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New York Program Wrong Model for U.S.

April 21, 2002|MARGY WALLER | Margy Waller is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Urban Center and former senior advisor for welfare and working families to President Clinton.

WASHINGTON — Congress has begun debating the reauthorization of welfare, and President Bush has made his preference clear: He wants a New York City workfare-type program to become the national model.

Back in 1998, then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced that every adult or head of household still on the rolls in the year 2000 would be working for a welfare check. He hired Jason Turner, then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson's welfare administrator, to accomplish this task for New York City. In an attempt to achieve the mayor's goal, Turner created the largest workfare program in the country .

Under the Turner program, recipients first attended a 30-day job-search program. If, by the program's end, they hadn't found jobs, they were placed in workfare positions created by the city, doing things like cleaning parks and subways. Most assignments did not require or develop marketable skills. Many welfare recipients who were in education programs were forced to quit school in order to fulfill the work requirement. The program sparked lawsuits over whether workfare participants were entitled to health and safety protections, and there is fairly strong evidence that the program displaced many paid city employees.

On their face, the numbers out of the New York program looked good. Since 1996, New York City's welfare caseloads have declined by 50%. Almost immediately, tightened regulations kept many applicants off the rolls. By late 1998, only 25% of those seeking welfare were found eligible, a marked decrease from the time of Mayor David N. Dinkins, when 75% of applicants qualified. But the success of a welfare program cannot be judged by caseload numbers alone, and the Giuliani administration consistently refused to release the kind of data that would make rigorous analysis and evaluation possible. Little is known about long-term employment outcomes of participants, nor about what has happened to people who were forced to leave the rolls.

Still, when his deadline for all welfare recipients working neared in late 1999, Giuliani proclaimed the program's success. This despite the fact that when members of the city council and the press analyzed what little data were available, they found that only about 15% of the caseload was actually participating in workfare.

What were the other recipients doing? Some were waiting for the city to give them a work assignment, and nearly 30% were unavailable for work because of bad health. Many others were working in the private sector, but earning so little they were still eligible for welfare assistance.

Research elsewhere in the country also raises questions about the effectiveness of workfare. In Washington state, where more than one model was tried, a transitional program that paid actual wages to participants had a positive impact on their later earnings. The New York City-style work-for-welfare model, though, was ineffective. The state ultimately discontinued the workfare program after evaluating its results.

But the lack of evidence to support New York City's strategy hasn't kept it from being a focal point of federal policymaking.

Today, Turner is a favorite on the congressional hearing circuit, where he prescribes the New York City model as the right plan for the rest of the country. Thompson is President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Turner's top aid in New York, Andrew Bush, directs the Health and Human Services office that administers welfare block grants. And the president's plan for welfare reauthorization, "Working Toward Independence," bears a strong resemblance to New York City's workfare program.

While welfare caseloads in most states began to rise last year as the economy weakened, the overall caseload decline since federal welfare reform in 1996 is dramatic, with millions of former recipients now working. Over time, the vast majority of welfare recipients do work, and most of them leave welfare altogether. Still, welfare exists in part to ensure the health and safety of families when the head of household is unable to work temporarily. Thus, it is the nature of churning welfare caseloads that at any time a large number of people are not working because they are waiting for assignments, caring for sick children, lacking transportation or any one of a long list of legitimate reasons.

The Bush proposal sets an impossible standard for states to meet. It is estimated that only 30% of those now on welfare in New York City--in the program that serves as a model for the administration--would qualify under the narrow guidelines in the administration's proposal.

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