New York City’s Sandinista-loving mayor couldn’t decide whether he was ushering in the new or reviving the old during his inauguration speech last week.
“Today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed grandiloquently. “We need a dramatic new approach — rebuilding our communities from the bottom up, from the neighborhoods up.” Yet this “new” progressive “impulse” is also a longstanding one, according to de Blasio: It has “written our city’s history. It’s in our DNA.”
So is de Blasio’s mission of “fight[ing] injustice and inequality” a novel experiment, turning New York into a “laboratory for populist theories of government,” in the words
of the New York Times
? Or is de Blasio simply recycling old ideas whose effects are already wholly predictable?
The latter. De Blasio’s “new” inequality agenda borrows heavily from the old War on Poverty, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. And no city has poured more money into government anti-poverty programs — to negligible results — than New York.
Candidate de Blasio constantly vaunted his plan to offer free pre-kindergarten to all, to be funded by yet higher taxes on upper incomes. Such a program, he claimed, would reduce inequality and break the cycle of poverty. He was, however, assiduously silent about the granddaddy of all War on Poverty programs: “Head Start.” And for good reason. De Blasio’s universal pre-K plan is simply an expanded version of that 1965 “culturally competent” classic, which has been repeatedly shown to have no long-term effects on academic performance or social development. A large federal study published in 2012 merely confirmed the obvious: Head Start has been a $150 billion sinkhole of taxpayer resources. De Blasio’s claim last Wednesday that “study after study has shown” the success of pre-K and other such compensatory programs was either a bald-faced lie or a sign of how cocooned “progressive” true-believers are. (Of course, President Obama and the rest of the federal bureaucracy have just as blithely ignored the federal Head Start study and want to expand it by $75 billion over the next decade.) Over the last 50 years, two — count ’em, two – early-education experiments arguably produced some slight lasting benefits, but those boutique programs enrolled a mere handful of students and wrapped them in expensive, high-quality services and personnel that could never be (and never have been) reproduced on a large scale, as Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz has explained.
The rest of de Blasio’s platform is similarly familiar. He wants to co-locate social-service agencies in schools (a chestnut dating from the early 1960s Gray Areas program in New Haven), create more “affordable housing” (a perennial favorite of New York’s governing class), and subject the city’s successful public exam schools, which select students by a color-blind entrance test, to heavy-handed “diversity” pressures. He supports “critical thinking” over so-called “rote learning” (i.e., knowledge) and actually views private-sector experience as a disqualifier for a job in his administration. As New York’s public advocate, de Blasio helped eviscerate New York’s welfare-fraud protections; now, he has promised to reverse the city’s policy of asking welfare users to work in exchange for their benefits. The city’s 1.9 million food-stamp recipients — 21 percent of the population — is at least a quarter million recipients too low, per the new mayor.
New York has been down this road before, and it ended in New York becoming the welfare capital of America, supporting one-tenth of all welfare recipients nationally. The contemporary “inequality” agenda differs from the War on Poverty only in a barely perceptible reorientation toward the working poor, as opposed to the non-working underclass. But the best wealth-booster for both groups is the same, and similarly ignored by old- and allegedly new-school progressives: Above all, avoid having children out of wedlock, then apply yourself in high school, work full-time, and stay away from drugs and gangs. The Bloomberg administration outraged the city’s poverty advocates last year by publicizing the social and economic toll of teen pregnancy; don’t expect the de Blasio team to dare anything so honest.
The scariest aspect of de Blasio’s inauguration speech was not its dreary policy prescriptions, however, nor even its megalomaniacal self-regard (“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities”). Conservatives undoubtedly sound just as repetitive and just as laughably grandiose to liberal ears. The most disturbing part of his address was rather the revelation of just how blinkered he is.