Talking Points for the Times!

To: New York Times Editorial Board

Re: Your Coming Anti-Workfare Editorials

The Times has just concluded a four-part, front-page series slamming New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s workfare policies (e.g.,”EVIDENCE IS SCANT THAT WORKFARE LEADS TO FULL-TIME JOBS”). Even now, presses are stamping out the capper, the first of what will probably be many righteous editorials denouncing the program. It happens that workfare is an old hobbyhorse of Chatterbox’s. Chatterbox thinks it’s the key to successful welfare reform (which is the key to solving America’s most pressing social problem, the problem of “ghetto poverty”). And, aside from Milwaukee, New York is the first big city to give workfare a try. If it can make it there …

One point your series made seems indisputable: If what Rachel Swarns reported is true, Giuliani simply doesn’t have an adequate day care system in place yet. He’ll have to do better. As for the rest of the series, let’s stick with the major conceptual problems:

Misconception #1: It’s the Overriding Goal of Workfare to Move People into Private Jobs. Politicians like to say the purpose of welfare reform is to move people “from welfare to work.” That’s certainly a goal. But it’s not true that unless welfare reform takes all the people on welfare and gets them private sector jobs, it’s failed. The overall goal of reform, as President Clinton said in a neolib moment, is to “break the culture of poverty and dependence.” It’s a culture that traps the poor in isolated, fatherless ghettos. It’s also a culture that hurts the larger society–not just those on welfare–by producing crime, destroying urban life, fanning racial tension, etc. To change that culture, you don’t have to get every unmarried welfare mom into a job. The idea is to establish the principle that every family has to send somebody into the workforce. Enforce that principle, and some of those on welfare will go to work. Other mothers may choose to live with breadwinners and spend time with their children. Other women not on welfare–and this is the big payoff–may decide not to become single mothers at all, postponing childbirth until marriage. Eventually, communities of fatherless welfare families will become communities of intact, working families. That’s the idea, anyway.

Even if you think the point of welfare reform is to get everyone into a private job, that’s not the immediate goal of workfare. Workfare is usually only one part of the larger welfare reform plan. Most plans attempt to “divert” those who apply for welfare into private jobs. They require those who do apply to search for work. Only those who fail to find private sector jobs are then offered workfare jobs so they can earn their benefits. Workfare, in effect, is the employer of last resort. (A fine old liberal notion!) It’s crazy to expect the people who wind up in these last-resort workfare jobs–about 17,000, out of 236,000 adults on welfare in New York City–to be the ones who will fly out the door into the private sector.

Misconception #2: We should worry because only a third of those who leave welfare quickly turn up on the tax rolls as workers. The Times has made a big fuss about a New York state survey showing that “of the legions of people who came off the welfare rolls in New York City from July 1996 through March 1997, only 29 percent found full-time or part-time jobs” in the first full quarter after they left welfare. Yes, we want to know how many more people are working thanks to welfare reform. But the people welfare reform will push most successfully into the private sector are those who now never show up at the welfare office in the first place because they realize they’ll do better just getting a job. The survey completely misses this group.

For those who do go on welfare, the survey only counts those who then work for private sector employers who report them to the state for tax purposes. It doesn’t count self-employed laborers, domestic workers and others if they don’t report their income. It doesn’t count those whose employers don’t fill out the required forms. Many employers who do file their forms do it late. Experience with earlier groups of welfare-leavers shows that the 29 percent figure will rise about 10 more percentage points (to about 40 percent) when these late-filers eventually comply. Finally, just because someone doesn’t get a job the first quarter doesn’t mean they never will. A study of Maryland’s reform discovered that 36 percent of those leaving welfare had earnings in the quarter they left, but 75 percent had earnings within 2.5 years.

Even if a single mother leaves the rolls and doesn’t get a job, remember, that doesn’t mean reform has failed. She might have moved in with a man, even gotten married. She might be getting help from friends. If former recipients were showing up in shelters or on the streets, it would be bad news, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Misconception #3: Workfare workers shouldn’t do work unionized city workers used to do. At times, your reporters object that workfarers do “menial,” unskilled, dead-end work. At other times they complain that workfarers have taken good, desirable union jobs away from others. Which is it? It can’t be both. The truth is that the more the mayor asks workfarers to do useful work, like street-cleaning, the more they will probably be doing work regular city workers once did. So? Is the work low paid? Sure. If workfare is going to be the employer of last resort, it can’t pay good, union wages, or else half the city will go on welfare to get a workfare job. Nor did the Times show that any regular workers were laid off or fired to make way for cheaper workfarers.

Chatterbox will go for now. Give ‘em hell!