By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
December 20, 1998
Saturday morning this fall, a 54-year-old Bronx woman who has spent more years
on welfare than she can remember answered a small-type summons from the city government,
the second that she has received this year. "Dear Sir/Madam," it began.
"You are being called in to evaluate your employability." She stuffed
two doctors' letters into a worn envelope, filled a plastic bag with prescription
pills and enlisted her son as an interpreter. They traveled to a drab building
off Union Square, where they waited for an hour in hard plastic chairs until a
caseworker summoned them to a cramped cubicle. "The reason we called you
in," he began, "is everybody on public assistance is required to work."
The son, a jobless 21-year-old, answered through a mouthful of gum: "Well,
we got letters from her doctors saying she's not really able to work."
standoff had begun.
The first of the creased
letters handed across the desk described a case of colon cancer, successfully
treated three years before, followed by diabetes, gallstones and a liver condition
that leads to "recurrent abdominal pain." The second added hypertension
and warned that "unless very light duty is assigned, this patient should
not work." The caseworker, a Nigerian immigrant who had worked his way through
night school, was not persuaded. He noted that the woman's application for Federal
disability benefits had just been denied and that the city's doctors, who had
examined her in the spring, found her to be employable. "Our doctors feel
she is able to work," he said.
make anybody work," the son said. "They don't care what's inside."
an acre of old furniture and ringing phones, similar conversations were spilling
out in every direction. Indeed, nearly a thousand would transpire in this office
alone in just one day, between recipients once coded as too sick to work and caseworkers
determined to find something they could do. Some clearly seemed in painful need.
A one-armed Russian man arrived with his wife, who limped in leaning on a cane.
A woman just released from the hospital complained that she felt faint, then passed
out on the floor. Others, however, seemed more indignant than infirm, like the
mother of two shouting that workfare is "a system to keep black people down."
Dozens of people classified as medically unemployable confessed that they had
secretly been commuting to work or to class.
Bronx woman with the worn envelope was not complaining but staring into space,
as if the wrangling between the caseworker and her son was of no particular interest.
More of the city's questions followed. What languages does she speak? (Spanish.)
What languages does she read? (None.) What grade did she complete? (Sixth.) Is
she on drugs? (No.) Has she ever worked? (Once, in a shrimp-packing plant, 22
The caseworker was particularly
skeptical of the woman's assertions, written on a questionnaire, that she was
unable to "sit," "balance," "bend," "climb,"
"work in an office" or "work outdoors." "She can't sit?"
he said. "Well, she's been sitting here quite a while." The son sounded
angry. "You all gonna be responsible if something happens to her?"
we responsible?" The caseworker lingered over the question. In the end, he
would relent and agree to another medical exam -- but not quite yet. "We
wouldn't put her in the park," he said. "We wouldn't put her in sanitation.
If we put her to work, it would be office work." And besides, he said, "if
anything happens, we can always call an ambulance in."
tone was so flat it was hard to tell whether he was offering sarcasm or reassurance.
Mayor Declares His Last Great War
summer, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani walked into a bank auditorium in midtown Manhattan
and delivered a remarkable talk on welfare -- remarkable both for the scale of
new work obligations he pledged to impose on the city's vast welfare population
and for the lack of attention his plan received in a culture that routinely bellows
at lesser provocations. Addressing a city that had more than a million people
on public assistance -- or one of every seven residents -- when he first took
office in 1993, Giuliani promised "to end welfare by the end of this century
completely." A few caseworkers in the audience clapped and a reporter asked
a technical question about child care. Elsewhere, scarcely anyone noticed.
Giuliani's welfare speeches now seem routine, it is a measure of the victory he
has already won. After five years of bare-knuckled battle, he presides over what
is by far the nation's largest workfare program, with more than 30,000 poor New
Yorkers cleaning city parks and answering city phones. But while it has been celebrated,
litigated, picketed and condemned, the work program still covers only 10 percent
of the city's welfare recipients. Giuliani's new timetable -- which happens to
conclude on the eve of the 2000 Presidential primaries -- leaves him 12 months
to round up the rest.
Bold welfare talk is
the political norm these days. But the events now under way in New York are distinctive
for at least two reasons. One is the sheer scale of the endeavor. As Giuliani
is fond of saying, the number of New Yorkers already shorn from the rolls -- more
than 400,000 -- exceeds the population of Buffalo, the state's next largest city.
For better or worse, the Mayor has already chased more people off welfare than
a famed welfare-eradication program like Wisconsin's ever enrolled, even at its
peak. One in 20 of the city's residents is now someone moved off the welfare rolls
during the Giuliani years.
In addition, Giuliani
is waging his war in the heart of enemy territory. The Union Square site of the
Saturday sifting is just a mile from the Lower East Side settlement house where
the welfare rights movement was born in the 1960's. The poor people Giuliani is
summoning have more political allies, more rights and more lawyers than those
in almost any other place.
scarcely mentioned welfare in the 1993 campaign that brought him to office, he
now calls it a cornerstone of his legacy -- and by inference, a key to his political
future. "This is by far the best thing we're doing for the city," he
said during one of several recent discussions on the topic at City Hall. "It
is much more significant than the reduction in crime, although the reduction in
crime gets a tremendous amount of attention."
more the Mayor talks welfare these days, the more he stretches toward philosophical
flight. "From 1960 to 1994, the work ethic was under attack in New York City,"
he said. "New York City viewed welfare as a good thing, as a wonderful thing.
They romanticized it and embraced a philosophy of dependency, almost as if it's
better to have somebody on welfare than to help somebody to work." Giuliani
said he is trying to erase that "perverted social philosophy," which
robbed the poor of their ambition, and reawaken the respect for work "in
a deep philosophical and metaphysical sense."
for a mayor who continually returns to the word "philosophy," Giuliani's
core commitment is unclear. Is the goal (as he says) to fashion a new "social
contract" between society and its poor? Or is it (as he also says) simply
to cut the rolls?
And philosophy is only part
of the issue in an operation this complex. A second test of the Giuliani effort
resides in something more mundane: bureaucracy. Logistically, what Giuliani vows
to achieve is anything but welfare's "end." Aid is supposed to continue,
but only to those who keep pace with a 35-hour workweek designed and overseen
by the Human Resources Administration, the city's welfare agency.
Giuliani does mean in a surprisingly literal sense is that the obligation applies
to everybody: the armies of women with pill bottles and doctor's letters, immigrants
who speak only Spanish, addicts in treatment programs. Whether they can sit but
not stand, or stand but not lift, Giuliani is vowing to put them to work -- if
possible in a private job, if necessary in a workfare position tailored to their
The overwhelming mechanics of that
effort now fall, under a compressed calendar, to an agency typically introduced
by the word "troubled." Starved of supplies as basic as paint and paper
clips, its caseworkers, who number in the thousands, are used to a bureaucratic
wasteland where anything that can go wrong, will. They are rigidly clerical and
chronically discontent. And they are now being charged with nothing less than
reordering the lives of the underclass.
raised some eyebrows a year ago when he put the agency's efforts under the command
of one of the nation's most uncompromising critics of public assistance. Jason
A. Turner, a veteran of Wisconsin's anti-welfare campaign, designed his first
workfare plan in junior high school, and he has been refining his craft ever since.
A cheerful, earnest, tenacious man, long on good intentions and unconstrained
by doubt, he operates on the simple belief -- dangerously simple, his detractors
say -- that when it comes to welfare, less is almost always best.
is the combination of Giuliani's calls and the bureaucracy's response that will
determine whether work is offered in ways that support the poor or on terms that
drive them away. Hand by hand, case by case, this is a welfare battle in its rawest
form, fought across an archipelago of ancient metal desks in a sea of ringing
Jason Turner Gets a Taste of
Harlem, and Kafka
the agency on a war footing, if you will," Jason Turner was saying. On a
sticky July morning, two days after the Mayor's speech, he was climbing into a
black sedan and setting off to barnstorm the boroughs. To the 31 offices once
tellingly known as "income-maintenance centers" he was carrying Giuliani's
gospel. "We're a generous city to the extent that we truly help people become
independent," he said at almost every stop. "We're not generous to the
extent that we just give people money." By visiting each office, Turner said
he hoped to replicate the sense of governmental mission that swept the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration a generation ago.
NASA this ain't. Nothing at the offices seemed to work. Certainly not the hand-lettered
sign in the office on 34th Street, posted amid chip bags and soda cans: "If
you keep eating and drinking you won't be seen." Not the copy machines: the
agency leases reconstructed models, and they are a source of constant complaint.
Not the elevators, either: three years ago, one lurched in a Bronx office and
decapitated a welfare clerk. The agency is so disorganized, it literally cannot
find a quarter of its case records. Turner was about to launch into his speech
in central Harlem when a vision brought him up short. The wall was obscured by
paper stalagmites six feet tall. "What are all those files?" he gasped,
to a room that roared with laughter.
the elements that do not seem to work are some of the workers themselves. In a
work-force genealogy, they might be considered kin to postal clerks: a minimally
competent, by-the-books staff, long charged with a repetitious task -- in this
case, processing checks. There's reason to question their readiness for the more
challenging work ahead. In one center, 5 percent of the staff was on worker's
compensation -- almost all for injuries they claimed to have sustained by falling
out of their chairs. It had not escaped the caseworkers' notice that falling caseloads
leave their own jobs in doubt. "Our livelihoods are premised on caseloads
-- what will happen to us?" one asked. Yet others worried that their workload
would increase. One caseworker in East Harlem aimed a long, polished fingernail
Turner's way and warned: "I'm a little hyped!"
overwhelmed!" another added.
you all are getting the job done somehow," Turner said.
we're not!" the woman with the nails said. "That's what we're trying
to tell you!"
Though the depth of the
organizational breakdown caught Turner by surprise, it did nothing to alter the
work-first message he delivered at Giuliani's behest. Turner harbors an almost
mystical belief in the power of work -- not just as a source of income, but also
as a redemptive force that can treat depression, order lives and stem moral disintegration.
faith that labor liberates owes much to his maternal grandfather, John Tufel.
A bond salesman who lost his job in the Depression, Tufel donned a suit to sell
brushes door to door. Now 45, Turner joined him on a cross-country drive the summer
he turned 10, and the diary his mother hoped would fill with tributes to the vistas
instead became an admiring ledger of his grandfather's frugal budgets. "He
was a man of firm, fixed principle," Turner said.
the caseworkers last summer, Turner parried the endless what-ifs with one consistent
answer: Life is tough, get a job. Will there be training? ("The best preparation
for work is working.") What about people who cannot speak English? ("The
best way to learn English is to interact with English-speaking people in a workplace.")
What about drug addicts? ("Treatment is not a substitute for work.")
"Let me leave with this one thought," Turner said, departing one office.
"I don't want our agency to own every circumstance and problem a client faces.
That's part of empowerment."
was new, but not necessarily unwelcome. In the workers' attitude toward the welfare
poor, concern and resentment run side by side. Like the Nigerian caseworker at
Union Square, many of those now toiling behind a welfare desk are recent immigrants,
and they are proud to have grasped a rung on the American working-class ladder.
In African, Spanish and Caribbean accents, they wonder why more of their clients
have not done the same.
One of the trip's
oddest moments unfolded in central Harlem, when a caseworker with dreadlocks and
an island accent asked whether Turner would consider giving clients "money-management
classes." Perhaps, Turner said. But the real way to learn is this: "Live
on what you get, and if you run out, figure out what to do until your next paycheck."
a moment, the room fell silent. The city's new Welfare Commissioner -- this Ivy
League-educated, Republican white man -- had just traveled to the heart of Harlem
and proclaimed it morally instructive for the poor to face empty cupboards. Once
upon a time, there might have been a riot. In the end-welfare age, the stunned
silence leads to applause.
"I like that!"
the caseworker said.
Find It Harder To Make the Rolls
spent much of the year converting welfare offices into so-called "job centers."
While the aim is philosophical -- to promote self-sufficiency -- the means are
procedural: the changes make it much harder to get on the rolls. Now, before aid-seekers
can formally apply, they must first see a "financial planner" trained
to promote welfare alternatives, like relying on family or persevering in an unwanted
job. Those who still wish to pursue welfare must then complete a supervised job-search
program. For those with children, the job search lasts 30 days. (They are seeking
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Federal welfare program created in
1996 that sets a five-year lifetime limit on aid.) For those without children,
it lasts 45 days. (They are seeking home relief, a state and local program.) In
either case, a single missed hour without an approved excuse can void the entire
application. Statistically, the results have been striking. In the early 1990's
under Mayor David Dinkins (whose commissioner pledged to make welfare more "user
friendly"), about 75 percent of those who walked in the door wound up on
the rolls. In his first four years, Giuliani cut the rate to about 50 percent.
Now in the job centers, the average rate has fallen to 25 percent. So far only
half the offices have converted to the new procedures. But projected across the
entire system, the job centers would cut the number of new cases by 50,000 a year.
a remarkable figure, but just what does it show?
interpretation is that many people seeking welfare have other ways of supporting
themselves. Certainly some already have jobs. (In Wisconsin, for example, researchers
now believe that about 30 percent of those on the old welfare system were employed,
though only about 15 percent reported it.) Others may decide that they would rather
look for work on their own than hassle with a program.
new procedures are particularly popular with a cohort of the welfare-agency middle
managers who were disillusioned by the old system. Adrianne Fleming's immigrant
parents were so hostile to welfare they spanked her when she came home from the
fourth grade in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant with a pair of red tennis shoes
from a donation drawer. "My mother said, 'That's charity!' She felt offended,"
said Fleming, director of the Greenwood Job Center in Brooklyn, the city's first.
"To this day, my father has a hard time accepting that I work in an agency
that gives money away. That's why I tell him, now we give jobs away."
a job center in Harlem has been the highlight of Gail Godwin's 29-year career.
"I said, 'Good morning, welcome to the Hamilton Job Center,"' she recounted
in a meeting of center directors this fall. "Half the people said: 'Job center?
I didn't come for no job center!' This man said: 'No, no! Ah-plee-ca-cion! Ah-plee-ca-cion!
No job, no job!"' She laughed so hard at the memory of the scattering clients
she could barely finish the story. "He left! That was cute. He left! I could
not believe that those two little words -- 'job center' -- could clear the area."
In her view, the lesson was clear: "There are some people who are just here
The competing view is that
the centers present even the most genuinely needy with formidable procedural barriers.
Most clients are not allowed to complete an application until they return a second
day. The first, spent waiting for a financial planner, can easily stretch to five
or six hours. A month of job search may not sound like much, but many applicants
have chaotic lives -- sick children, jailed relatives, flagging spirits -- that
will lead to a missed hour one day. "No matter how you phrase it," announces
the newsletter of the Queens Job Center, "the goal of the Financial Planner,
Employment Planner, Social Service Planner and Resource Staff, is the same: Redirect
the participant to another source other than Temporary Assistance."
clients may be plainly confused. "When they say, 'It's not a welfare center,'
people hear it as, 'There's no welfare,"' says Helen Lee, an attorney with
the Legal Aid Society. "Some of the workers have been quite courteous. They
won't say, 'Get out of here.' They say, 'Come back when you're feeling better.'
But I think they picked workers who are inclined to deny people benefits, to find
them ineligible. It's set up so the whole process is so cumbersome."
much of the year, such complaints belonged to the advocates alone. By November,
however, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture began investigating
the corollary effect on food stamps. Though eligibility for the program remains
unchanged, the city's food-stamp rolls have fallen 15 percent in the last year;
at the same time, the requests for help reported by soup kitchens and food pantries
has risen 24 percent. The U.S.D.A. officials warned that by withholding applications
until clients return a second day, the city may be violating Federal law.
the subsequent fray, Giuliani not only assumed personal control, reversing a decision
by Turner to distribute food-stamp applications the day clients request them.
He also railed against those with a "romantic and emotional" view of
food stamps as anything more than welfare and spent a Sunday morning at City Hall
poring over the Federal regulations himself. It remains unclear whether the city's
food stamp policy is legal. What is clear is that Giuliani wants nothing about
the system to be "user friendly."
Case of Lester Collins
of New Yorkers diverted from the rolls, no single figure embodies their fates.
(Giuliani has resisted doing tracking studies on, of all things, civil-liberties
grounds. "Of course I don't have plans to keep track of people," he
said. "I'd be being Big Brother.") One figure does, however, occupy
a place of special renown inside the agency. Lester Collins was one of the first
to arrive on March 30, when the Greenwood Job Center opened its doors.
then, Collins has made at least nine failed attempts to come onto the rolls, not
counting the times he did not get far enough to complete an official application.
He has hustled female financial planners for dates, threatened to blow up the
center and shown up so drunk and unruly he was removed by the police. Turner,
on hand for the opening, somehow mentally registered Collins as a success. "Please
don't tell commissioner about Lester," said Fleming, the center's earnest
director. "It'll break his heart."
hearing much about the Lester legend, I found him one day at his mother's apartment
in a Coney Island public housing complex. At 25, he is a slight, gap-toothed man
with a wide grin who relishes an audience, and he offered a long recital of the
injustices he had suffered at the Greenwood Job Center. The job-search program
was "corny," he said, especially for a man like himself planning to
become a stock broker. And so was a stint in a workfare program, which he quit
when ordered to clean a public bathroom. "They should just give me my money
and stop playing mind games," he said. Arriving home from her own workfare
assignment, his mother offered a different view: "Lester needs to go get
a head shrinker."
As a young, troubled,
home-relief client (one of perhaps a dozen subcultures under the welfare umbrella),
Collins is a familiar New York figure. Perhaps he is also a minor harbinger of
things to come. Giuliani certainly has reason to argue that he has no place on
the rolls; if ever there was a case for caseload reduction, Lester is it. And
the loss of his check has not been as dire as critics fear. He has other ways
of surviving: odd jobs (he has loaded the occasional truck), other government
aid (food stamps and public housing) and family help ("I buy extra food,
so I can give him a bag when he goes home," his mother said).
the same time, there are yet no signs that losing welfare will set Collins on
the road to recovery, as Giuliani and Turner would predict. Turner's theory is
that the loss of welfare will help troubled clients by prompting them to deal
with their problems. He likens the process to one of people being "thrust
into the public square," where they will be forced to acknowledge their self-destructive
behavior. But thrust into the public square, Collins did nothing of the sort:
he flirted, fought, drank, complained and bummed groceries from his mother. So
far, for him at least, ending welfare has been another way of continuing the same
Do Giuliani's Job Centers Get
The conversion to the job
centers did much to bolster Turner's stock at City Hall. "He's doing a better
job than I thought he would do, and I thought he would do a very good job,"
Giuliani said in mid-October, citing the diversion rates as an example. But a
second measure of the centers' performance has received less public attention.
That is the number of people in the job-search program who are actually placed
in jobs. To be sure, the statistics can easily be misconstrued. The official count
understates the numbers really working, since it only counts clients who found
jobs through the program itself. There is no way to know how many dropped out
and found work on their own. And immediate job placement is just part of the centers'
larger goal, of changing the habits and expectations that clients bring to the
program. A month of job search before coming on the rolls may teach skills that
pay off later.
Moreover, it is hard to know
what the benchmark should be. In his July speech, Giuliani sketched out a job-center
vision where "for 10 people that came in, for 2 or 3 of them you found a
job right away." But the staff at one center was upset, nearly two weeks
after opening, to find that no one had found employment. "I was very depressed
-- it was nine days into this program, and we hadn't gotten a job for anyone,"
said an official there. At another center, an official discovered that just 3.5
percent of the first 1,000 clients referred to the program were placed in jobs.
"Everyone who comes through the job center, they ask, 'How many people got
jobs?"' an official there said. "And we never answer. Because when you
look at the number of people who come in, it doesn't sound like much."
agency now has data on the first 5,300 people to enter the job-search program.
Of them, 256 were placed in jobs, or just under 5 percent. When I asked Turner
about the numbers, he acknowledged, "We're not there yet" and predicted
future improvement. He has replaced five of the original eight private subcontractors
hired to run the program. He also said that some of the front-line staff, in their
initial excitement, may have had unrealistic expectations. It's na 1/4ve to expect
most clients to become dedicated job seekers overnight, he said. "The realistic
model is, they make many trips to the door," testing the program, looking
for shortcuts and eventually getting serious about work.
now, however, the job centers are clearly more successful in diverting people
than in directly getting them jobs. And the Mayor argues that is appropriately
so. Earlier this fall, I asked Giuliani which figures would prove the better measure
of success: the diversion rates, or the job-placement numbers? "Both are
important," he said. "But if you ask me for order of priority, the most
important number is decreasing the numbers of people dependent on the government
to support them -- because, after all, that's really government's role."
In setting up the job-search program, he said, the city was temporarily performing
a task that, "when things straighten out, government really shouldn't have
to do, which is to find jobs for people."
may strike many New Yorkers as a constricted view of society's responsibility
for the poor. But Giuliani left no doubt as to what he wants to do: "The
first thing that I look at is considerably fewer numbers of people having to come
to the government to say, 'Give me a check.' "
the 'Welfare Capital of the World' Grew and Grew
the Mayor vowed to end welfare last summer, he did so pointer in hand, standing
beside a chart that traced the exploding caseloads of the 1960's. At that decade's
dawn, 250,000 recipients. Thwwaaack! Twelve years later, 1.1 million. Thwwaaack!
"This wasn't an accident, it wasn't an atmospheric thing, it wasn't supernatural,"
Giuliani said. "This is the result of policies and programs designed to have
the maximum number of people get on welfare." In railing against "the
philosophy that was embraced in the 1960's," Giuliani is not just offering
the standard deprecation of the age. In theory and practice, welfare did undergo
a revolutionary change.
In an early draft
of his presentation, Giuliani even rounded out his history by citing the two Columbia
University professors whose audacious role in the welfare explosion is now all
but forgotten. In plotting what they called the "flood-the-rolls, bankrupt-the-cities
strategy," Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven literally set out to
destroy local welfare programs. By drowning the cities in caseloads and costs,
they hoped to build support for a more generous Federal solution, preferably a
guaranteed national income. What's also all but forgotten now is that the strategy
Curious about the period that
serves as Giuliani's foil, I sought out Cloward and Piven shortly after the Mayor's
speech. The Dutchess County home where they spend their summers is a serene place
to contemplate welfare militancy. Piven's gardening gifts were on luxuriant display,
with sunflowers outside her window and fresh vegetables on her lunch table. At
72, Cloward is a gruff, distracted figure with a habit of pacing the room. Piven,
65, and now teaching at the City University of New York, has lost little focus
or ferocity.The spiraling rolls, the indignant protests, the saturation of welfare
with due process rights -- much of what Giuliani deplores is symbolized by Mobilization
for Youth, the famous program that Cloward helped found, and Piven helped staff,
on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Though it quickly became the model for the
Johnson Administration's War on Poverty and a forerunner of the national Legal
Services program, poverty per se was not the focus when the program started in
1962. Cloward was an expert on juvenile delinquency, and Mobilization's storefront
offices were established to work with youth gangs.
as soon as they opened, the program was overwhelmed by destitute families facing
crises: eviction notices, empty refrigerators, closets without winter coats. Many
were recent black migrants from the south, fleeing Jim Crow and the mechanization
of the farm. They needed money, not youth-gang theory, and they needed it right
away. The welfare department was not only disinclined to help; it actually gave
some of them bus tickets home. Whatever Mobilization's original intent, Cloward
said, "the workers began focusing on getting these families on welfare --
it was something they could do."
effort, anyway. Though the rolls had already begun to rise at the end of the 1950's,
the welfare agency still had considerable discretion to turn people away. There
were residency laws, home visits and midnight raids; mothers deemed morally unfit
were routinely barred from aid. In a 1964 study, Cloward and Piven estimated that
at least half and perhaps as many as three-quarters of the eligible families in
New York were not receiving benefits.
Mobilization strategy for representing them can be summed up in a word: aggression.
"They argued and cajoled; they bluffed and threatened," Piven later
wrote of the program staff. They (and others) also sued, winning the welfare poor
a series of due process rights. By 1966 the New York rolls had doubled to 500,000,
a figure not seen since the end of the Depression. Through similar efforts, corresponding
increases spread across most Northern industrial cities.
it has been much maligned in retrospect, it is easy to see, in the context of
the times, the appeal of a relief expansion. Appalled at the racial terror of
the South, Northern liberals saw the country's very future at stake in their efforts
to redress the nation's injustices. Providing the destitute with material relief
seemed a logical place to start. But by 1966, Cloward and Piven had glimpsed the
makings of something bigger.
In an article
in The Nation, they called for elevating the situation into "a profound financial
and political crisis" through a "massive drive to recruit the poor onto
the rolls." Tactically, they recommended "bureaucratic disruption in
welfare agencies," "cadres of aggressive organizers" and "demonstrations
to create a climate of militancy." Strategically, they hoped to place local
officials in a box. If officials could not raise taxes (and alienate voters) or
cut benefits (and risk riots in a riot-prone age), what would they do? They would
call for a Federal guaranteed income, the two predicted, which could bring "an
end to poverty."
The article generated
a sensation on the left, with requests for reprints running 30,000 strong. Shortly
after, the National Welfare Rights Organization was born, and the age of full-fledged
welfare militancy was officially under way. In Washington, demonstrators occupied
the office of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. In New York, the
organization's members blocked the checkout line at Korvette's, telling the department
store to bill the welfare agency for their purchases. "Harassment, giving
ultimatums, overwhelming centers is our greatest tactic," declared a National
Welfare Rights pamphlet. In Cloward and Piven's view, the confrontations were
essential, because society responds to the needs of the poor only when the poor
themselves demand it.
As predicted, the bureaucracy's
first response was to open up the tap. Under Mayor John V. Lindsay, New York reduced
its application to a single page of self-declared need, and its Welfare Commissioner
became known to detractors as Mitchell (Come and Get It) Ginsberg. From 1966 to
1972, the city's caseload doubled again. Likewise as Cloward and Piven predicted,
enthusiasm grew for replacing welfare with a guaranteed national income. One such
plan passed the House of Representatives in 1971, only to fail in the Senate a
With the plan's defeat came the
movement's demise, but welfare had been fundamentally transformed. The poor now
had procedural rights, and the number of recipients remained high. But two kinds
of prices were paid. Bureaucratically, welfare agencies essentially became rickety
check-writing machines. True social workers were derided as paternalistic intruders,
and they were replaced by low-skilled clerks overwhelmed by the mass of their
work. Politically, the backlash was swift. Support for a welfare entitlement never
ran deep (it was largely established through the courts), and by the end of Lindsay's
reign, he, too, was trying to stem the rise of the rolls. The backlash continued
for decades. In recent years, reinvented liberals -- most notably, Bill Clinton
-- have argued that stricter welfare laws are essential to rebuilding political
support for the poor. But Cloward seemed weary and annoyed when I asked if he
had worried about backlash, saying animosity toward the poor is a given.
knew that trouble was coming," he said. "Our view is the poor don't
win much, and they only win it episodically. You get what you can when you can
get it -- and then you hold onto your hat."
the Mayor Believes
A Kennedy Democrat
in the 1960's, Giuliani says he was initially sympathetic to the rising welfare
rolls. "I thought of it as, 'This is just a natural extension of the New
Deal and these are temporary measures that are being put in place that will give
people a period of time to put their lives together,"' he said. But by the
time he took office in 1994, he had another view. Welfare itself had not figured
in his campaign, though it was part of the broader disorder he had pledged to
police. More to the point, it was increasingly expensive. The rolls had grown
33 percent in the Dinkins years, and with a $2 billion budget deficit, Giuliani
needed targets to cut. Borrowing workfare initiatives and fraud-detection plans
that had cut the rolls in Westchester County, Giuliani put both into play on an
unexpectedly large scale.
In New York, the
man in the street may have as much hostility toward welfare as people anywhere
else. But the city does have a uniquely resourceful network of welfare advocates
and lawyers. The local judiciary is liberal. The intellectual elite is hostile
toward workfare. And so are municipal unions, who rightly understand that welfare
recipients armed with brooms are a threat to their members' jobs. Giuliani overcame
the opposition in his usual holy-war style. When the unions resisted workfare,
he talked up the government privatization plans that could leave them all without
jobs. When the Assembly balked at his finger-imaging identification plan, he started
it with city funds.
Among the weapons not
to be underappraised is the famous Giuliani temper. The welfare program is filled
with lore of the Mayor (and his former assistant, Richard Schwartz) making high-decibel
demands for faster, more aggressive action -- and, above all, utter secrecy. With
daily control in Schwartz's hands at City Hall, even the Mayor's first two Welfare
Commissioners, Marva Hammonds and Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, were often out of the
loop. "They did not have the same strong philosophical commitment I have,"
Giuliani told me. The tight control fed the critics' fears, but Giuliani said
it was crucial. "My philosophy," he said, "has been, first make
the changes and have them moving in a very, very strong way -- then, announce
them." At that point, "there isn't terribly much that people that oppose
it can do."
In downtown Brooklyn, a building
crowded with cops and computers gives one glimpse of the new age. While otherwise
shedding city employees, Giuliani stocked the welfare agency with 1,500 new fraud
investigators. They now screen every applicant twice, first in the Brooklyn center
and then in a home visit. The blatant, multiple-identity fraud of popular legend
is rare (though not unheard of, as seen in the phony birth certificates the office
director collects in his desk). Still, about 40 percent of the city's applicants
fail to survive the screening. More than half of them simply do not show up, and
the others typically have modest amounts of excess assets or income, like an unreported
savings account. If Ginsberg's moniker was "Come and Get It," Giuliani's
might be "Go Ahead and Try."
the ultimate signature of the Giuliani years is the Work Experience Program --
workfare, that is -- in all its leaf-raking, lot-cleaning, lawsuit-generating
sprawl. With up to 37,000 participants a month, the program itself is larger than
the entire caseloads of 29 states. Merely to process that many people into the
field, the Mayor had to commandeer the 14th Street Armory.
sight of so many rakes and brooms brings more reactions than Rorschach's inkblots.
"Truly terrifying," says Liz Krueger, an anti-poverty advocate who worries
that the falling rolls may leave children hungry. "Lawless," says Marc
Cohan, the welfare rights attorney who has led the legal opposition. The Mayor,
on the other hand, sees the ubiquitous orange workfare vests as the signposts
of a Golden Age. "It's the answer to all of the quest for an urban agenda
that the liberal elite, if you want to call it that, has been looking for for
30 years," he said.
work program thrown together this fast will have its deplorable moments. And this
one certainly has. The affidavits in a lawsuit over working conditions were so
gruesomely compelling that they made the "Readings" section of Harper's
Magazine. (Anastacio Serrano, age 44: "When I picked up the animals with
my bare hands to throw them into the garbage truck, the guts splattered on my
shoes and pants.") While the general conditions are considerably improved,
questions persist about the treatment of the medically needy. The agency was shaken
last year when Marsha Motipersad, a 50-year-old woman with a history of heart
trouble, died of a heart attack on her lunch break. (She had quit a private job
and gone on welfare after her doctor warned her not to work.) A lawsuit by the
Legal Aid Society charges that the assignments doled out in the field often fail
to accommodate the individual infirmities identified by the city's own doctors.
The suit cites a woman barred from climbing stairs (because of emphysema) or riding
elevators (because of claustrophobia). The city gave her a ninth-floor working
assignment and cut her off for failing to comply.
this happens a lot or a little is a subject of dispute. But the core conflict
goes deeper. There is no agreement on whether workfare "works," because
there is no agreement on what it is supposed to do. Giuliani himself alternates
between three quite different rationales. One is simply to cut the caseloads.
("The most impressive number is 460,000 fewer people now dependent.")
A second is to prepare people for regular, wage-paying jobs. ("The best way
out of poverty. . .is working your way out of it.") And a third is to construct
a new social-contract that emphasizes everyone's obligations to contribute. ("In
life, you have to give back.")
asked about this, Giuliani seemed pleased to parse his priorities. "The social
contract part is probably the most important," he said, because of "the
lesson that reiterates about what life is really all about." He talked of
"the wonderful things" the poor gave back through the Works Progress
Administration during the Depression: "this building, that building, this
garden, this park, this highway." But just a moment earlier he had made a
different case, saying caseload reduction was "the more important part"
of helping the poor because "as soon as they stop being dependent on the
government they're moving in a much healthier direction."
seemed to me that these are not just different rationales. They are close to being
opposites. The prima facie faith in falling caseloads says government aid is the
problem. The nostalgic references to public works say government aid is the solution.
The tension -- between enrolling the poor in workfare and deterring them from
joining the rolls -- is pervasive in the agency's work. Indeed one could argue
that it is part of the tension every time a caseworker sees a new client.
Giuliani doesn't see it that way. When I asked about the apparent contradiction
a few weeks later, he said cutting the rolls and creating a new social contract
"are both the same thing." The contract he seeks is not primarily one
between government and the poor, he said; "it's also the social contract
that people have with each other" through family, friends, neighborhoods
and churches. "Those are the things that have to be rebuilt," and the
government's main contribution is simply to get welfare out of the way. "It
would be very counterproductive if government were even a critical part of it,"
the Mayor said, referring to the social contract. (So much for the W.P.A.) "Just
the mere reduction in the number of people dependent on government is a very,
very positive thing."
Whatever the theory,
there is no doubt that in practice, workfare cuts the rolls. The city's caseloads
have fallen 37 percent since 1995, when the workfare expansion began. For the
home relief population, the first to be enrolled, the decline has now reached
50 percent. One reason is that fewer people bother to apply if they know they
have to work (especially if they already secretly have jobs, since they cannot
be two places at once). And for those who do get aid, workfare makes it harder
That is especially true in the home
relief program, where recipients who miss a single hour of work can see their
entire case closed. Indeed, a statistical snapshot adds to the suspicion that
case closings are the point: last year, a disturbing 69 percent of the home relief
clients in the work program wound up being "sanctioned" off the rolls.
Many simply reapply a month or two later, in a process known as churning. "It's
a fault of the system we're trying to correct," said Turner, who hopes to
create a more personalized system of case management over the next year.
is also no doubt that the work program has given the city cleaner streets at lower
costs. Schwartz, the former Giuliani aide, has valued the labor contributed by
the welfare workers at more than $500 million a year. In that sense, Giuliani,
against the odds, really does have the poor giving back. What is in doubt is whether
the program leads to regular, wage-paying jobs, especially in a city where the
unemployment rate is still 7.8 percent. "The real criticism, and the fair
criticism, is you don't really know that they're going to work in the private
sector," said Lawrence Mead, a professor at New York University and a Giuliani
supporter who serves as a city consultant. Earlier this year, a state study of
those leaving welfare (including but not limited to workfare participants) found
just 29 percent had jobs; under Turner, the city did its own study and placed
the rate at 54 percent. But he, too, has been surprised to find workfare workers
in the same post for years. "People come up to you and say, 'I've been in
this job for three years, can I have it?"' he said.
for all the concern about working conditions, one of the most surprising aspects
of the workfare program is that many do not want to leave it. Right or wrong,
they are convinced that they have no place better to go. On the work crew I followed
for a day, four of the nine members had been raking leaves in Prospect Park for
the past three years. Their esprit was noteworthy, perhaps even a sign of the
civic rejuvenation Giuliani has in mind. "I like it out here," said
a 59-year-old man named Frank, too shy to give his last name. "If I was sitting
at home, I wouldn't be doing nothing but looking at the four walls." At the
same time, he added, "I ain't looking for other work -- work is hard to find."
Working Means Everybody
Like, say, the
Normandy landing, a universal work requirement is conceptually simple but logistically
beyond complex. When fully implemented, the 1996 Federal law will require just
half the caseload to work at a given time, and many administrators have called
that standard too ambitious. Giuliani plans to have everyone doing 20 hours of
actual work, plus 15 hours of work-related activities, like drug treatment or
education. Even if the job centers never let another new person on welfare, to
keep his pledge Giuliani has to put to work the 244,000 unemployed adults already
on the rolls.
Most have problems. The city
estimates that 21 percent have medical limitations. Another 8 percent are in drug
or alcohol treatment. Still others are pregnant or caring for disabled relatives
(4 percent each). And 16 percent are already in the penalty process, typically
for past failures to accept a work assignment. Add other impediments, and the
problems list grows to 63 percent. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the recipients
Giuliani are trying to employ claim a limited ability to work.
them into a work program would be difficult anywhere, but it is especially hard
in New York, where state law offers recipients unusual procedural protections.
Anyone claiming an infirmity is entitled to a medical exam, and Turner, like others,
insists that some recipients stop taking their medication to appear sicker than
they are. (Whatever the medical problem, short of complete disability, the agency
is vowing to find ways to accommodate it.)
law also limits penalties for noncompliance. While home relief clients lose their
entire grants when they are "sanctioned" for not working, those receiving
Temporary Assistance typically lose just a third. The smaller penalty protects
women and children from utter destitution. But it also emboldens defiant clients:
they can do nothing at all and continue to collect an average of $387 a month,
plus food stamps. Indeed, despite Giuliani's push for work, there are still fewer
people in the work program (30,100) than there are in the sanctioning process
(42,000) or claiming medical limitations (53,000).
arithmetic literally jolted Turner awake one night with the fear that the schedule
was slipping. Designing the right work assignments -- desk jobs for those with
bad backs, no dusting for people with asthma -- is only the first step in the
race to the 2000 deadline to have everyone employed.
is filled with plans for services to wrap around the 20-hour work schedule: child-care
expansions, drug-treatment programs, upgraded case management. "This was
the year where we had to get the system under control and organized," he
said. "Next year you'll see more of an emphasis on new services." He
is particularly proud of an agreement just reached with the state vocational agency
to place 18,000 medically limited recipients in an employment program; the city
has agreed to pay up to $10,000 for each successful job placement. I visited a
prototype of the program this fall and found it off to a good start. In his faith
that raising expectations will do the poor much good, Turner could not have hoped
for a better example than Carmen Espinosa. After 14 years on the rolls, and suffering
from a bad back, she had lacked the confidence to apply for a job even at McDonald's.
She was frightened when the program sent her to do community service in a kitchen
at a day-care center. But she was stunned a few months later when the day-care
center hired her into a $9-an-hour job.
the bureaucracy can only imagine the logistics still to come -- the logistics,
say, of shuttling a drug-addicted mother between a work assignment and a treatment
program while working around the child care schedules of her preschooler and second
grader. Just thinking about the complexity, Turner said, "I kind of woke
up with the shakes." And by dawn he settled on a plan: the agency would finish
screening every recipient by the end of this year.
of the first showdowns involved recipients enrolled at the City University of
New York. Convinced (with some reason) that the classes can be a strategy for
avoiding work, Giuliani has insisted that students do 20 hours of workfare like
everyone else. After obtaining a list of the school's enrollment, the agency was
stunned to find in August that 12,000 recipients were taking classes -- including
5,000 who had claimed they were too sick to work. Turner decided to call them
in and have them screened for workfare assignments.
their resistance, a career employee named Rose Manchell described a new tool --
a 26-item questionnaire that asks clients if they can "sit," "stand,"
"walk for short periods" or perform other minimal feats. The idea was
to get them to admit they could do something. "Oh, they were slick!"
Manchell reported back, during a meeting with Turner this fall. "The bottom
line was they're too sick to do anything but go to school. Somebody said to me,
'I'm depressed!' I said, 'You're depressing me!"' Continuing her acerbic
monologue, Manchell had the room in stitches. "What are you, a psychic? You
saw on 'Oprah' that you can't work?" Then suddenly the sarcasm melted into
something unexpected in a big-city bureaucracy: a pool of grandmotherly concern.
"These are young kids -- 20- and 21-year-olds," she said, a few weeks
before her retirement. "We've got to get to them."
or pastoral, the questionnaire worked wonders. Of the first 560 students summoned,
70 percent accepted work assignments without further dispute. Turner then put
the form to work in the larger call-ins off Union Square that were triggered by
his late-night worries. Clients were lined up by 7:30 A.M. on the last Saturday
of September as the great sifting of the poor began. Like Manchell's monologue,
the effort showed dual elements -- questioning excuses and promoting work -- intertwined
in the agency's efforts. Doubting a woman's contention that she cannot "bend,"
one caseworker cross-examined her into a confession that she sets her laundry
basket on the floor. "So you can bend!" he said. But another spent 30
minutes trying to coax a depressed client into trying workfare, and when she failed
she seemed disappointed mostly for the client herself. "If she is around
people, it will make her feel better," the caseworker said. I counted two
Nigerians, a Jamaican, a Russian and a Filipino among the dozen or so caseworkers
I visited, and it was impossible to mistake their immigrant belief that, for all
their problems, the welfare poor could do better. "Would you be able to work
in an office, like what I'm doing?" one caseworker asked.
day ended in a standoff. Of the recipients who answered the summons, 44 percent
accepted work assignments. And exactly the same percentage resisted, demanding
additional medical exams. The same pattern continued throughout the fall. It's
both an indication of Giuliani's progress toward his goal, and of the distance
that remains in getting to universal work.
Case of Maureen Scott
As the first day
was winding down, a spectacle erupted in the lobby. "They're going to kick
me out of school!" screamed an outraged woman. "It's a system to keep
black people down, so they can keep sailing in their yachts!" At first this
seemed like just the usual office theater. But the events that led Maureen Scott
to the office make hers a particularly sympathetic case. This is not Lester Collins.
43, Scott has nearly two decades of work history behind her as a beautician and
nursing aide. She went on welfare earlier this year, after a beating by her husband
ended her marriage and broke the bones around her right eye. With two children
now to support on her own, she needed a raise from her $7.50-an-hour part-time
wage, and she decided the only way to get one was to earn a high-school degree.
Still wearing a surgeon's patch, she enrolled in an equivalency-degree program.
"I couldn't even see," she said, producing a student identification
card that showed her bandaged face. "I was that determined to help myself."
later visited the Harlem apartment crowded with other signs of Scott's earnest
efforts: the health-care certificates from a technical school; a personal computer
for her children; the barber chair from the defunct business she tried to start
as a beautician. Logistically, 20 hours of workfare would force her out of her
all-day class. Spiritually, she viewed it as a capstone of degradation: after
two decades of low-wage striving, her life had come to this. "How am I going
to face my children, working in the streets?" she said. "Might as well
call my husband, take the beating and let him pay the rent -- they're doing the
same thing to me."
Her language was overheated,
but her concern is worth noting. The rigidness of the Giuliani program is both
a strength (because it gets things done) and a weakness (because it tends to treat
everyone alike). A woman who has never worked, a woman who has worked all her
life -- the system presumes that workfare is the solution for both. Turner believes
that it is the solution. "I'd be surprised if there was any instance in which
work, as a component of the package, wasn't the best thing for the person to do,"
he said. Others in the agency think more discretion would be a plus, if only the
caseworkers were talented enough to exercise it appropriately. Scott said: "I
agree that some people abuse the system, but it shouldn't be that everyone suffers.
They should look and individually supervise."
that was the point of a ruling this fall that brought the CUNY crackdown to a
halt. As soon as the student roundup began, advocates raced into court to argue
the universal use of workfare "makes a mockery" of a state law requiring
individual assessments. A lower-court judge agreed and ordered the city to do
individualized plans. For now, the ruling only affects the CUNY students (the
agency allowed most of them to stay in school). But the same principle applied
across the caseload could leave a universal work requirement significantly weakened.
Arguing that welfare is not student aid, Turner said the program has plenty of
room for individualization after the 20-hour work obligation is fulfilled. He
predicts victory on appeal.
the Rolls Amounts To
Beyond the legal
specifics, the CUNY case hints at a broader disagreement in the welfare debate.
The student affidavits make most recipients seem like candidates for canonization.
("Once I got home, I would study until about 2:30 or 3 A.M.") The Giuliani
effort often seems animated by the suspicion that every case is a con. ("Oh,
they were slick!") How one views the program depends, to a considerable degree,
on which of the two rings truer. One could say this is essentially a left-versus-right
clash. But in fact it is more complicated than that, since each has its internal
contradictions. If the welfare poor are really so striving, why are so many on
the rolls for so long? Then again, if they are crippled with dependency, as Giuliani
says, is it reasonable to expect that they will thrive on their own?
is hard to delve inside this bureaucracy without having some sympathy for Giuliani's
effort to police it. Much as he said, the excesses of the old system promoted
a something-for-nothing mentality offensive to the taxpayer and often harmful
to the poor. "They should just give me my money," Lester Collins says.
Who can argue, in theory at least, with reciprocal obligation? It is also hard
to avoid doubting whether the bureaucracy can manage the change. An agency that
cannot find a quarter of its files is ill positioned to reorder the lives of a
quarter-million troubled New Yorkers.
the bigger worry about the Giuliani effort extends beyond logistics. It is that
all the philosophical talk of a new social contract will prove to be just a cover
for cutting the rolls. (This year, the city's savings in welfare and Medicaid
are likely to exceed $800 million.) The withholding of food-stamp applications,
the zeal for diversion, the hair-trigger workfare penalties -- in practice, all
these things do less to offer the poor a new bargain than to encourage them to
go away. Giuliani himself could not have put it more bluntly: "The first
thing I look at is considerably fewer people having to come to the government
to say, 'Give me a check."'
To be sure,
the enthrallment with falling caseloads is not limited to New York alone. It is
the driving force of the new era, enshrined in its founding rhetoric: end welfare.
But like the flood-the-rolls strategy that preceded it, the excessive faith in
falling caseloads (to the extent that it's not just a political line) rests on
a romantic vision of the poor -- many of whom need more order imposed on their
lives, not less.
Giuliani said his critics
do not understand that "people on welfare are exactly the same as they are."
In fact, the caseload sifting suggests the opposite, that the majority rank as
troubled souls: depressed, illiterate, infirm, addicted. A generation ago, the
left made the mistake of assuming a check was mostly what they needed. Now the
right is on the verge of the same error, confusing the loss of an entitlement
with a social elixir. When Giuliani says, "As soon as they stop being dependent
on the government they're moving in a much healthier direction," he's making
an outsize leap of faith. Swept up in exuberance in one of our talks, he offered
this advice to the poor: "If you can't get a job, start a small business.
Start a little candy store. Start a little newspaper stand. Start a lemonade stand."
is hard to know whether that is really what the Mayor believes. A new social contract
would be welcome, and Giuliani has still got a year to deliver. But saving the
poor from the welfare mess will take more than a pep talk and lemonade.
© 1998 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.