New York's monthly welfare cash-assistance caseload has dropped by 71 percent since the mid-1990s, from an all-time high of 1.16 million people to a little more than 337,000 as of April. In purely statistical terms, this was a feat rivaling the drop in crime in New York City during roughly the same period.
Most of the decline in the caseload occurred under Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the landmark federal welfare reform of 1996. The rolls shrank further under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Even in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, the number of New Yorkers dependent on welfare checks did not increase by a lot.
But the new city administration thinks recent welfare stats have been misleading. Steven Banks, Mayor Bill de Blasio's choice to lead the Human Resources Administration (HRA), told the City Council in May that the stability in caseloads since the recession reflected a "rejection and reapplication cycle" expressly designed to discourage people from seeking assistance.
Under Giuliani and Bloomberg, the HRA clearly did make it difficult for people to get on and stay on the welfare rolls. The question is whether the alternative is more desirable.
We'll soon find out. The de Blasio administration intends to make it easier to qualify for welfare in New York than it has been for almost 20 years. Banks said the city will be able to hold down the welfare rolls in the long term by becoming more effective at finding more "stable" jobs.
In other words, the HRA's anti-poverty strategy will no longer be guided by the notion that a job, any job, is better than not working. Instead, it will seek to place welfare recipients in better jobs -- which, inevitably, will also require more specialized training. Since a four-year degree is the key to getting a really good job, going to college will now also fulfill the work requirement for welfare recipients.
This may sound nice, but it's the same approach that doomed "workfare" experiments before federal welfare reform.
Meanwhile, de Blasio is leading the charge for a much higher minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave and other policies that will shrink the number of entry jobs at the source.
There's a real risk the mayor will achieve the opposite of his intention -- by making too many poor people even poorer.
E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank.