Heather Mac Donald reports on how the de Blasio administration is dismantling welfare reform in New York city. Steve Banks, the new head of the Human Resources Administration, has, among other things, eliminated the requirement that able-bodied adults without children look for work in exchange for SNAP benefits, allowed welfare recipients to count college attendance as work for the purposes of meeting federal welfare requirements, and abandoned the city’s efforts to ensure that immigrants don’t become dependent on welfare. While most observers believe that New York city has been one of America’s welfare reform success stories, Banks believes that the city’s enforcement of work requirements has artificially limited the number of welfare recipients, and so he is looking to relax work requirements in various ways. He is also allowing applicants for SNAP benefits to “self-attest” to their housing expenses, thus making it easier for households to defraud the government.
Last month, Robert Doar, Banks’ predecessor as head of New York city’s Human Resources Administration and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, shared ten welfare reform lessons drawn from his experience. And it seems that Banks is violating almost all of Doar’s tenets. Among other things, Doar warned that people will always try “to get over”:
“To get over” is a very New York expression meaning to steal – usually from government and usually to obtain benefits that one isn’t entitled to. There’s no better opportunity for it than welfare programs. Turning a blind eye to the potential for fraud and abuse is naïve. An agency like HRA can have the most capable and unimpeachable top leaders, but these welfare programs are huge and involve millions of transactions and thousands of workers and recipients. The opportunities to take a little here and a little there are all over the place. During my seven years at HRA, we had scandals involving child-care centers that had no children, welfare workers who gave themselves food-stamp benefits, nonprofit employment-services providers who billed for phony job placements, and health-care programs that never filled out required paperwork for thousands of clients. I recruited and hired a former federal prosecutor and nationally renowned expert in Medicaid fraud to serve as our agency’s chief integrity officer and gave him wide latitude to improve all of our protections against abuse, and I was still worried.
The vast majority of expenditures in welfare programs are consistent with program rules and not fraudulent. But the overall size of the spending is so great that even a 5 percent error rate is significant. And, more important, taxpayers have a right to expect that spending on programs be managed properly. To be sure that our entire agency was focused on fraud detection, we set an annual goal of more than $600 million in cost avoidance and recoveries from anti-fraud efforts.
Rather interestingly, Banks seems to think that making it easier “to get over” is a noble cause. Whether or not you believe that fraud is pervasive, the perception that fraud is pervasive undermines support for welfare, wage subsidies, and work supports. Moreover, New York city is a diverse jurisdiction, in which the foreign-born share of the population is 37 percent. Not all immigrants, including lawful immigrants, are socialized into believing that local government is “us” rather than “them.” Implicit in Banks’ philosophy is the notion that we create a sense of “us” by, for example, being more generous and permissive. Another view, however, is that for many immigrants, it seems harmless “to get over” when the consequences aren’t clear and visible. If you know that underreporting income will mean that you will secure a benefit for your own family members, why wouldn’t you do it? You wouldn’t do it out of a sense of obligation to abide by the rules. Yet this sense of obligation is created when those who set the policies in question project that they too are serious about enforcing the rules. By making it difficult “to get over,” you are teaching beneficiaries that the local government takes the logic of conditional reciprocity seriously, and you are also teaching taxpayers that their contributions are being taken seriously as well. This focus on enforcement is central to the legitimacy of the welfare system, and it is deeply unwise to undermine it.
With this in mind, Doar explained why Bloomberg’s HRA sought to keep immigrants from becoming “public charges”:
There is one aspect of the immigration process that was intended to discourage welfare use by non-citizens. It is known as the “sponsor recovery” process. Many legal immigrants seeking citizenship are required to submit a form signed by an American citizen who is sponsoring them, and that form clearly states that should the person being sponsored receive welfare benefits, the government agency providing those benefits may recover the cost of assistance from the sponsor. I know of very few welfare agencies that have actually enforced this provision — except New York City’s.
During 2013, we sought to recover expenditures from sponsors of immigrants who had received cash welfare as single adults, a form of welfare that is mostly paid for using city funds. In less than a year, we collected more than $600,000 from sponsors just by asking that they make good on their promise.
According to Mac Donald, the de Blasio administration is literally returning this money to sponsors, as if asking them to take responsibility for sponsoring immigrants who can’t support themselves was a grave injustice.
Under Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, for all their faults, New York city’s government made a real effort to encourage work, even when doing so meant making substantial investments in support services. The de Blasio administration seems determined to reverse this progress, and all New Yorkers will suffer as a result.