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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Work = Slavery?

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

THE City Council is about to obliterate welfare reform and return us to the days when one in seven New Yorkers lived off the labors of the other six.

Under a bill steaming through the council, welfare recipients would no longer need to work or look for work in exchange for benefits. Instead, anyone expressing a preference for “education and training” as an alternative to workfare would be able to attend classes and avoid work.

It’s impossible to overstate the regressiveness of this bill. For decades, welfare advocates touted “education and training” as the best route off of welfare. The rolls only skyrocketed. The radical insight of 1990s welfare reform was that the best way to move welfare recipients into work was . . . to send them to work.

Both the 1996 federal welfare reform and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s workfare program recognized that the most crucial skill that welfare recipients need is the discipline to show up to a workplace every day on time -and the only way to acquire that skill is by working.

The insight proved revolutionary: Nationally, the welfare rolls dropped over 50 percent in five years; New York’s rolls dropped 60 percent from 1993 to 2001. Black child poverty is at its lowest point in history.

Why, then, would the City Council want to move back to the old, failed status quo? The answer lies in a combination of self-interest and ideology.

No-expectations welfare may not have done much for the women and children it purported to support, but it kept a vast network of social service workers in lifetime employment, who in turn provided votes to councilmembers.

Nonprofit “job trainers” lived off of city contracts that paid regardless of whether they found anyone a job. CUNY got tens of thousands of welfare students who spent countless years in a no-standards holding tank without graduating, but whose presence supported droves of counselors, tutors, group-learning facilitators and sundry bureaucrats.

Ideology? Here’s Professor Lorraine Cohen of LaGuardia Community College at a recent City Council hearing: Referring melodramatically to workfare participants as “the disappeared” (i.e. as victims of right-wing death squads), she testified that welfare reform belongs to the “continuous history of America . . . of punishing those who are poor.”

Oh really? If America has so punished the poor, why have the world’s poor sacrificed all to get here since the 1600s? If conditions are so punishing here, why aren’t poor Americans migrating to Africa, China or Latin America? If American society is so inimical to self-betterment, how is it that the U.S.-earned wages of immigrants support whole villages - no, whole economies - south of the border?

The philosophical premise behind the reform-rollback bill is that ordinary citizens are incapable of helping themselves outside the framework of government programs: The bill states that most of those welfare recipients “allowed” to earn a college degree move off welfare.

Yet no welfare-reform law contains a ban on attending college. Welfare recipients have always been “allowed” to seek any kind of education they choose, beyond what the city already offers them. What the laws don’t contain is a specific provision letting welfare recipients substitute college attendance for required work activity.

But in council-think, the absence of a government-designed and -subsidized program for welfare college attendance is equivalent to prohibiting college attendance: It is simply inconceivable that someone could seek education on his own initiative - let alone work his way through college.

Contrary to reform opponents’ claims, the city already provides job training to welfare recipients. On average, they spend 40 percent of their required participation hours in education and training; more than 2,500 welfare recipients are engaged in education activities alone.

THE biggest problem with this bill is its inequity.

Hundreds of thousands of poor New Yorkers have put or are putting themselves through school by working one or more jobs. This bill tells those hard-working New Yorkers that their taxes should support another category of able-bodied New Yorkers: those who would prefer not to work but to collect welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and housing allowances while going to school.

And not even full-time school: The bill assumes one hour of study time for every hour of class time, so a recipient would need only 10 hours a week of class time to meet federal work requirements.

New York already provides free full-time education and job training: We call it high school. No other item on the city’s budget comes close to sucking up such immense quantities of taxpayer dollars. After high school, New York provides a massively subsidized college education.

Amazingly, the council cites the fact that the “vast majority” of welfare recipients have dropped out of high school as justification for offering them more obligation-free education at taxpayer expense.

That’s asking too much of people who have played by the rules - who attended their high school classes, did their homework and graduated on time. Why should they forfeit more of their salaries so that people who ignored the rules can take a second bite of the apple?

Do people deserve a second chance? Of course. But that second chance should come under different conditions from the first, to avoid encouraging yet more irresponsible behavior.

Giuliani’s greatest contribution to welfare reform was philosophical, articulating a new version of New York’s traditionally one-sided social contract: If you ask taxpayers to support you, and you’re able-bodied, he said, you must give something back to the city.

The rhetoric surrounding the council’s welfare-reform repeal could not be more different: At the recent hearing, both council members and advocates called the expectation that welfare recipients should work “slavery.” The council’s actions could soon teach a new generation of New Yorkers to think of themselves as victims who owe only resentment to those who support them.