Culture, Cities Poverty & Welfare
April 1st, 1999 1 Minute Read Issue Brief by Rudolph W. Giuliani

Making America's Cities Great Places To Live

The Honorable Rudolph Giuliani is mayor of New York City. These remarks are taken from the keynote address that he delivered in Washington, D.C., at the Livable Cities Conference, sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the State Policy Network.

I have always thought of New York City as the world’s capital because New York is the world’s most diverse city.  We speak more languages, we come from more places and our problems are always the biggest.  But because we have more people and we have more talent, solutions are always possible.

Even before I became mayor, I felt one of the things that we were doing wrong, and that American cities in general were doing wrong, was constantly concentrating on our problems and never on our strengths. We dealt with our problems by asking for assistance from Washington or Albany, but that didn’t help. In fact, it only seemed to make things worse.

I believe that a great deal of the change that’s taken place in urban government is that people are beginning to see cities for what they are and for what they can be. That is, as centers of innovation, centers of change, places where culture and art can grow, and where a great deal of talent is amassed.

Of course, the history of our civilization has not emerged exclusively from cities, but it has largely been directed by cities. The things that we remember about past cultures and civilizations emerged largely from great cities, where great and lasting monuments were created, whether they were physical monuments or monuments of literature, music and art. New York City has an abundance of these, and that should allow us a lot more flexibility in solving our problems.

When I became mayor of New York City, it seemed to me the first thing we had to do was to erase the image and the reality of New York as the crime capital of America. We devoted a tremendous amount of attention to reducing crime and implementing a number of different approaches. The “broken windows” theory has been mentioned frequently, and that was probably our first big success.

But I think that what the reduction in crime has really accomplished is that the philosophy that the Manhattan Institute and that The Heritage Foundation have been discussing for years is being applied in cities across the country with great success. In a way, it’s the ideas that defy political correctness and the old ways of solving problems that lead to innovation and solutions for long-term problems.

Freeing the Cities

I believe what we have done that has most transformed New York City is given people more freedom and more liberty. That is at the core of the rejuvenation of other cities that have been experiencing a change in spirit and a change in attitude and in feeling. Let me see if I can illustrate that to you in a couple of different ways.

We have neighborhoods in New York City that used to have 140, 150 and 160 murders a year—some as high as 200. People living in those communities are not living in a free country. They have the promise of freedom. They have the promise of civil rights. They have the promise of liberty. But the reality is, they’re living in oppression. They’re being oppressed by drug dealers. They’re being oppressed by local hoods. They’re being oppressed in the sense of not being able to go out at night. They’re being oppressed in not being able to use the library.

When you change that dramatically and quickly, what you’ve actually done is given people a sense of freedom, a sense of their own abilities to make choices about their own lives. You’ve given them abilities to take advantage of the liberties that they are guaranteed, but that are actually nonexistent.

You look at New York City today, and you ask questions like, “Do you want to live in the city of New York?” or “Do you want to remain in New York?”  As Frank Luntz will tell you, because he polled these questions, if you asked them five or six years ago, 70 to 80 percent of  the city’s population  would have told you that they didn’t want to live in New York and that if they had the resources, they would move. If you asked those questions last year or this year, almost that same percentage, if not more, including the poorest people in  New York, would tell you that the city is now a place where they believe their lives have gotten better or that they can see the possibility their lives might get better.

So a spirit of pessimism has been replaced with a spirit of optimism. But crime isn’t the only area where attitudes have been changed. Attitudes have been changed in other areas as well—jobs, welfare reform and the overall quality of life in the city.

Enforcing Accountability

Maybe welfare reform is the best illustration, because that is where the most change has taken place, and I believe that is even more important than the reduction in crime, even though the reduction in crime gets  more attention.

A business that spent $34 billion—which is what we spend on New York City, which is an enormous amount of money—would have a pretty good idea of whether it was successful or not in its various divisions because it would either make a profit or lose money. If we were a bank with $34 billion distributed in lots of branch offices, the ones that were doing a good job would be making money for us, and the ones that were doing a bad job would be losing money.

So what we try to do is to impose that same kind of accountability on city government by, as honestly as we can and as rigorously as we can, asking ourselves the questions, “What is it that this government agency is actually supposed to achieve?  What is it that the public rightfully expects from this agency?”

In the case of the police department, we discovered the right measure of success. It is not the number of arrests that police officers make; it is whether or not crime has been reduced. This is different from evaluating results based on the number of arrests made and leads to different strategies. It leads to different choices. Ultimately, it is understanding the public’s expectations for a police department and complying with them.

In welfare, we had been making a similar—and actually a more dramatic—mistake. The way in which welfare was measured in New York City, and in cities across America, was according to the numbers of people on welfare. If you had more people on welfare, you were actually more successful. You were rewarded. You were given a bigger welfare office. More people worked for you. You had a larger budget.

When I was running for mayor, I was enormously concerned about the fact that New York City for years and years and years had almost a million people on welfare.  We were approaching numbers like 1.2 million with projections by the city government that we were approaching 1.5 million.

Now, think about that for a second. We’re a city of 7.3 million people. One seventh of the population not working, being supported by the remainder of the population, is enormously dangerous. It is dangerous for the survival of the city. And it is exceedingly dangerous for the people that remain on welfare for five, 10, 15, 20  and 30 years. I felt that we had to turn that around at the grass-roots level.

New York City had about 250,000 people on welfare in 1960. During the ‘60s, the city went from about 220,000 people on welfare all the way up to 800,000 and then over a million and then up to about 1.1 million. And it remained over 800,000, ranging between 800,000 and 1.1 million, all through the 1960s, ’70s, the ’80s, into the early ’90s.

This is when we began our welfare reform program. Look at all those people going into a second and almost a third generation on welfare. What we started in 1994 is a relatively simple welfare reform program that had two parts to it: part one was accountability, and part two was work.

Accountability meant we began to evaluate people’s circumstances to determine whether or not they actually deserved to be on welfare. We decided that, if you were able-bodied and you deserved to be on welfare, you should work in exchange for your benefits. On a more basic level, you had to give something back in exchange for other people supporting you. We were reiterating the social contract, rather than the former user-friendly welfare policy.

How did we get into this position?  We got into this position not because of the city’s economy or because of a reduction of jobs in the city. Through the 1960s, New York City’s economy was booming. New York was gaining, not losing jobs. It was an era of great expansion. We found ourselves in this predicament because of government policies and programs that encouraged the city to put people on welfare.

The city of New York, probably more than any other city, embraced what turned out to be the philosophy of dependency. Once we reached 800,000,  a million, 1.1 million, the only approach New York had throughout the Lindsay administration, the Beame administration, much of the Koch administration and the Dinkins administration, was to come to Washington and go to Albany to ask for more money, to put more people on welfare.  To put it another way, the only solution for NewYork was to ask for more money to make more people dependent.

Many, if not all, of those politicians were described as progressive. Their philosophy was described as a progressive philosophy. This creates a tremendous disconnect between theory and reality. Whatever you believe about welfare, whatever you believe about the necessity for it, the charitable nature of it, the importance of dealing with people’s problems, you cannot call welfare progressive because it does not create progress in people's lives.

So there’s a total, almost complete disconnect between the description of politicians as progressive when they encourage people to be on welfare and do nothing about reducing the  welfare rolls and the impact on society.  This is hardly progress. It’s not progress for a city that had 200,000 people on welfare that grew to a million and just kept them there.

A New Philosophy

I thought we had to change our approach. We had to change our philosophy. We had to change our thinking. And if we were going to change New York City from being the crime capital of America to being the safest large city in America, we had to change New York City from being the welfare capital of America to being the workfare capital of America. We had to take every opportunity to emphasize the importance of work in people’s lives.

The other thing that I felt we were conceding to people who were inaccurately described as progressive politicians was the sense that they were really compassionate. There is nothing compassionate about keeping people dependent. There’s absolutely no sense of love or caring in making someone dependent.

All of the people on welfare were only regarded as a statistic, one of 800,000 or a million or 1.1 million—a vague statistic, people who were classified as being in the “underclass”—which I always thought was a horrible description. In order to help people make progress in their lives, you have to think of them as people that you actually relate to in your own life.

You would never keep a relative dependent on you for six months, a year, two years, three years. If people you cared about, people you loved, lost their jobs and needed help, you would give them help, but you would immediately try to encourage them to help themselves the way you would encourage your children  to help themselves. You wouldn’t want to make them dependent on you unless there was something inadequate in you that required having people dependent on you.

We tried to change the social philosophy to be more in line with the kind of healthy human relations people should have with each other, which I think is more compassionate, more caring, and certainly embodies greater wisdom.  So, in addition to making sure that people that were getting welfare deserved it, we did a second thing.

We said that if you want welfare, you have to work in exchange for it. If you’re able-bodied and can work and your only problem is that you can’t find a job, and we can’t find a job for you because there just aren’t enough jobs in the economy, we have things that can be done in the city of New York.  These things are enormously useful to improving the quality of life for your fellow citizens—who are, after all, the people who are supporting you and your children. You should be doing something in return for them.

In addition to helping us make the city a more livable place, improving the quality of life in the city, we were doing something enormously important and enormously compassionate. We were teaching people more realistic lessons about how to lead their lives. We were teaching them things that don’t lead to false expectations later. We were teaching them that, in return for a benefit, you have an obligation. For every right, you have a duty. For a check that is given to you, you owe something in return.

So far we have had about 240,000 people who, starting in 1994, have gone through our workfare program. They clean the parks. They clean the streets. They clean the sanitation trucks. They work in the board of education. They work in the mayor’s office. They help. They assist. They work for 20 hours a week because that’s the maximum that we can require. And they do that in exchange for their welfare checks.

We do everything that we possibly can to keep them in the work force, and we put work ahead of training because I felt that city government had its priorities completely reversed in a perverse way.

Government was training people. Government was sponsoring jobs programs. When I was a United States attorney, I put a significant number of people who completed job programs in jail for stealing money from  programs such as the CETA program and the Job Training and Partnership Act. Those programs were training people, but people were losing the work ethic in their lives. The work ethic, not dependency, is the thing that made New York City a great city.  So we said, we’ll find work for you. We will fight to keep you in the work force.

The end result is that we’re down to the lowest number of people on welfare since 1966,  about 740,000 now. For the first time in 30 years, we’re below 800,000, and we hope and believe that that number will continue to decline.

We’re doing something that is now, I think, enormously exciting and something that will be permanent, because it’s permanent in the lives of people. Tomorrow, you’ll hear from Jason Turner, who is the head of the New York City Human Resources Administration, which was for years probably the nation’s leading dependency institution. It has changed from that to an institution for opportunity, for help and for assistance.

Last year, we began the process of changing the names of all the welfare offices. We said we are going to take the signs off that read Income Support Center, Welfare Office, Social Assistance Office, and we are going to call them Job Centers. We have 28 of them. Fifteen are now in the process of being changed. By next February, all of them will be changed.

A New Reality

But it’s not just a change in name; it’s a change in reality. Now when you walk into what was a welfare office and you want welfare, we begin talking to you about work. We ask you, “When did you last have a job? What can you do? What kind of work have you done? Can you get work? Can you go back and find work?”

If you don’t have work, we have a couple of jobs for you right in the neighborhood. Maybe the grocery store or the pharmacy needs somebody who can help.  Maybe there are a couple of jobs downtown where you can do that work.

We try to keep you engaged in the work force, and if we can’t accomplish that for you right away, then you can join the approximately  39,000 people who work for the city every day.  Actually, it’s half that number on any given day, because people work 20 hours a week. They improve the quality of life for other citizens of the city. It’s resulted in the most dramatic change from welfare to work that’s occurred any place in the country—the most dramatic change the city has ever seen.

But I’d like you to consider the effect that reforming welfare has at the grass-roots level in the same way that freedom from being afraid of crime transforms a neighborhood. Workfare is teaching people much more valuable, instructive, and compassionate lessons about how to lead their lives and about how to solve their problems.

When you give people the false impression that government is going to solve their problems, it’s a cruel thing to do. At this point, we’re beyond the 1960s, when we could simply judge the good intentions of a program. Now we have to judge results, and welfare has had very bad and cruel results. So I believe that this is the most important change that we’re making, because we reinforce that change directly with people over and over again, hundreds of thousands of them on a daily basis.

It hasn’t completely done it, and maybe never will, but it is restoring one of the things that is at the core of America’s success—the American work ethic. I probably learned the best lesson about this from my father, who lived through the Depression. My father always said, “No matter what work you do, whether it’s sweeping the street or picking up manure after horses, as long as it’s honest and you are supporting your family, it is better than somebody else having to support your family.”

That brings us to the concept of “meaningful work,” which I find very disturbing and very difficult. A lot of the objections to my workfare program are that people are not doing “meaningful work.” My father had the wisdom to see that all work is meaningful, because  you are taking care of yourself and taking care of your family. Work elevates you as a human being much more than becoming dependent and having someone else take care of you.

Now that spirit, that understanding, is infecting people in a very positive way across New York City.  It’s a wonderful thing to watch. The principles that are at the core of what The Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute have believed in for many years are rejuvenating American cities in ways that nobody ever thought possible. They are sensible principles that give people opportunities to take care of themselves. They are principles that can and will become permanent even in New York.

Truly, if you can change the thinking in New York City from dependency to work and opportunity, you can literally do it anyplace, because there was no city that was more steeped in dependency than the city of New York. Maybe I’ll even convince The New York Times editorial board of that soon, but I’m not hoping for miracles.

A New Quality of Life

The last point that I would like to make is that change  has taken place in the quality of life in the city of New York. The way I can illustrate this best is through my own experience, because I’ve lived in New York all my life, with the exception of living for about five years in Washington.

About six months ago I was watching a movie, Prizzi’s Honor. At one point in the film, a  subway train was traveling on an elevated part of the tracks, and when I looked at this train, I saw all this graffiti. When I saw it, I was sitting at home. I said to myself, “Subway trains don’t look like that anymore.” And then I said, “Oh yeah, you did that.”

We have approximately 2,000 sanitation trucks and other equipment that go through the city streets every single day, and everybody sees them. All of our sanitation trucks in 1992 and ’93, and actually for about 15 years before that, were covered with graffiti. So, while watching Prizzi’s Honor, I started to think about the different message that we’re sending now.

In the past, we affirmed vandalism. The city equipment flowed through the streets as an advertisement for vandalism, because that’s what graffiti is.  Graffiti is misunderstanding and disrespecting one of the most fundamental things on which our civilization, laws and culture are based: respect for the rights of other people. Particularly in a crowded city, if you don’t emphasize respect for other people, the city falls apart.

So we had subway trains and we had sanitation trucks traveling through all of our neighborhoods—poor, middle-class, and rich—as advertisements for vandalism. They showed that we didn’t respect each other. Now, when our  trains and our  trucks go through the streets of our city, they are advertisements for a city where increasing numbers of people are learning to respect the rights of others.

We arrived here by making sure that before we sent our subway trains and sanitation trucks back out on the streets, we took them out of service and cleaned and painted them. We would not return a truck or a train to the streets that had graffiti on it. In cooperation  with the police department and the sanitation department and lots of other agencies, we arrested people who were writing graffiti and very often sentenced them to clean it.

Now there are very few times when we even have to do that. There are very few sanitation trucks that we have to haul back and clean. There are very few subway trains that we have to haul back and clean, at least as far as graffiti is concerned. There are other things we’re working on now, like littering. People feel that. They see it. It enters their soul and enters their spirit, and they sense that the foundation of a civilized society is a combination of rights and duties, obligations, and those things that you are able to do and able to accomplish.

That’s really at the core of the “broken windows” theory. It eventually affects people’s thinking. It affects their spirit.

I have three years left as mayor, and people ask me how am I going to make the things that we’ve done permanent so the city doesn’t slip back to where it was. Sometimes I talk about laws and changes in the city charter and different things that we can do in terms of creating permanent institutions. But, quite honestly, the only way you ever make anything permanent is through ideas. You make things permanent by changing people’s minds.

The Power of Ideas

Ideas, philosophy and thinking are more important than laws, institutions and city charters. If you can change people’s minds and change their thinking, then you can permanently change the direction of a city, a state or any organization. That’s what we’re in the process of doing. We’re in the process of changing people’s minds, in the city, about the obligations they have to each other.

Last year, when I gave the “State of the City” speech, I talked about civility being at the core of what a city is all about. Like everything I do, it was subject to a great deal of ridicule.  The reason for the ridicule was that I wanted New York City people to be polite. Now, I’m not that unrealistic, and I’m not always that polite myself. What I meant by civility was the Greek concept, de civitas, of the obligations that we have to each other: to not destroy each other’s property, to respect each other, to understand that freedom is a very delicate combination of liberty and of obligations.

Freedom is not just being able to do anything you want to do anytime you want to do it—that is a perversion of legal rights and civil rights. It means that for every right, there is something that you have to give up, there is something that you have to concede, something that you have to do in order to preserve that right.

I’m very, very pleased with the progress of the city; but each day, the bar is lifted higher and higher.


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