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Address on Welfare Reform

Wednesday, May 15th, 2002

Today, we have an opportunity too often denied a new administration: to reaffirm a commitment to policies that have worked, and at the same time to make changes when conditions demand them.

Welfare in New York City once was synonymous with dependency and poverty. Five years ago, we set out to "end welfare as we knew it." Our goal was to replace dependency with dignity, and poverty with personal achievement. The key to achieving that goal was putting work first.

The results have been dramatic. In 1995, some one-point-two million New Yorkers were on public assistance. Today, that figure has been cut by nearly 60 per cent. The welfare rolls have continued to go down by some 25,000 cases during the first four and a half months of this year.

Fewer than 450,000 New Yorkers now receive public assistance. Some 54 per cent of that caseload receive support from the federal "temporary assistance to needy families, " or "TANF" program. The remainder receive aid through New York State's "safety net" program, established to provide continuing public assistance to those who leave the federal program once its five-year time limit for benefits expires, and for those never covered by federal benefits at all.

This reduction in welfare caseload has saved us hundreds of millions of tax dollars. More importantly, it has transformed hundreds of thousands of lives. New Yorkers who were once welfare-dependant are now working. They have gained a foothold in the world of independence and hope.

It wasn't easy; not everyone succeeded. We don't have complete data on exactly what jobs people have gone on to. But we do know that many have found jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families. They are contributing to their communities. Many others have started on the road to self-sufficiency, and with our continued support, will get there as well.

Some of the former students at La Guardia community college who had been on welfare have progressed down that road to self-reliance are with us today. They are: Mercedes Gomez; Tatyana Arumora; Mira Davydova; and Augustina Solise-Brown. Let me ask them to stand and take a round of applause.

Welfare reform is a success story with many authors. They include: the drafters of the federal legislation that empowered us to undertake these bold policy initiatives… the frontline city government employees and non-profit service providers who implemented it… my predecessor, Mayor Giuliani, who championed it… and perhaps most importantly, determined people like the ones we've just met.

Now we must take the next, equally important step. Congress is currently debating legislation that will determine the next stage in welfare reform.

The staff of New York City's Human Resources Administration, working with other city agencies, has developed a detailed proposal for the next phase of welfare reform that we will submit to congress.

It focuses on what we think are the essential issues; it reflects what we've learned; it provides a framework for continued future success.

The proposal runs to nearly 30 single-spaced pages. For your sake and mine, I will not go into all that eye-straining detail. But I want to share with you our fundamental recommendations.

Let me state clearly, we remain committed to the original goals of welfare reform. First, federal public assistance should be temporary. If it is not, neither society nor those less fortunate who are receiving benefits will progress.

Second, there should be zero tolerance for fraud, so that the few who would cheat the system do not discredit the many who work honorably and hard. That means that finger-imaging and other accountability measures must continue.

And third, since requiring people to work is the best way to help them move to self-sufficiency, everyone who can work/ should work if they want to receive public assistance.

We will not go back to the way things were; we will not allow our city to recede to a culture of dependency.

As part of the reauthorization of the federal welfare reform initiative, President Bush has proposed that 70 per cent of those receiving public assistance be required to work -- up from the current 50 percent caseload requirement. The president has set the right goal for the nation to hit. In fact, in New York City we already strive to require everyone to take steps toward self-sufficiency.

We are a national leader in this regard. Current federal law sets a minimum 30-hour work week for eligible public assistance recipients; New York City already requires 35 hours of work and work-related activities a week. We are also one of the few jurisdictions to even come close to the current requirement that 50 percent of eligible welfare recipients work.

That standard suits a time when the job market is depressed. Certainly as the economy improves, we will set constantly higher and higher goals. We owe to all of society an increase in cooperation and results.

As an aside, let me point out that raising the bar higher than that is problematic, ironically because of the very success we have had in reducing welfare rolls. Many of those who now remain on public assistance face a highly complex set of problems as they work toward self-sufficiency. Some are physically disabled; some are attempting to recover from histories of domestic violence. Some, such as the mentally ill homeless, must contend with combinations of daunting problems.

New York is already a leader in implementing creative solutions that help people with such problems make the transition to work. And over the next five years, we'll continue to be innovative and relentless in helping everyone who can make that transition to do so.

I believe that our current success in getting half the eligible welfare recipients to work for 35 hours a week is a significant achievement in today's difficult economic times. As an incentive to encourage jurisdictions to reach the president's 70 percent work participation level, the federal government should make bonus incentives available to states and cities that achieve that goal.

Like President Bush, I believe we should ensure that welfare recipients who work should also be able to participate in job-training, education and job placement programs. Training and education should be closely tied to the needs of city businesses, and lead to real jobs. And programs that provide job placement should continue to be paid based on their success in helping people get and retain real jobs.

The federal government also should provide greater funding for childcare, and greater autonomy at the state and city level in spending those childcare funds.

In addition, we agree with all those who have urged congress and the president to correct the mistake in the original welfare reform bill and once again ensure that legal immigrants are treated fairly, eligible for the same benefits and held to the same requirements as citizens.

To be as bold and successful going forward as we have been in the first five years of welfare reform, the next phase of welfare reform also should focus on two new major goals:

Let me briefly describe how those goals can be achieved by expanding the definition of welfare reform to include prevention and retention -- preventing people from going on welfare and also helping them retain jobs.

First as to prevention. It's self-evident that the best welfare reform is to keep people from needing welfare in the first place.

That means directing services to the young people most at risk of becoming welfare recipients, including: the children of those currently on public assistance…teen mothers and fathers…foster children and those aging out of the foster care system… children in low-income families…high school dropouts…and juvenile offenders.

To help us do that, federal welfare reauthorization should allow funds to be used for such goal-oriented educational and vocational initiatives as:

In sum, the single biggest factor in prevention is better education. In many of our schools, abysmal classroom education all but destroys the ability of students to succeed as adults. We have to change the odds in those students' favor -- and that is why I am seeking school governance reform. The first step to improving education in New York is establishing sound management and accountability in what is now a failing school system.

Second, it also should be a national priority to help the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have moved off public assistance continue to succeed.

The road from poverty to self-sufficiency isn't an easy one. A medical or family emergency… an unexpected rent increase… a child care arrangement suddenly falling through… all of these can threaten or wipe out a family's hard-won gains.

It would be wrong to walk away from New Yorkers who have started on the road to self-sufficiency. It would also be fiscally foolish. It is less expensive to help someone stay at work than it is to support him or her if they are forced to return to welfare. The success of welfare reform should not be measured solely by reduction in caseloads, but also by the ability of people to become and remain self-sufficient.

Those who have left welfare dependency behind must also be able to put their new lives on a stable foundation. We should help them do that with transitional benefits for childcare, health insurance and housing that enable them to stay in jobs. We also should be free to help them increase their job skills, burnish their resumes and keep moving up the job ladder.

Over the last five years, we've dramatically reduced the city's welfare caseloads. We've established strong safeguards against welfare fraud. And we've set a national standard for making work the first priority for welfare recipients.

In the next five years, we must be equally bold. The program we have developed is a balanced one. It reaffirms a commitment to reforms that have worked. It also recognizes the new realities presented by a less-than robust economy and a welfare caseload that presents complex challenges.

I will not walk away from my fundamental belief that there are those among us who desperately need help. That sometimes, through discrimination, happenstance, or just plain indifference, some people are left out of the great opportunities that this country, state and city provide.

All my life, I've been taught -- in my home, in my school and in my temple -- that we have an unshakable moral responsibility to help-no matter that it may be expensive, inconvenient, or difficult.

At the same time, I also believe we each have a personal responsibility to ourselves, our families and to society in general to determine our own futures. Blaming others for our own failures, seeing every obstacle as an excuse or shifting responsibility to others is behavior I cannot disagree with more strongly.

It is the balance between these two beliefs that we must get right in our welfare policies. This administration's policy will be to have the compassion required of us as human beings and the discipline to focus on those in real need. I look forward to working with you to realize that balance in those most difficult and important policy area.