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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Sliding Back Into Welfare

Cities, Cities, Economics New York City

Reforming welfare and the welfare culture was one of the Giuliani era’s great triumphs. It couldn’t have happened without the mayor’s constant efforts to change the language we use about dependency. That’s why a recent speech by the city’s new welfare commissioner, Verna Eggleston, is so worrisome, for in it she started slipping back into the old, discredited thinking.

Among his first and most important welfare initiatives, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani strengthened welfare eligibility controls. Working New Yorkers shouldn’t have to fund a multibillion-dollar welfare empire, he reasoned, unless the city could assure them that their tax dollars supported only the truly needy.

So he instituted electronic fingerprinting for welfare applicants and sent welfare eligibility specialists to recipients’ homes to verify that their application information was correct.

The payback was enormous. In 2000 alone, the Giuliani administration uncovered 40,000 cases of welfare fraud and ineligibility. From 1994 to 2001, it found on its welfare rolls 10,000 felons wanted on open warrants, including at least 12 suspected murderers.

The advocates went berserk. They called fingerprinting stigmatizing. They objected to the home visits. And, of course, they sued. Fortunately, this was one of the few suits against the Giuliani welfare reforms that the dependency industry lost.

Speaking at the New School in early March, Eggleston criticized the welfare eligibility process on the grounds of “compassion” — the most loaded term in the welfare ideology wars. She called the eligibility reviews “grueling” and questioned the need for fingerprinting. She even objected to the identification cards that the home interviewers wear.

This kind of hypersensitive hand-wringing, remote from common-sense reality, is a specialty of the dependency industry. It shows that the welfare war of ideas is not over.

Take the term “compassion.”

For decades, New York’s elites defined compassion as: 1. putting as many people as possible on welfare, and 2. exempting certain preferred victim groups from the rules and responsibilities by which others live.

Giuliani tore into that orthodoxy. Compassion doesn’t consist in making people dependent, he argued, but in helping them to become self-sufficient.

Compassion doesn’t mean winking at welfare cheats on the assumption that they’re probably poor anyway, so why bother holding them to the rules? It means respecting someone enough to believe that he or she can meet obligations like everyone else — and rise above his or her current predicament.

Just how grueling is the welfare application process, anyway? Applicants must go to Brooklyn to verify their eligibility. But people go to Brooklyn for jobs and job interviews all the time, and they’re not even asking for a possible lifetime of taxpayer support.

As for fingerprinting, many states require it for a driver’s license without causing a self-esteem crisis in the applicant.

Then there are those threatening “Welfare Investigator” shields that eligibility verification specialists wear. Last summer, I accompanied two welfare eligibility checkers  a cheerful and courteous young man and woman — on their rounds in Harlem.

We entered apartment buildings where most of the doors were bound to their frames with massive chains and padlocks. Attack dogs barked furiously behind bolted doors. Of course the welfare checkers wear identification badges. No one would let them into their homes otherwise!

Former Commissioner Jason Turner transformed the welfare agency from a mindless check-processor into a far more creative institution dedicated to getting people into work. Did people leave the rolls in droves?

Yes  because many people decided that if asked to do anything for their welfare check — look for a job, say — they would rather not bother.

Was Giuliani’s workfare industrial-strength reform?

Sure. When you have more than a half-million predominantly able-bodied adults collecting government checks for a living, it is unrealistic to demand that every workfare assignment be custom-tailored to each person’s inclinations. But no one has to take the deal: If you don’t want to give something back to the city for your welfare check, don’t take the check.

Of course, the resulting smaller welfare population does not necessarily mean a smaller population of poor people. But the welfare rate has been a darn good indicator of the poverty rate: The unprecedented drop in the welfare rolls over the last eight years went in tandem with the biggest drop in poverty on record. And long-term welfare usage is a perfect indicator of dependency and the culture of poverty, which do a lot more harm than low wages. In New York’s war of welfare ideology, neutral territory no longer exists. You are either for reform or against it.

Unless Eggleston is willing to seize the moral high ground from the advocates, they will once again control poverty policy, to the detriment of the poor and the social fabric.