E. S. Savas, ed. Managing Welfare Reform in New York City. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, 2005. xv + 375 pp. $85 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-4927-2.
Reviewed by Ed Berkowitz (Department of History and School of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2006)
To Have and Have Not
When Jimmy Carter received a briefing on a complicated plan for workfare, he supposedly remarked that the plan was feasible because it would involve getting one or two jobs for the people in Plains, Georgia. That goal sounded realistic to the President. Critics chided him on his naiveté. He failed to comprehend that thousands and thousands of jobs would have to be created in New York City and that looked like a far more daunting task.
Tough to scale, New York City has always been the Mount Everest of welfare reform. In the manner of Frank Sinatra, the mantra applies that if a welfare reform can make it there, it can make it anywhere. The numbers bear out that impression. Even after the much-ballyhooed welfare reforms of the nineties, New York City still had one out of every thirteen welfare cases in the nation. In 1996, just before the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, 10 percent of the New York City population received AFDC benefits, compared with 5 percent in the nation as a whole. In that same year, more than half of the single-mother households in New York City were in poverty, at least as measured by the official poverty definition which does not include in-kind benefits. So there is a lot of hard-core poverty in New York.
For much of the twentieth century, the city's welfare system has traditionally prided itself on its liberal benefits and benevolent spirit. As immigrants came to the city early in the twentieth century and African-Americans and Hispanics arrived in the postwar era, city authorities confidently asserted that their social services were adequate to the task of bringing these groups into the American mainstream. It fit a pattern in which the city charged no tuition for its world-class university, offered its citizens subway rides for a nickel, and maintained the best public school system of any large city.
In time, however, the patina on the city's social services began to wear thin. The offices where people went to apply for welfare became threadbare. By 1998, when Jason Turner arrived from the hustings in Wisconsin to run the city's welfare program, he found offices such as the one in Brooklyn with bars on the widows and a chain link fence topped with barbed wire outside. The workers in this office refused to walk alone to the subway at night. Clients waited hours--often half a day--to see one of the workers and never seemed to see the same worker twice. Case files got lost, adding to the general sense of confusion. Frustration among welfare clients led to fights which beleaguered security guards could not control. All in all, getting welfare in New York had become a grim and time-consuming process. It amounted to a full-time job, what with clients having to juggle child care, the endless round of appointments for particular benefits, and the occasional off-the-books stint of paid employment.
Given this background, it is perhaps surprising to learn that in the six years between March, 1995 and September, 2001, the NYC welfare rolls declined from over 1.1 million to 631,000. People who talk about an urban renaissance could find no better statistic to support their case. Some proclaimed a revolution in which welfare went from being uncontrollable to being a well-managed gateway to a permanent job. In place of a check, welfare workers now became employment brokers, and the system handed out jobs and not just checks. Welfare clients went from being frustrated to being rewarded for their productivity and industry.
This book of essays by economists and students of public administration takes the success of welfare reform during the administration of Mayor Rudolph Guiliani (1994-2001) as its basic subtext. At one and the same time, it functions as a how-to book on exporting Guiliani's revolution to your home town, a social science evaluation of the New York experience, and a conservative manifesto on the effectiveness of work-based welfare reform.
Some of the writers take a partisan bent to their subject, giving the book a rather harsh tone. We learn that one key to welfare reform is to "impose sanctions in a timely and predictable manner" (p. 284). In other words, those who fail to go along with the work regimen have to pay a price. Those who have fallen completely off the wagon, such as substance abusers, face a particularly hard road. As Sally Satel sternly points out, "If substance-abusing recipients fail to obtain work after receiving treatment (at least twice within a five-year episode, for example) they should be regarded as non-compliant and considered for termination from the rolls" (p. 284). No soup for them.
In general, the authors of these essays want welfare recipients to know that the receipt of a public benefit is a two-way street. Society owes its citizens a safety net, but its citizens owe society good behavior and need to open up their lives to public scrutiny. Hence, the new welfare regime in New York has reinstituted large-scale visits to homes to make sure that welfare beneficiaries are complying with the legal restrictions on their behavior. Sanctions of one sort or another abound. In addition, recipients are expected to exhibit what James Turner calls "respectful behavior" when they are in the presence of welfare administrators (p. 359). It almost sounds like descriptions of the early patient loads at Massachusetts General Hospital, when the charity patients were expected to sit up in bed and look attentive when a doctor came to see them.
The authors tell those who would import the welfare reform revolution to be on the look-out for liberal detractors. James Clark points out, for example, that "mayors and governors who embark on a public-works service initiative as part of a welfare reform effort can expect to be criticized by liberal media and advocacy groups" (pp. 208-209). At least the folks in New York had the Post to counter those arrogant reporters on the Times. In smaller cities, one supposes, the cause of welfare reform would fare less well.
The numbers are impressive, but some qualifications are in order. June O'Neill and Sanders Korenam, two well-respected policy analysts who contribute a well-balanced and insightful statistical overview chapter, show that passage of welfare reform in 1996 was associated with a "16 percentage point reduction in the welfare participation rate in New York City" (p. 320). That is better than in other cities, where the reduction was on the order of 10 percent. New York, it seemed, had rejoined the rest of the nation when it came to welfare reform--a not inconsiderable achievement. Still, it begs the fact that the welfare rolls went down all over, not just in New York. The decline, as Burt Barnow and John Trutko--another pair with solid analytic skills--illustrate, "was commensurate with declines in most states" (p. 250). In New York, as in most of these states, the strong economy played a key role. As Demetra Nightingale notes in a very informative essay that provides a qualitative overview of the welfare reform process, things looked a little different in 2002 after the catastrophe of 9/11 (although welfare rolls continued to go down, even in the depressed economy).
Workfare, at the center of the reform effort, also looks less than revolutionary on closer inspection. A person who came to a welfare office met with a caseworker who had been transformed into an employment agent. If the applicant failed to get a job--as was quite likely--then she might be put into a work experience assignment, such as a job with the city parks department. A welfare recipient might spend a few days each week cleaning up trash in a park and the other days of the week receiving training or do something else to enhance her human capital, all in an effort to simulate the work experience. Workers were thus taught the Woody Allen lesson that 99 percent of life is just showing up. Workfare programs often foundered on their inability to reach the welfare caseload. For one reason or another, people failed to participate. The New York program was not immune from this problem. Of 98,019 work assignments in the year 2000, 43 percent of the participants failed to report, and another 15 percent failed to comply with the program for other reasons. Success was relative.
The New York program engaged nearly all of the caseload, but some of the people were not in a work assignment. Rather they were being sanctioned in some way for failing to comply. Furthermore, the city did what it could to shift costs to the federal government, such as by placing people off the city rolls and onto the federally funded Supplemental Security Income rolls. Such moves represented displacement, not transformation, of welfare recipients. Nor did the city eliminate welfare completely, even among those removed from the rolls. Most single mothers, even off the rolls, continued to receive public housing, and their children benefited from the school lunch program. Public health benefits of one sort or another also remained important to people who were "off" the welfare rolls. The program, therefore, did not end dependence on government benefits. At best it reduced dependence on income maintenance benefits and encouraged work--a net savings to the tax payer, perhaps, but not quite the revolution that had been promised.
What was most striking to me was the historical transformation of the welfare agency that is portrayed in this book. In 1962 the federal government launched a campaign to rehabilitate welfare beneficiaries. They would come to a public agency and receive what might be described as therapeutic counseling that would eliminate the dysfunction in their family and arm them with the necessary skills and attitudes to join the labor force. The program amounted to the government's endorsement of the social work profession and it relied on carrots far more than sticks. It also failed miserably. In the 1996 reform effort, the emphasis shifted from professional autonomy and discretion to system management. In New York the reformers took as their model the systematic efforts being made by the police force to locate and reduce crime by cracking down on petty offenses. Under this new model, case workers had far less discretion. Instead, managers measured their productivity and closely monitored their success in putting welfare recipients into jobs. The new keys to success were management expertise and information systems, not therapeutic skills. In some ways, this approach harkened back to Edwin Chadwick, Nassau Senior and the Victorian effort to create social policy machines, like poor houses, that cured social problems. In this way, we tend to dress up our social policy in the latest technology and recycle it from one generation to another.
I therefore remain skeptical about the revolutionary potential of welfare reform in New York and elsewhere. There is no denying, however, that something significant happened in New York over the course of the last decade. This book represents a polemical but nonetheless informative effort to convey just what that was.
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Ed Berkowitz. Review of Savas, E. S., ed., Managing Welfare Reform in New York City.
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