New York City’s welfare system is managed out of a boxy 25-story office building on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. Approximately 5,000 employees work there, directing government programs that provide billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded assistance to the poor and near-poor. A solid majority of the workers at 180 Water Street are African-American or Latino; their voter registration is almost certainly overwhelmingly Democratic; and all but about 300 of them are union members. But from 1995 until this past December, the people who worked in New York’s principal social-services agency were leading one of the most conservative and successful welfare offices in the country.
I witnessed it first-hand. From early 2007 until the end of 2013, I was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency with the 1960s-era name that occupies 180 Water Street. And before 2007, going back to early 1996, I worked at, and for a time led, the state agency that was responsible for overseeing many of the government-assistance programs administered by the city. But while my perspective is that of an insider, the facts speak for themselves: From 1995 until the end of 2013, New York City’s cash-welfare caseload shrunk from almost 1.1 million recipients to less than 347,000 — a drop of more than 700,000 men, women, and children.
The achievements of welfare reform in New York City were about more than reducing the number of people on cash welfare. There were also big increases in work rates for single mothers (up from 43 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 2009) and large reductions in child poverty (down from 42 percent in 1994 to 28.3 percent in 2008). Even in the wake of the 2008 recession, child poverty in New York City in 2011 was almost ten percentage points lower than it had been the year before welfare reforms started.
Welfare-caseload declines, work-rate increases, and child-poverty declines all happened largely because, for eight years under Mayor Giuliani and twelve years under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City required welfare applicants and recipients to work, or look for work, in return for benefits. We aggressively detected and prevented fraud and waste (although we didn’t stop all of them); and we enforced these requirements with a vigilance that every day led to hundreds of case closings and welfare-grant reductions as we made clear that welfare came with responsibilities.
Make no mistake about it: My fellow city workers and I were bureaucrats. But we were bureaucrats on a mission to bring the principles of the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation to New York City in a way that would help poor New Yorkers improve their station in life. It turns out that, once given the right direction, bureaucrats can accomplish big things. Here are ten lessons I learned about how programs for the poor should be run.
Always promote personal responsibility. The minute an applicant believes that government will solve all of her problems, she loses. Accepting responsibility for one’s own future is the vital first step to moving up. This is not the typical attitude among government workers, especially ones raised on the promises of the Great Society, but, in their hearts, New York City welfare workers knew it was true and were happy to embrace the concept when they were allowed to. They understood that taking full responsibility for the people they served is a burden they could not shoulder. Everyone at the agency knew that absent some effort by the welfare recipient, victory over poverty and unemployment is impossible. This is especially true when it comes to getting a job. Lots of “programs” want to say that they got a participant a job, or “placed” a certain number of people into employment. But for entry-level jobs, the person who gets the job is the person who gets the job, and the sooner the clients and the caseworkers realize that, the better.
Employment is far better than training and education. In the years leading up to the passage of the federal welfare-reform legislation, study after study showed that programs that encouraged training and education over rapid employment proved less successful at getting people into jobs that lasted. Our experience in New York City proved this to be true. After we implemented strong work-first requirements and tied our payments to employment-service providers to their actual records in placing people in jobs, labor-force participation for never-married single mothers rose dramatically — far faster than even the most ardent welfare reformers expected. Though there are many who prioritize education and job training over employment, it is clear that programs with such an emphasis have not produced the desired results. The priority should be work first, then education or on-the-job training as a supplement.
Making work pay is welfare reform too. Being off of cash welfare does not mean a person is off of all assistance. Not only are a lot of former cash-welfare recipients still dependent on some form of assistance, but the increasing use of these programs means that total spending has not been reduced as a result of federal welfare reform. It has actually increased.
Food-stamp benefits, child-care vouchers, and public health insurance all were part of this arsenal of non-cash “work supports” that we promoted in New York. And so long as these forms of government assistance went to working people, the public was supportive. I remember seeing nodding heads of agreement at a large public meeting in the Bronx when I said in response to a question about what we were doing to help struggling families, “If you work, we will help you.”