Our economic tsunami could drown the historic reforms made in welfare over the past 13 years.
We must not let that happen.
The shovel-ready arguments voiced by many in the left wing of the Democratic Party go like this: We are in a recession, people are hurting, and jobs are not there for welfare recipients – so loosening strings on government entitlements is the answer. A New York Times editorial of Feb. 9 says “welfare programs should be expanding” and bemoans the fact that “the number of people receiving cash assistance is at or near a four-decade low.”
Indeed, those intent on driving the welfare rolls back up scored a big victory in President Obama‘s stimulus bill, which contains two provisions that have the potential to discourage work. First, it gives states that increase their caseloads more money, which creates an incentive to let more people onto the dole. Second, it relieves states of the “work activity” obligations for food stamps they otherwise would incur because of rising caseloads. Since New York City has an aggressive workfare program, it is turning down some of that food stamp cash – and instead keeping in place stricter rules that require able-bodied welfare recipients to work to continue to receive the benefit.
Advocates are crying foul. They insist government help is needed now, and city government’s work requirements are onerous and unfair.
This calls for a quick history lesson. Though almost all agree that welfare reform, which resulted in the greatest reduction in welfare dependency in the nation’s history, was a major success, few seem to recall why it worked. We’d better remember if we’re going to stop thousands of families from slipping into dependency during the current crisis.
First, contrary to the assumptions of so many – and the doom-and-gloom predictions that welfare recipients would wind up unemployed and sleeping on the streets en masse – we have consistently discovered that jobs, in fact, are available for people trying to get off public assistance. In any economy, even this one, there is churn in the labor market. People resign, are fired or die. When that happens, jobs open up.
According to the city’s Human Resources Administration, the city’s welfare program has not seen a falling off in its ability to place welfare recipients into employment – not even during the national recession that started more than a year ago.
In fact, last year, a little over 85,000 New Yorkers reached the point of losing their cash grant due to time limits imposed by federal law. In that year, the HRA, responsible for welfare in the city, placed over 80,000 people – up slightly from 2007.
Second, welfare reform worked and still works today because most people on welfare want to work, can work – and are welcomed by the private sector as good employees. Twelve years of dramatically reduced caseloads put the lie to the myth that they prefer a government benefit to a low wage, can’t work due to infirmity or lack of education or are excluded from jobs by the private sector’s prejudice.
Third, work is therapy and it socializes. There are huge benefits that accrue to families and society when previously dependent people hold down a job. Children fare better in school and are less prone to social deviance. Mental health of the wage earner improves, and, frequently, family reunification occurs.
Whatever anti-poverty advocates say, no matter how intently they want to turn back the clock on reform, our economy can and must keep moving low-income people from dependency to work. We cannot risk a return to the “come and get it” policies once promoted most famously here in New York City.
Yes, there will always be those deserving and helpless who require government assistance. The states have those resources through block grants from the federal government.
But it would be a tragedy to use the new economic downturn to return to old, failed policies that disastrously marginalized so many.
Cove is the founder of America Works, a company that places hard-to-place people into work.