It couldn’t last. In the 1990s, New York City was a national leader in welfare reform, promoting the idea of work as a condition of welfare and demonstrating its beneficial results: from 1995 to 2001, city welfare rolls plummeted nearly 60 percent. But the city’s role as welfare reformer was ultimately too incongruous for this longtime mecca of dependency. With Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recent recommendations to the Bush administration on the future of welfare, the city has reverted to pre-Giuliani type, embracing long-discredited urban orthodoxies.
At stake is the reauthorization of the 1996 federal welfare act known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The act required states to place 50 percent of their caseloads in some sort of work activity by 2002, and it put a five-year limit on receiving federal welfare benefits. For the first time in history, welfare bureaucrats started telling welfare applicants that they had to look for a job and that they could not stay on welfare for the rest of their lives. That message roused both bureaucrat and recipient to action. Welfare agencies’ unprecedented emphasis on employment led to a 60 percent national decline in the number of families on the dole from 1994 to 2001. Work rates among welfare recipients soared. Poverty in single-parent families fell to a historical low of 25 percent in 2000 (and remained low in the recent recession).
Unfortunately, the rolls stopped dropping almost everywhere in July 2001. A key reason: TANF’s too-liberal work rules. States may offset the 50 percent work requirement with a credit for caseload reduction: if a state’s rolls drop 25 percent, for example, it need only put 25 percent of the remaining recipients into a work activity. TANF also allows states to exempt 20 percent of their recipients from any responsibilities at all, on the assumption that some recipients are too dysfunctional to work. Because of the caseload-reduction credit, most states today don’t have to put anyone to work. Not surprisingly, once states faced a zero work-participation requirement, their efforts to get welfare recipients into jobs slacked off.
The White House and the House of Representatives want to reenergize the drive toward self-sufficiency. They propose a 70 percent work-participation requirement over five years, before caseload-reduction credits. But the Bloomberg administration opposes this perfectly reasonable goal. It argues that too many of the remaining people on the rolls simply cannot participate in work activities, and thus that the work requirements should remain at 50 percent. The city cites its own work-exemption rate as proof that the remaining welfare caseload is too disabled to look for a job or perform workfare. Whereas in April 1999, the city deemed just 23 percent of the caseload unable to work, that exempt category has now swollen to 57 percent.
It’s hard to decide which is more troubling: the Bloomberg administration’s arguments or the evidence it cites for them. The city should be relentlessly promoting the idea that work is essential to stable families and society—that absent severe disability, everyone can contribute something productive to his fellow citizens. It was the zeal to work and succeed that made New York the economic and cultural powerhouse it once was. But the billionaire mayor’s administration has apparently ignored that lesson in its welfare practices. The “barriers” to work that have led to its whopping 57 percent work-exemption rate are, according to the city’s own account, “literacy, physical and mental disabilities ”
These are spurious excuses for non-work. The city’s hotels and restaurants keep running thanks to the labor of immigrants, many of whom do not speak English and often lack even a grammar-school education, yet who do well enough to send surplus wages to their families back home. The Americans with Disabilities Act imposes draconian penalties on employers for even wondering whether an applicant’s physical or mental disability might interfere with his job performance, and such groups as Fountain House have shown that the mentally ill can provide vital services to employers while benefiting from the therapeutic effects of a job. A recent study has shown that so-called “barriers” to work such as health or child-care problems do not influence employment outcomes for welfare recipients. As for victims of domestic violence, the best therapy is to show the S.O.B. that you can support yourself without him.
New York’s rising work-exemption rate suggests that the poverty advocates (who in effect do advocate poverty by opposing work requirements) have once again reasserted their historical dominance of city welfare policy. And not just the work-exemption rate signals this counterrevolution. The Bloomberg administration is also arguing to Congress that education should count as work for 40 percent of the caseload, up from the current 30 percent. Yet there is conclusive evidence that spending years in training does not improve the life chances of those on public assistance, while going right to job-search and work does. It was precisely the failed regime of training as an excuse for non-work that led to the 1996 welfare-reform bill in the first place.
At a time when the city is asking its sanitation, police, and transportation services—essential for urban life—to reduce their budgets, it is remarkable that it is advocating policies that will increase the number of welfare dependents. Since Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began requiring work as a condition for welfare, the city has saved $2 billion a year in welfare costs. Those savings will evaporate once recipients understand that the city is no longer serious about work. And the children of mothers who then end up languishing on the rolls will be worse, not better, off.
The city’s backtracking on welfare reform is disastrous not only for New York, but for the country as a whole. The Bush administration frequently points to Gotham as proof that promoting the right ideas about work can change even the most entrenched welfare culture. Now the city itself is trying to undercut that argument. It’s not too late for the city to reassert itself as a leader in welfare reform; it only means recognizing again the truth that work—not welfare benefits—offers the best route out of poverty.