Commentary Magazine


The Politics of Welfare, by Blanche Bernstein

Welfare and Society

The Politics of Welfare.
by Blanche Bernstein.
Abt Books. 204 pp. $22.00.

Blanche Bernstein is a public official who has become anathema to her former colleagues in the social-welfare community. In their view, her basic principle—that welfare programs should be administered in accordance with law—verges on an outrageous insult to the human spirit. In defense of her position, Dr. Bernstein has written an exemplary book, setting forth with a minimum of understandable rancor the immense political problems she faced in administering welfare programs in New York State and New York City from 1975 to 1980.

In practical terms, there were—and there remain—three major defects in the laws that give federal assistance, with local contributions, to households that are not financially independent. First, in New York City and presumably elsewhere too, a large number of people receive welfare payments they are not entitled to under the laws. Second, it is difficult to the point of impossibility to get fathers of children on welfare to contribute to the cost of supporting their children. Finally, the law makes it difficult to encourage welfare recipients to join the work force even when they have the opportunity to do so, because the loss (particularly in health benefits) of their welfare grant sometimes matches or exceeds their after-tax gain from employment. Welfare clients may not be brilliant, but they are economically rational.

In Dr. Bernstein’s judgment, all three of these special problems could be dealt with were it not for a single destructive influence: the refusal of the social-work community to acknowledge that they are problems, and its equally maddening refusal to help improve the workings of the law. In New York, that social-welfare community includes professional social workers on the staffs of large charitable organizations. It also includes their lay board members, whose prestige is persuasive to the media but who depend on their staffs for information and even opinions. It includes the staff of the city department that issues welfare checks. And it includes the politicians and civil-rights leaders who view social welfare as a means of supporting and protecting non-white victims of the nation’s long history of discrimination and deprivation.

These are the people, Dr. Bernstein asserts, who are indifferent to the fact that an amazingly high percentage of households receiving welfare assistance in New York City are legally ineligible to do so. In 1971, for example, a law was passed in New York that required welfare clients to pick up their checks at state employment-service offices. Dr. Bernstein writes that 20 percent of the people on the rolls failed to report, thus forfeiting their right: to the checks. The reaction of the Community Council of New York to this turn of events was a demand that the law be repealed, because asking welfare clients to visit the employment-service offices—where they might be offered jobs but could not be forced to take them—caused them to waste their money on carfare.

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What is behind such an attitude? For one thing, as Dr. Bernstein suggests, social workers genuinely, and realistically, fear that if word leaks out that ineligible families receive welfare benefits, public support for the programs will disappear. Then, too, social workers have traditionally viewed their clients as people whose dignity must be protected above all. It is in keeping with this traditional view, Dr. Bernstein points out in a long appendix, for social workers to object to programs for improving the homes of welfare clients if it will impair the clients’ freedom to spend their rental allowance as they wish. In the same vein, social workers fought against the “demeaning” food-stamp program when it was first announced in the 1960′s.

But there is another factor at work here, hinted at in Dr. Bernstein’s discussion of the historical background. It fell to her to administer the nation’s largest welfare program in the shadow of a civil-rights movement which stressed the systemic injustices that, its. leaders held, were wholly responsible for lagging black income and rising family instability. This emphasis resulted in a serious questioning of the accustomed relationship between social worker and client. Thus, one of the leading social-work institutions in New York, the Community Service Society, decided in the 1960′s to abandon case work because it was based on the false and outdated view that individuals were at least partly responsible for the consequences of their own actions.

The implications of this change were not apparent to everyone, although I myself had the good luck to be educated on the point at a public hearing of the Board of Estimate. At that hearing, a woman on welfare shouted at Mayor John Lindsay that she wanted him to approve a public-housing project under discussion only if its management were forbidden to discriminate against mothers with illegitimate children. “I’ve got six kids,” she screamed, “and each one of them has a different daddy. It’s my job to have kids, and your job, Mr. Mayor, to take care of them.” My guess is that she heard this formulation from a retiring social worker. Dr. Bernstein, by contrast, does not believe that adolescent mothers of illegitimate children are necessarily capable of handling their own affairs. People, she would argue, rarely cure themselves of their disorders, and are rarely cured without their active cooperation.

The second major issue on which Dr. Bernstein found herself quarreling with the social-work community was over getting fathers of welfare children to pay some of the costs involved in sustaining them. If anything, the opposition to searching out fathers has been even more virulent than the opposition to rooting out ineligibles.

The excuses for laxity are many and various: the courts, says the social-work fraternity, have not established a universal ruling; fathers might lose their jobs if their wages were garnished; their earnings are too low to permit them to make contributions comfortably; and so on. The basic fact remains that in their effort to be compassionate, New Yorkers have lost the energy to make serious judgments about the responsibilities of mortals. Surely there is a perverse elitism in the refusal of Family Court justices in New York to require working fathers of children on welfare to pay some costs now covered by taxpayers.

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Much of the same excuse-making permeates the reaction of the social-welfare community to the effort to lead welfare clients into the work force. In the social-workers’ mind, welfare recipients should be free (like everyone else, one can hear them blandly asserting) to work or not as they please. Not only does the community decry the value of work to the human spirit, and engage in solemn cant to the effect that no one should be made to work in a “dead-end job,” but its members reserve their most bitter comments for the authority figures—the policemen, the old-fashioned clerics, the employers, the teachers, the merchants, the landlords—who are all part of the citifying process, crude as it always was, cruel as it has often been.

Dr. Bernstein places responsibility here not solely on the bureaucrats who administer the welfare program, or on the legislators who have been unable to devise laws that will both support the poor and encourage them (and others) to work for a minimal increase in real earnings, but on those upper-class and upper-middle-class civic leaders who have forgotten the simplest of societal facts—namely, that people are socialized by example. The refusal of these civic leaders to bother with the nasty, disheartening work of enforcing standards—to assert that one form of behavior is acceptable, another not—cuts off at the knees the efforts of lower authorities to help the poor in their transition from rural to urban life.

One puts down Dr. Bernstein’s book wondering whether, as a society attains general affluence, its successful citizens do not become too busy enjoying themselves to play their needed roles as models and makers of patterns. It may, after all, turn out to be as hard to sustain the will to reclaim the welfare population as it is to sustain the national will to defend ourselves globally in the face of the Soviet challenge. In the case of both, the failure to see the challenge for what it is, and to face the need for a commensurate response, demonstrates that quality of decadence which is so easy to observe in other societies, so hard to recognize in ourselves.

About the Author




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