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Keep Fixing Welfare
By Heather Mac Donald
One of the biggest challenges facing New York's next mayor — and one of the issues least discussed in the campaign — is reform of New York's $20 billion welfare leviathan.
Mayor Giuliani has made significant strides. If his successor is to continue the good fight, it will require a willingness to take on the biggest taboo in the poverty industry: the relation between behavior and poverty.
New York's welfare empire divides people into two classes: those who abide by rules and pay the consequences if they don't — the working taxpayers — and those who are exempt from rules and consequences — the ones subsidized by your tax dollars.
Many recipients of the city's lavish AIDS services trash their city-subsidized apartments and turn them into crack dens. If the landlord finally boots a destructive AIDS tenant, the city has to find the tenant another apartment the same day or face contempt charges from a court. Residents of the city's homeless facilities can use drugs and commit acts of violence without losing their shelter eligibility.
Families claiming homelessness can turn down countless offers of free or heavily subsidized apartments because they don't like the location, yet still retain their claim of homelessness.
To change this destructive system of rights without responsibilities, the next mayor will have to take on one of New York's most powerful industries: the advocacy-judicial complex.
The mayor doesn't really control poverty policy — advocates and judges do. The advocates sued for and now monitor the many consent decrees governing the system. Sympathetic judges slap city commissioners with contempt orders and fines if they fail to do the advocates' bidding. Let's examine the advocates' world view:
First Principle: Welfare should be extremely easy to get on and stay on. I recently attended a protest at a Bronx welfare office organized by the Urban Justice Center, one of the city's most fearsome poverty groups. The protesters preposterously accused the Giuliani administration of violating the United Nations convention against race discrimination. How? By asking people to look for jobs while their welfare application is pending and by asking whether the applicant may have alternative means of support. These two policies — known as diversion — discriminate against blacks and Hispanics, says the Urban Justice Center.
Is this just a harmless eruption from the loony left? Well, attending the protest was an emissary from mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer's office bearing his support for the protesters.
Second Principle: No one ever abuses the welfare system, and no one ever claims homelessness just to get a housing subsidy, so it is meanspirited to check for fraud. A Ford Foundation-supported outfit sued to block Giuliani's eligibility reviews; fortunately, this was one of the few lawsuits the advocates lost.
Last year alone, the Giuliani administration uncovered 40,000 cases of welfare fraud. Since 1994, it has found on its rolls 9,000 wanted felons, including 12 sought for murder. So watch whether the next mayor retains eligibility reviews. If he wants to unravel welfare reform, that's where he'll start.
Third Principle: Welfare is an unconditional right that should not be balanced with any obligation. When Giuliani proposed asking the able-bodied homeless to do some work in exchange for their free digs, it brought down the wrath of the homeless advocates. The Legal Aid Society sued faster than you can say "Gimme shelter" and brought the long-overdue initiative to a screeching halt.
Fourth Principle: There should be no consequences for destructive behavior if you are in an official victim group — see unpunishable trashing of apartments mentioned above. See as well the opposition of the city's drug-treatment industry to reporting the drug use of its clients on welfare.
It is particularly important to attack this principle, because irresponsible behavior, not a bad economy, is the greatest determinant of poverty today. Dropping out of school, taking drugs, committing crime and having a lousy work ethic lie behind most of the city's welfare cases.
Even more decisive is the epidemic of illegitimacy. Supporting your child is the most fundamental of all social responsibilities. When that dissolves, not much else can stand. But rather than penalizing such bad behavior, the city rewards it. Unwed mothers have priority for many benefits and get lavish day care centers in their high schools so as to make teen child-bearing less onerous.
The greatest step the next mayor could take to eradicate poverty in this city would be to highlight the devastation wrought by serial impregnators and the breakdown of marriage. Obviously, Giuliani is handicapped in that enterprise. Let's hope, for the sanity of us all, that the next mayor will not be so burdened.
New York spends magnitudes more on welfare than any other city in the country. In some areas, such as housing, it spends more than all other cities combined. The effect has been negligible. It need not be if we recognize that the best path out of poverty is through the bourgeois virtues — and if we structure our aid programs accordingly.
Mac Donald is the author of "The Burden of Bad Ideas" and a contributing editor to City Journal.
©2001 New York Daily News
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