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New York Post

 

Welfare Reform in the Balance

July 12, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

PRINTER FRIENDLY

In all the mayoral campaigning, a longtime hot-button issue — welfare — has been conspicuous only by its absence.

Yes, the city’s welfare system has operated effectively in recent years. But without a serious commitment to continuing the policies of Mayor Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani before him, the next mayor could put New York right back on the road to welfare dependency.

The 1996 federal welfare reforms, which time-limited aid and imposed a work requirement on many recipients, also gave the states wide latitude in designing welfare programs. New York state, in turn, gave local governments lots of room to administer those programs as they saw fit — room that New York City’s last two mayors used wisely. Giuliani and Bloomberg not only trimmed the welfare rolls, they transformed the nation’s capital of welfare dependency into a center of welfare reform founded on an ethos of personal responsibility.

It’s hard to imagine our next mayor standing by while the welfare rolls double, as they did under John Lindsay, mayor from 1966 to 1973. But even a rise well short of that would damage the city’s budget and morale profoundly, to say nothing of the human cost in lives lost to dependency.

Merely loosening requirements for fingerprinting or home visits, say, or offering training and education instead of insisting on work first, could unravel much that Giuliani and Bloomberg achieved — and several candidates support such changes.

Yet the next mayor could also do a lot to advance reform — by, for example, seriously enforcing the work requirements of the state’s Safety Net Assistance program. New York is one of the few states to offer such support to the childless, nondisabled poor and to single-mother families who’ve exceeded the time limit for federal welfare. By law, the city must pay 71 percent of the tab for city residents receiving this aid, yet the work rules are weakly enforced, if at all.

The next mayor can expect fierce pressure to roll back reform, since the “compassion industry,” as Giuliani sarcastically dubbed it, has been biding its time in anticipation of a friendlier administration.

Reform foes will likely argue that “work first” hasn’t provided a route out of poverty. They’ll have a point: Working poverty has indeed grown. A recent Center for the Urban Future report found that 35 percent of employed New Yorkers over 18 earned less than $12.89 an hour (or $26,818 a year); that’s up from 31.1 percent in 2007.

But the naysayers will doubtless fail to note one of the major reasons for poverty’s tenacious hold: the growth of single motherhood.

The architects of the 1996 federal reform hoped that the discipline of the workplace would inspire poor women to make more mindful decisions about when and with whom they had children. It didn’t work. Today, 45 percent of all births in the city are to unmarried women, who’ll largely have little contact with the fathers; in poor areas of The Bronx and Brooklyn, it’s as high as 80 percent.

The Bloomberg administration recently tried to address the issue with a blunt poster campaign to discourage teen births. The gutsy move provoked the predictable protests — Bronx City Councilwoman Annabel Palma said its “dismissive tone perpetuates hurtful stereotypes about teen parents and their children.”

Lost in her clichés, Palma failed to notice the real problem: The campaign was outdated. The large majority of low-income single mothers are now in their 20s. That may or may not be better for their kids, but it’s not progress when it comes to self-sufficiency.

Whether she’s 18 or 23, a low-income single mother is one illness or accident away from applying for welfare. Even if she’s working, she’ll probably depend on some other part of the expensive infrastructure that federal, state and local governments have created to enable and sustain the fragile single-mother household: food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, and, too often, Supplemental Security Income and special education.

Still, low wages and poverty don’t dilute the lessons of welfare reform: that welfare dependency has enormous costs for both individuals and government; that work is the antidote to dependency; that people will always try to game the system; and that organizations, even nonprofits, can sometimes be more devoted to keeping themselves in business than to delivering effective services.

The new mayor will need to be vigilant even against apparently minor rollbacks. Proposals that would weaken reform can seem benign or can be couched in bureaucratic obfuscation that only a policy expert could decipher.

Given the politics of some of the mayoral hopefuls, and an electorate open to higher welfare spending, it’s possible that the next mayor won’t follow this advice. But he — or she — has been warned.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/welfare_reform_in_the_balance_SNPCmZsbEn49pFBN5cWZrO

 

 
 
 

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