More than a decade after the city initiated welfare reformrequiring ablebodied recipients to work and placing time limits on welfarethe poverty rate in the city continues declining, especially among households headed by women. The reason is clear: the reforms, begun during the Giuliani years and carried through effectively by the Bloomberg administration, have resulted in a rise in the number of women who are employed full-time.
The trend marks a sharp turnabout from the early 1990s, when New York City faced a welfare crisis. Some 1.1 million residents, nearly one-seventh of the city's population, were on welfare, and the city was projecting that the number could climb as high as 1.6 million.
But Mayor Giuliani, understanding that work was the way out of poverty, crafted reforms that focused on getting recipients back into the workforce. The federal welfare legislation that Congress passed in 1996 gave states and cities more latitude to use programs that emphasized work, making the city's job easier. Welfare rolls shrank to about 500,000 by the end of Mr. Giuliani's term.
Mayor Bloomberg continued this emphasis on getting recipients into jobs making further progress, so that today, welfare rolls have fallen below 365,000, an accomplishment that even optimists would never have imagined.
Meanwhile, since 1999, when the impact of welfare reform really began kicking in, the number of women employed full-time in the city has increased by 27%. That's significant because full-time employment represents the road out of poverty: only 3.4% of adults working fulltime in the city are in poverty.
As these numbers would anticipate, a drop in poverty among families has accompanied the welfare decline, especially among female-headed households, which constitute nearly two-thirds of the impoverished both in New York and nationally.
In the early 1990s, before the reform efforts began, more than 35% of all femaleheaded households in the city lived below the poverty line. That number is now down to about 30% after years of steady decline, a five percentage-point drop which effectively means that nearly 27,000 fewer female-headed households are in poverty in the city.
That decline is behind a larger decrease: the city's percentage of all families living in poverty has fallen to 16.3 today from 18.5 in 2000.
Hard economic times, especially the recession that followed September 11, have occasionally slowed this progress, but it has never really stopped. The long-term trend is now unmistakable.
The decline is also a reminder that poverty over the last 25 years has often been a function of social and cultural changesabove all, an increase in single-parent householdsrather than of economic shortcomings.
Though Gotham's economy didn't rebound as strongly or as quickly after September 11 as the nation's did, the city has made comparable progress reducing family-centered poverty over that perioda testament to the city's welfare-towork policies.
Even as poverty rates decline here and nationwide, however, cultural trends threaten to pull us back in the other direction. New York faces a growing outof-wedlock birth rate that could upend its families' economic gains. Today, a third of all births in New York are to women without husbands, many in no position to keep their kids out of poverty. In fact, half of all out-of-wedlock births in the city are to women who already are impoverished.
Rising out of poverty will be difficult for many of these women: a quarter of them have only a high school diploma, and 38% don't have even that. Under such circumstances, succeeding in our economywhich often requires starting in entrylevel jobswhile also trying to raise children alone is exceedingly difficult.
True, some overcome these obstacles. But many others can't: 74% of New York women heading families still stuck in poverty have a high school education or less.
Of course, there's another road out of poverty: waiting until you are married to have children. In the vast majority of outof-wedlock births, if the fathers of the children were married to their mothers, dad's earnings would keep the family out of the poorhouse. In New York, in fact, only 3.5% of married families in which the husband works full time are poor.
It has taken New York City more than a generation to find the political will to reform welfare, ending its legacy as a program that encourages a lifetime of dependence. Now the city and the nation face new challenges, as the decline of the traditional family threatens those least able to cope with economic hardship.
The next wave of reform must try to get men to support the children they father, as Mayor Bloomberg argued in a Washington, D.C. speech the other week: discourage out-of-wedlock births, anddare any government official undertake this one?promote marriage.
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