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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

NY's Welfare Secret

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

GOV. Pataki recently proposed to make welfare reform a reality in New York. That’s why the poverty promoters in Albany are fighting him tooth and nail.

The big idea behind the 1996 federal welfare-reform law was this: If you want the government to support you, you have to do something in return. You must make some effort to become self-sufficient - whether through working or learning job skills or looking for work.

In most of the country, that bargain holds. Not in New York. The dirty little secret of New York’s version of welfare reform is this: You don’t have to do a thing to collect your government check, just like in the bad old days of the entitlement culture.

A welfare mother here can thumb her nose at every demand the government makes of her - she can skip appointments with her welfare worker, refuse to take jobs offered her, and sit home all day watching Jerry Springer - and still pull down three-quarters of her welfare check, as well as her full allotment of food stamps and Medicaid. (In real welfare-reform states, work-refusing recipients lose their full check, while keeping food stamps and Medicaid.)

The public may not know about this gaping hole in New York’s “reform,” but welfare recipients found it long ago. By now, nearly half (48 percent) of New York City’s welfare caseload is refusing to participate in work activities or violating another requirement - but they’re getting paid anyway.

Don’t attribute this high non-participation rate to incapacity. These welfare scofflaws are all able-bodied; they just believe they’re entitled to government support whether or not they put out any effort in return.

And don’t think that the work requirements may just be too onerous to comply with. New York City requires at most 20 hours a week in some sort of work activity (which can include simply looking for a job); mothers with children younger than 6 have to spend even less time trying to become self-supporting.

These entitlement holdouts are the untouchables of the welfare rolls: Welfare administrators have no leverage over them, since an administrator may impose no sanction for rules violations beyond the 25 percent cut in the monthly check. The likely result? Lifetime welfare receipt.

The other secret of New York’s supposed welfare reform is that there are no time limits. In the rest of the country, after five years on the dole, you’re off. Again, not in New York. The state ignores the federal time limit and lets recipients stay on its rolls indefinitely - at the state’s exclusive expense.

Recipients long ago figured out that the alleged time limits are a sham: Over a third of all welfare families stay dependent on the system beyond the federal five-year time limit, and 35 percent of those veterans violate work rules. The welfare rolls now hold three people who’ve exceeded the five-year federal limit for every two who haven’t - a worrisome trend.

Pataki wants to give welfare administrators a new tool for pushing recipients toward independence: If a mother refuses to work or prepare for work, she’d gradually lose her entire check - though her food stamps would increase, and she’d retain her Medicaid benefits. As soon as she started obeying welfare rules, she could collect her monthly check again.

This proposal is far less stringent than the real work- ing world: Try approaching an employer and demand to get paid without working and see how far you would get.

Poverty advocates are predictably playing the child card: Cutting off a recalcitrant mother’s full check, they say, will punish her children. In fact, nothing is more punishing to children than a lifetime of welfare receipt, which guarantees poverty and creates an entitlement mentality in family members.

The results of real welfare reform are indisputable: radically lower child poverty rates and radically higher workforce participation of single mothers.


New York’s fiscal health depends on real reform as well. When Congress reauthorizes the 1996 welfare law, it will undoubtedly raise the percentage of each state’s welfare caseload required to be in a work activity. New York won’t be able to meet that higher standard as long as so many recipients are defying the rules. As a penalty for not meeting federal requirements, the state will lose some federal funding - and have to pay even more welfare costs itself.

Mayor Bloomberg and his welfare commissioner are expressing no opinion on the Pataki bill. They should break their silence and support a long-overdue reform that can only help families join the world of work and responsibility.