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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Bookshelf: When Bad Habits Met a Mayor Who Wouldn't Put Up With Them

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

AT LEAST A FEW NEW YORKERS have long despaired of making non-New Yorkers grasp the gargantuan perversity of the city’s welfare system. Help has arrived. “ Hands to Work ,” by Columbia journalism Prof. LynNell Hancock, purports to be an expose of welfare reform under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. It is far more profitably read as a breathtaking tour of the mindset -- supplied by the author and by those she writes about -- that for decades made New York the welfare capital of the world.

Ms. Hancock tells the story of three women seeking welfare and free housing during the mid-1990s -- a Puerto Rican drug addict, a black single mother and a young Jewish student from Moldova (the former Soviet republic). Theirs is the classic New York cliffhanger: Will they succeed in climbing onto the welfare rolls and into taxpayer-funded digs unmolested by pesky rules, or will the mean Giuliani administration make them work for their benefits and sanction them for ignoring their obligations?

In the social-service-saturated world in which this epic struggle unfolds, only the welfare system, it seems, has human agency. Individual enterprise is a mere stop-gap to government assistance. Ms. Hancock notes, for instance, that the welfare check of Alina, the Jewish immigrant, “kept her well below the poverty level in America.”

Correction: It is not Alina’s welfare check that keeps her poor but her own decision not to work. Ms. Hancock warns apocalyptically that should Alina be cut off for refusing to perform workfare while pursuing her studies, she could face “starvation.” Never mind that Alina is well-educated, healthy and surrounded by an extended family that could presumably avert her death from malnutrition. Nor can Alina’s father be expected to learn English, cautions Ms. Hancock, when his own welfare check requires him to perform 28 hours of workfare a week (leaving at least 12 hours during the 9-to-5 work week alone for studying, but no matter).

Nowhere is Ms. Hancock’s all-excuses, all-the-time philosophy more astoundingly applied than in the case of Christine, the drug addict. Christine appears to have never made a sound decision in her life. She started using drugs at age 15, gave birth to her first child the next year and soon had three more children out of wedlock. She inherited $50,000 from her grandmother, which she promptly squandered on crack, parties and her felon boyfriend. During her fourth pregnancy, she stole from another boyfriend to pay for heroin.

Fittingly, it is Christine’s entitlement mentality that triggers the birth of that fourth child. She is outraged by the city’s refusal to put her on welfare. (Case workers, empowered by Mr. Giuliani to root out fraud, cannot believe that she doesn’t have some of her grandmother’s money left.) So she throws a fit in a welfare office. Her hysterics induce labor, and she gives birth to a drug-addicted baby.

Christine finally proves that she has indeed dissipated her entire fortune and happily rejoins the rolls. (Note that destroying an inheritance qualifies one for welfare in New York.) She also enters the city’s homeless system, where she violates the rules and misses her appointments. The city places her children in foster care due to her failure to supervise them. She misses court hearings to get them back.

Despite her lack of effort to reclaim her children, her raging drug abuse and her stints in jail, the city finds her a three-bedroom, federally subsidized apartment, for which she pays a mere $110 out of her welfare check.

To this disaster of a life, Ms. Hancock offers the following interpretation: Welfare reform made her do it. Christine, you see, doesn’t like rules; “she didn’t do well with any of [them], she didn’t think in those terms.” Christine’s “family was torn apart” (note the passive voice) because she “balked” at “strict welfare regulations and shelter rules.”

It is difficult to know where to start unpacking the wrong-headedness of such a response. Christine’s destructive habits long predated welfare reform. Far from treating her with draconian exactitude, the welfare and penal systems showed leniency. Ms. Hancock claims that Christine “desired addiction therapy” -- implying that she was denied it. To the contrary: City contractors constantly urged Christine to enter long-term rehab at taxpayer expense; she refused to go, because she didn’t fancy strict supervision.

But Ms. Hancock’s conceptual errors are even more serious than her factual ones. The notion that Christine or anyone else would have done better in a welfare system without demands or penalties is ludicrous. Ms. Hancock argues that what her three subjects needed was not welfare reform but an “equitable job market.” Well, if Christine “doesn’t do well” with the minor demands that New York’s welfare system put on her, how does Ms. Hancock imagine she would tolerate the more rigid requirements of an employer? Mayor Giuliani was right to simulate, however modestly, the routines of a workplace in New York’s dependency empire. As for her other two subjects, Ms. Hancock offers no evidence that they were denied employment or wages appropriate to their skills.

To her great credit, Ms. Hancock does report fairly the thinking behind Mayor Giuliani’s welfare revolution, and she creates a compelling portrait of his visionary welfare commissioner, Jason Turner. Yet she herself sees no difference between the poverty of the South Bronx and that of the former Soviet Union. She even prefers the latter for its “democratic” hold on one and all.

Despite getting so much wrong about welfare reform, “Hands to Work” may be the best book yet on the subject. It shows what Mayor Giuliani was up against when he vowed to make reciprocity and responsibility the hallmarks of New York’s public-assistance system, and it allows us to measure just how much he accomplished.