to accept its responsibilities.
Should the city decide to reward marriage instead of out-of-wedlock childbearing, it would reverse a local rule of social policy: the less responsible the individual, the more likely New York is to spend public dollars on him. Thus, the city funds programs for gay prostitutes with a drug habit, promiscuous mothers who beat their children, heroin-addicted shoplifters, female murderers, and teen thugs, among others. Reversing this indiscriminate social spending should be the mayor's next challenge, after removing the incentives to illegitimacy.
The undisputed beneficiaries of this largesse are the nonprofit social service agencies to which the government delegates its good intentions. The deal to date for the agencies has been: here's a problem; here's some taxpayer money; see what you can do. If, in the next fiscal cycle, the problem does not appear solved, the city will hand over more money. Officials rarely check to see what the agency actually accomplished. "It's easy money," confesses a youth-service provider in Brooklyn. The city Department for Youth and Community Development pays his agency one 20-minute visit a year—in the morning, when no programs are actually running—and writes a check for the next year.
As a result of this freewheeling generosity, the city's social service infrastructure is without parallel anywhere. State spending on social services accounts for twice the share of personal income as in the rest of the country, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. In 1994, the last year for which figures are available, New York City paid out $2.4 billion of local taxpayers' money for over 2,600 social service contracts—about the same as the city spent on the police and far exceeding the national norm. Including state and federal money would probably triple the total tab. A disproportionate amount of that sum went to executive salaries, far higher than the national median (and often even higher than the salaries of the city commissioners who oversee the agencies), according to a recent study by City Councilman Tom Ognibene. The city's nonprofits operate like fortresses, Ognibene observes, denying the public legally required access to their financial data. Their financial statements, he says, are so shoddy and incomplete that they would trigger an IRS audit in an instant if they came from the private sector.
Whole neighborhoods depend on the government money the nonprofits attract. Stand on the corner of Fulton and Nostrand Avenues in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, and you stand in the principality of the decrepit Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, one of the Ford Foundation's opening salvos in the War on Poverty. This community development corporation rents out grossly overpriced, ramshackle office space to a host of government agencies and government-funded private agencies. Within a stone's throw, you can visit the Protestant Board of Guardians, Covenant House, the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Mental Health Center, and numerous small child-welfare and foster-care agencies. Walk a few blocks down Fulton Avenue, and you enter the principality of the Vannguard Urban Improvement Association, landlord to an equally large portfolio of government agencies and eponymous creation of social service kingpin Assemblyman Al Vann, chair of the Assembly's Committee on Children and Families from 1981 to 1992. Justifying his preference for social services rather than business development, Vann recently told City Limits: "The money needs to flow into our community. . . . We have to use the political power to impact on this economic system"—the same tired, anti-business, government-is-the-solution rhetoric that helped bring down a once-thriving borough.
It is impossible to exaggerate just how ineffectual the majority of the social service agencies are. Truly eye-opening are the results of a 1995 request from the city to contractors in four areas—HIV prevention, school health clinics, home care for the elderly, and Head Start—to set performance targets for themselves and to measure their success in meeting them. Many agencies found the concept of a measurable outcome baffling; others set goals so low and performed so poorly that they ought to have been ashamed to rebid for city funding.
The anti-HIV outreach group, Sub-Sahara AIDS Rescue, for example, serves 3,000 mostly male Africans in Brooklyn, many of whom live eight to a household and hire a communal prostitute for the weekends. The group's goal: to refer 200 customers during the year for services and counseling with other agencies. In the first quarter it had a grand total of five customers. After hustling in the next quarter, it referred 87 to unspecified "HIV services." (Of course, a referral to services is hardly a true performance target, since the question remains: what did the services accomplish, assuming the "client" even showed up?) Another HIV group, the Valley, serves 150 young people in Manhattan who are in trouble with the law and "who exhibit poor self-esteem." Its goal was to persuade 12 to accept HIV testing. After six months, five "customers" had been tested, a measly 4 percent of the sample. Project Return runs a "crisis intervention program" in Central Harlem to "engage" 3,000 black and Latina women who are drug users, prostitutes, or homeless. Its goal was to place 35 women in drug treatment—barely over 1 percent of the client base. Note well: completion of treatment was not an agency goal. After six months, 11 women had been placed. The agency did not disclose the outcome of those placements.
Just as ineffectual were the Head Start programs. The Children's Aid Society conducts "group discussions, brainstorming, and role playing" for welfare mothers in the Frederick Douglass housing projects. It planned that five of 20 women would "report a positive change in their coping skills," whatever that means. Only two did. Another program hoped that three of 23 Dominican single mothers would respond to questions in English and three would go back to school. Results? Nada.
However ludicrous, these efforts represent the most focused attention to outcomes that the city's service agencies have attempted in recent memory. Ordinarily, the agencies' accomplishments are even fuzzier. Part of the reason is that staff competence is often just a few steps ahead of their clients'. The youth leader in a Bed-Stuy family services agency, for example, can't write English. Her description of a teen "rap" group ran as follows: "LET'S TALK' group will discuss issues that are of concern to young people, and there communities. All topics discussed expands their knowledge on current events topics. As will as help develop identity, and interact with other teenagers their age and of other ethnic background."
However high on good intentions, her after-school youth program appeared to the casual visitor extremely low on organization or standards. One day last October, four teens lolled in front of computers playing video games while a tall 18-year-old looked on. The 18-year-old admitted that he was unable to boot up a computer, though both the youth center and his school offer computer instruction. (Throughout the city, "computer instruction" seems to result primarily in video game proficiency.) The other 15 or so kids had not shown up. The radio was blaring pop music. Nothing else happened.
Fecklessness, however, is not the greatest flaw of the social service industry; moral agnosticism is. Most social service providers treat poverty exclusively as an economic condition rather than a moral one. Triple the welfare grant, or create more high-paying jobs, and voilà, we will have solved poverty. This is a gross, though seductive, lie. More than money, the long-term poor need values and self-discipline. They'll rarely get these tools for self-betterment from their city-funded social worker, however. I asked Deborah Rubian, preventive services director at Talbot Perkins, a private foster-care agency, if she talks about values with her clients—parents suspected of abusing or neglecting their children. Rubian was speechless. "I don't know how to answer. If [a parent] comes into the Administration for Children's Services [the city's child welfare watchdog], the system has already made a value judgment. ACS is a punitive system." Like most foster-care advocates, Rubian sees the potentially or actually abusing parent as no less a victim than the abused child. "People have to look at class issues," she retorted. "It's hard to have a discussion of morals unless you include class and gender." Rubian believes in sharing her identity-based apologetics with her clients: "When you give people information about class and gender, they eat it up." No wonder: for it means they can blame the system, rather than their own behavior, for their troubles.
The one value that the social service advocates hold dear? Self-esteem. Sister Mary Nerny runs a counseling program for women who have killed their abusive partners or who have allegedly been forced to commit a crime by those abusers. The program focuses on "practical concerns," except for what Sister Mary calls the "first value, really—how they value themselves." Murderers and felons might seem to need to learn how to value others, as well, but not in New York.
Given the reluctance of many nonprofits to teach personal responsibility, it is no surprise that some are on the warpath against the city's workfare program. Making people work for welfare benefits is "more like slave labor," says Sister Mary, speaking for many service providers on the city's payroll but opposed to its official policy.
New York's situation, then, is this: for all the billions that it spends on social services, it has literally no idea what it gains thereby. Some agencies may perform efficiently, but the city has few means of distinguishing the good from the bad. (To be fair, the city's own agencies are not necessarily more effective than its private, nonprofit contractors. I asked an employee in a clientless New York City Housing Authority job-training program what she did all day, and got the unapologetic response: "Nothing.") Many of those social programs bear the imprint of the advocates who fought for them: they seek to wring maximum benefits from government while making no demands on their clients. And though the city enjoys a budget surplus now, these expensive programs loom large in its multi-billion-dollar structural deficit.
Both financial and policy considerations argue for rethinking the city's social service efforts. City Hall should reevaluate all its programs according to the core values of individual responsibility and public accountability: bad behavior should never be rewarded, and the public interest, not some advocate's agenda, should govern how taxpayer dollars are spent. Then, the city should ruthlessly enforce performance goals.
In emphasizing individual responsibility, the city should establish a single principle of reciprocity throughout its benefit programs. Residents of homeless shelters should perform workfare, for example, and in the area of welfare, the city should begin strictly enforcing the school attendance rules for teen mothers. In all areas, the city should eradicate subsidies for irresponsibility. For example, the Administration for Children's Services should not be providing housecleaners, at a cost of $25.9 million in 1997, to mothers who beat or neglect their children. Though federal money helps pay for such services, the city should turn it down. Likewise, the city should stop paying for parenting classes for child abusers. It is not the government's role to try to reform such bad character; the burden should be on the parent, both financially and legally, to prove future fitness.
In addition to their moral dubiousness, court-ordered, city-subsidized parenting classes are unlikely to work. At the graduation ceremonies last October for a parenting class at Family Dynamics, a preventive services agency in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one-quarter of the "graduates" didn't show; another third were extremely late. A large-boned, broad woman with few teeth and wild dreadlocks was on her second tour through the parenting curriculum; many mothers make many more. Her first run-in with child welfare was around 1988, when she had two kids; in 1990, on her third child, she was charged with scalding and beating her children. Two more kids followed, and all five are now in foster care for neglect. Taxpayers should be free of her; but in one of the welfare system's greatest scandals, a recent New York State law says that, as long as a plan for reuniting parent and child exists, parents can keep getting their welfare checks, even while the children whose welfare is at issue are in foster care, at a hefty additional cost to the taxpayers.
The most powerful curb the mayor should put on the social service industry, however, is performance contracting. Only if an agency meets clearly defined goals should it get paid; it can wallow in class and gender injustice if it likes, but at its own expense. Yet the principle of performance contracting is easier to state than to implement. Since the social services industry has operated with so little accountability for so long, no one really knows what a reasonable goal in many fields is. In its own performance experiments, the city has mostly allowed nonprofits to define their own laughably low goals, or has used performance contracting only to reward agencies, not to penalize them. (One notable exception is the city's recent performance initiative for welfare-to-work job placement.) Clearly, getting 4 percent of a client population to take a desired action is not a good bargain by anyone's calculation. The city itself should establish more ambitious targets in its contracts and then make those targets the basis for compensation. Agency heads could use the "reasonable taxpayer" test for setting performance goals. Would the reasonable taxpayer, for example, be pleased with the existing 20 percent job-placement goal for welfare job clubs? Most likely not. If, after setting higher targets, the city finds that few agencies are eligible for contract renewal, so be it.
It may be that human services or charity work, faced with the difficult task of changing human motivation, has always had, and will always have, such a low success rate. In that case, a good argument exists for getting government out of the area entirely. Public officials have an obligation to use public funds for things that can actually be accomplished. If government does not have the tools to improve individual character, it should stop trying.
Where possible, the city should introduce competition into social services. In day care, for instance, the city should give mothers vouchers and let them choose their own provider—including, if they desire, a church- or synagogue-run nursery.
A final principle should govern the city's programmatic choices: fund opportunity for all, not rehabilitation for some. Faced with a choice between funding a sports or music program for children and drug treatment for addicts, the city should opt for the sports or music program, once integral parts of a child's formation. The drug addict made himself needy, whereas all children need education. America's great philanthropists and urban visionaries created enduring institutions that individuals could use for their own betterment—great libraries, museums, public parks, and universities. Cities are themselves such an institution; they squander their capital in catering to special-interest victim groups instead of the common good.
One program whose reform would send the right fiscal and policy messages loud and clear is the kinship foster-care program of the city's massively troubled foster-care system. Kinship foster care exemplifies just about everything that can go wrong with advocate-driven social services. No longer simply a means of protecting children, it has been fatally reconfigured as an anti-poverty program. Regular foster care places an abused or neglected child with an unrelated foster family, paid a monthly fee for the child's upkeep. In kinship foster care, the child moves in with a relative, who receives foster payments just as if she were unrelated to the child. Those payments happen to be many times higher than AFDC or TANF payments—in 1994, $547 a month for a 16-year-old child, compared with, say, the extra $37 that a child could bring into a welfare family of five.
The stated purpose of the program is to ease the child's difficulties by placing him within his own extended family. But note that the program keeps foster-care payments within the family as well. Economically, a single-parent family with three children on welfare is far better off with the children in foster care with their grandmother than it is with the children at home.
And these perverse economic incentives have taken over the program. Advocates see kinship foster care as a way to pump more government dollars into poor families. The child's well-being, as usual, takes second place. According to city officials, Legal Aid lawyers promote kinship foster care not as a temporary way station but in effect as a desirable, permanent status. Poverty attorneys counsel relatives who are willing to take their nephews or grandchildren for free to enter the more complicated, but far more lucrative, kinship foster-care program instead. By monetizing family obligation, kinship foster care is destroying the black extended family just as surely as welfare destroyed the nuclear family, former Human Resources Commissioner William Grinker has remarked.
Once a child is in kinship care, financial considerations keep him there, even though foster care is supposed to be as short-term as possible. In a current, sadly typical, case, the grandmother and drug-abusing mother live in the same building. The grandmother has her daughter's two children, for which she is getting $1,200 a month, plus clothing, medical, and transportation allowances. The grandmother lets her daughter visit her children at will and in all likelihood shares the kinship payments with her. Meanwhile, the drug-abusing mother has the right to receive her welfare check, even though her children no longer live in her home, because social workers have come up with a plan for the children's eventual reunification with her. If the grandmother either adopts the children or discharges them back to the mother's care—the ostensible goals of the foster-care system—the extended household loses an extra $14,400 a year in cash plus in-kind benefits. Not surprisingly, the grandmother is dragging her feet about discharging the children, and the mother has no incentive to get off drugs to get her children back. Moreover, though the grandmother may be a fine foster parent, the fact that she has raised a drug-abusing and child-neglecting daughter is reason for the city to presume her a suspect candidate for foster care until she proves otherwise.
Disgruntled city officials tell of families who have made kinship care into a cottage industry: the mother keeps having children, who, bundled with foster payments, go right to the grandmother. Private child-care workers complain that many kinship foster parents participate only for the money and are irresponsible caretakers. Indeed, a city-sponsored study revealed that only 58 percent of children in kinship homes attend school "nearly always."
Kinship foster care now drives the entire foster system. Kinship placements accounted for 72 percent of the dramatic rise in the foster caseload in the state (overwhelmingly concentrated in New York City) between 1986 and 1991, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Kinship foster care also explains the enormous disparity in foster-care spending between New York State and the rest of the country—five times higher as a share of personal income.
The mayor should direct officials to end their current frantic search for relatives to nominate as kinship foster parents. Elsewhere in the state, county social service commissioners manage to keep children placed with relatives out of foster care, despite state law and regulations that promote kinship foster care. If a relative comes forward, the city should subject her to the same scrutiny as it would an unrelated foster parent. It should think carefully before certifying her, or anyone else, as a foster parent if she's on welfare, since the fact that she can't support her own children suggests that she may not be ready for more. The city should disqualify anyone investigated for abuse or neglect in the past. It should only place a child in a foster care relationship with a relative if the relative agrees to begin guardianship proceedings within a year. Ideally, the city would seek to change the rule requiring kinship-rate payments for relatives, thus removing the perverse financial incentives. Setting kinship foster rates at AFDC rates would also save $53 million a year.
The only thing we know for sure about New York City's vast social service effort is that it is a crippling burden on the local economy. Any other consequence—such as improving the lot of the poor—remains speculative. Given the certain negative effects of the city's disproportionate welfare spending and the uncertain positive effects, the burden henceforward should be on the advocates of any given program to prove its benefits. In the meantime, New York should return—and quickly—to its core function: providing opportunity for all through strong schools, a vibrant economy, and an efficient infrastructure.
As important as any specific reform, however, is the moral power of the mayoralty. For decades, New York's mayors have squandered that power with the tired plea: Washington, send money! Mayor Giuliani, however, has amassed enough political capital to try something radically new: speaking the truth about urban problems. If he were to speak honestly about illegitimacy, if he were to detail the ever-widening consequences of family breakdown, and if the city saw even a partial brake on the number of children born out of wedlock, Mayor Giuliani would leave an unparalleled legacy to the city and the country.