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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Food Stamps: The Mayor's Good Call

Cities, Cities, Economics New York City

A DISPUTE over whether New Yorkers should be expected to work or at least look for work if they get food stamps provides a disturbing preview of what welfare policy could become under the new Democratic monopoly in Washington.

The just-passed stimulus bill allows able-bodied, childless adults to collect food stamps indefinitely without ever having to look for a job - much less get and retain one. But Mayor Bloomberg has declined to use that new provision, which localities that have a workfare program in place can reject.

Bloomberg made the right call. New York’s philosophy on welfare - ask recipients to make some effort toward their own independence in exchange for benefits - has moved hundreds of thousands of people off the dole and into productive work since 1995. To retreat from that principle now would guarantee a return of the dependency status quo that once had one in seven New Yorkers in seemingly permanent welfare bondage.

The city’s food-stamp rules are hardly onerous. An unemployed, able-bodied, childless adult can collect three months of food stamps with no strings attached every three years. After that, however, he needs to spend 20 hours a month working, looking for work or improving his job skills in order to keep collecting food stamps.

If he’s not working in the private sector, the city will place him with a jobs contractor or give him work at a city agency helping with clerical or custodial tasks. Such city “work experience jobs” are often critical in developing the skill that employers prize above all others: showing up at work on time every day.

You’d think that a true advocate for the poor would applaud these work requirements. How else is someone going to move out of poverty if he doesn’t work or look for work?

What is the possible objection to asking someone to spend a mere five hours a week in productive activity - that it interferes with his job search? But looking for work or training for work is precisely what the city is asking able-bodied food-stamp recipients to do.

And who is more able to take five hours out of his week to work or look for work than an able-bodied, childless adult? We expect single mothers to work in exchange for their cash benefits; it’s not unreasonable to ask healthy childless adults to do the same for food stamps.

But the self-styled “advocates” argue that there are no jobs available. So far, at least, that’s not true: Turnover in the entry-level-job market is extremely high; last year, as the recession was setting in, the city placed more than 80,000 welfare recipients in private-sector jobs, 3,000 more than the year before.

But even if the entry-level job market dries up completely, the city can and will provide “workfare” assignments to those who want to collect food stamps.

The poverty advocates are outraged at Bloomberg’s refusal to make food stamps a no-strings-attached entitlement. The New York Times quoted City Councilman Bill de Blasio as calling the mayor’s approach an “ideological hang-up” that “felt to some extent like a carryover from the Giuliani administration.”

Such rhetoric is no surprise from the City Council or the poverty industry. But the same preposterous view is gaining ground in Washington. The House version of the stimulus bill required local welfare administrators to eliminate all work requirements for food-stamp recipients - a provision that happily didn’t make it into the final package. But the momentum is in the wrong direction.

For two years, the city has fought off demands from local advocates to eliminate such anti-fraud provisions as fingerprinting from the food-stamp program. With the Democrats now controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, such dangerous rollbacks of welfare reform could become national law.

If work is once again regarded as an unfair imposition on the poor, the dependency culture will roar back - and a poverty far more entrenched than anything caused by a recession could once again become the norm in cities across the land.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post