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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Bloomberg's Test

Cities, Cities, Culture, Culture, Energy, Economics New York City, Poverty & Welfare, Race

Don’t panic - yet - about a rollback of welfare reform under Mayor Bloomberg. But keep a close watch on the administration’s next moves.

The city has now lost its two most important architects of welfare reform - Jason Turner, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration under Mayor Giuliani, whom Bloomberg let go, and Mark Hoover, the first deputy commissioner of HRA under Turner, who was fired last Friday.

It is impossible to overstate the accomplishments of Turner and Hoover. Both came to New York from Wisconsin, where they had engineered the greatest welfare revolution in the country: eliminating the dole altogether. In Wisconsin, no one can receive a monthly check from the government without doing something constructive in return - whether working in the private sector, performing community service or learning basic job skills.

When Mayor Giuliani drafted the two men, even their fans doubted they could translate their successes in rural Wisconsin to America’s biggest welfare colony. New York City’s dependency culture had been ingrained for decades, fed by constant demands from the advocates for more and more benefits with no responsibilities attached. The city’s welfare bureaucracy was sclerotic, defeated and reduced to mindless check-processing.

But Turner and Hoover performed a miracle. The nearly 60 percent drop in the welfare rolls since 1993 had been oft commented on; less noticed is the remarkable transformation of HRA itself. Gone is the apathy and grime. Workers throughout the agency are now extraordinarily courteous and professional; the facilities are scrubbed and orderly.

Best of all, most HRA workers believe deeply in their new mandate: to increase independence among the poor.

Jason Turner accomplished this bureaucratic rebirth through charisma, backed up by tough accountability measures. His passionate belief in work inspired HRA staff, but he followed up that passion with strict performance demands. Taking his cue from the NYPD’s revolutionary crime-tracking system called Compstat, Turner held welfare officials accountable for finding welfare recipients jobs.

At the same time, Hoover found creative new ways to weave reciprocity and responsibility throughout the city’s huge social-service empire. As a result, the city is in a far better position for weathering the post-9/11 downturn than had the welfare culture been left intact.

Mayor Bloomberg is well within his rights in wanting his own team in place at HRA. But New Yorkers are still in the dark as to whether the philosophical framework that guided welfare reform in the Giuliani years remains in place.

Bloomberg’s HRA commissioner, Verna Eggleston, was an unknown in the world of welfare reform before assuming her new position. She came from the directorship of a non-profit agency dedicated to serving “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and all youth for whom sexuality is an issue.” Her views on welfare reform are not widely known.

Before the month is out, however, the city will have a clearer sense of where the Bloomberg-Eggleston administration stands on work and self-sufficiency. The test will be whether the city applies for a waiver from the work requirements for food stamps.

Under the 1996 federal welfare reform law, able-bodied adults without children are required to work (in New York, eight hours a week) or participate in job search and training in exchange for their food stamps. But states and localities can request exemptions from the work requirement if their unemployment rates are high.

Though New York could probably have qualified for the exemption, Giuliani and Turner chose not to claim it. Since unmarried mothers with children were being asked to work, they reasoned, how could the city justify giving unconditional benefits to able-bodied single men without child-rearing responsibilities? Carving out an exception to the reciprocity philosophy in one area would make it harder to maintain it in other areas.

Year after year, Turner and Hoover maintained their commitment to work for food-stamp recipients against the fierce opposition of poverty advocates. Even the state welfare bureaucracy urged the city to apply for a food-stamp work waiver, viewing the 100 percent federally funded food stamp program as a freebie for New York.

This “soak the feds” view is dangerously short-sighted, however: The longer the dependency culture is nurtured, the greater and more perpetual the claims on state and city budgets.

The advocates, sensing the opportunity to reseize control of the city’s poverty machine, are making the food-stamp waiver their first test of strength. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Eggleston should ignore their demands. They should let the February waiver deadline pass, thus signaling to the city that the transformation of the welfare bureaucracy and culture is indeed permanent and non-negotiable.

The best route back to fiscal health is to cultivate in all New Yorkers the habits of work.