Even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg strides confidently toward his second term, he finds himself laboring in the long shadow of the man who helped get him there in the first place. The legacy of Rudolph Giuliani is so formidable that Mr. Bloomberg must be careful when contemplating any change, for fear that he might be accused of squandering his predecessor’s patrimony.
Of all of Mr. Giuliani’s landmark achievements, only the historic reduction in crime comes ahead of his reform of city welfare policy, which drastically reduced the number of people on public assistance.
Only two days after his smashing re-election, Mr. Bloomberg signaled his desire to tinker with the welfare system. The question is, will any changes be seen as a rollback of Mr. Giuliani’s reforms, or will they be viewed as improvements?
Actually, Mr. Bloomberg began to signal possible changes in the welfare system during the campaign. In a campaign speech on Oct. 29 at the St. Nicholas Youth and Family Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Mayor discussed a plan to connect struggling New Yorkers with nonprofit human-service agencies through the 311 government help line. He also called for the streamlining and speeding up of the welfare system’s eligibility-screening process. Some of Mr. Giuliani’s critics have charged that the byzantine applications were designed to be so onerous that they deterred people from seeking welfare benefits.
“Government has an obligation to help those in need,” Mr. Bloomberg said in October. “But we must also give everyone the tools they need to attain self-sufficiency and to participate as productive members of our city.”
Social-service advocates contend that such language is indicative of the Mayor’s tendency to try to have it both ways when it comes to welfare, an especially sticky subject for a man who has long tried to counter his image as an aloof billionaire who is out of touch with the city’s poor.
Now the Mayor is caught in a difficult balancing act. As a matter of propriety, he must assuage supporters of Mr. Giuliani, whose endorsement was crucial in securing his first election as Mayor in 2001. They consider welfare reform one of the former Mayor’s great successes, and they would not stand by idly if they thought Mr. Bloomberg were reversing Mr. Giuliani’s policies.
At the same time, he is trying to make the system more flexible and allay liberal wariness over the continued drop in the welfare rolls. While Mr. Giuliani halved the number of New Yorkers on welfare, from more than a million to less than 500,000, the number has continued to decrease under Mr. Bloomberg, and as of September stood at 414,000.
“It’s brilliant the way he has convinced the Giuliani conservatives that he hasn’t changed the policy, and the way he has convinced the liberals that he has,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who echoed many advocates in saying that the Mayor’s most substantial progress on welfare issues has been in style rather than substance.
“Things, at least in tone, have changed dramatically,” said Bonnie Potter, the director of the N.Y.C. Employment and Training Coalition, which represents many of the agencies that receive contracts from the city’s Human Resources Administration. “Tone does matter.”
But some of the Mayor’s aides say that there is more at play here than a softening of rhetoric. First, they note that the welfare population, while smaller, is more difficult to place now, because the fat has been flayed. But they insist that, in stark contrast to Mr. Giuliani, there is a concerted effort to reach out to the poor to let them know about benefits, like food stamps, housing and Medicare.
“Part of what happened in the past is that it was just about getting people off welfare and into work,” said one Bloomberg policy aide. “But no one ever did the follow-up. We’re not trying to make it difficult for people who deserve benefits to get benefits. We also made it more accessible, and will continue to make it more accessible, for people who are eligible. That’s huge.”
But Jason Turner, who ran the H.R.A. under Mr. Giuliani and was that administration’s chief architect of welfare reform (and a pariah to the nonprofits that lost lucrative contracts), said that many of the programs used by Mr. Bloomberg were already in place under the prior administration. “I can’t tell you how much is real and how much is changing the names of things,” he said, though he chided the Bloomberg administration’s emphasis on extended follow-up. “That’s the age-old liberal argument, that the government has to track people throughout the rest of their lives to see if they fell off the wagon. It’s impractical and you don’t want to do it.”
Nevertheless, some of Mr. Bloomberg’s aides and officials at the H.R.A. say his proposals suggest more emphasis on sustainable long-term results. Under the Mayor’s proposed “Back to Work” program, contractors will be awarded bonuses for helping welfare recipients keep their jobs and get raises rather than the prior emphasis on incentives for placement. In May, the Mayor struck a deal with social-service workers holding contracts with city agencies, giving them raises in exchange for productivity.
According to the H.R.A. and Bloomberg officials, more training and education will count towards the fulfillment of Mr. Giuliani’s Work Experience Program, essentially tempering the much-touted program.
Robert McHugh, a spokesman for the H.R.A., said that the Bloomberg administration had successfully lobbied Albany to change state legislation so that the city now has the option of requiring less work from—and providing more training to—single adults.
But the Mayor hasn’t always been so willing to stray from Mr. Giuliani’s example. Back in 2003, he vetoed legislation passed by the City Council that would have allowed education such as English as a Second Language to count toward work requirements. The Council overrode his veto, prompting the Mayor to lash out that the Council had chosen “to turn back the clock on welfare reform, reviving a dated, discredited policy that we long ago learned was a failure.”
The Mayor said that his opposition was based on problems of the City Council usurping executive powers, a jurisdictional objection that many advocates criticize as a disingenuous tactic. Yet, according to Bloomberg administration officials, many of the proposals were eventually enacted without much fanfare, though advocates counter that the significant changes dropped out. Regardless, the allowances upset Giuliani supporters, who contend that getting into the habit of going to work, day in and day out, is much more beneficial than training for it.
That line of thinking has garnered influence in Washington. Andrew Bush, who worked under Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Turner on welfare issues, was recently appointed as a key official in the Department of Health and Human Services.
“What Giuliani did was, he created an actual simulated workweek of five days—three actual work and two training. And that exact formula has been translated into the federal legislation proposal. That got in there,” said Mr. Turner, referring to the House proposal for the reauthorization of Bill Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, due for renewal this year.
But the Bloomberg administration has openly fought the House proposal, which so reflects Mr. Giuliani’s approach to welfare. Under the plan, 70 percent of a welfare district’s benefit recipients need to be working by 2007—up from the current 50 percent—in order to avoid sanctions that would cost New York millions of dollars in funding to support those who don’t work.
The Bloomberg administration thinks that the figure is untenable.
In February, David Hansell, the H.R.A. chief of staff, told the House Ways and Means Committee that more than half of New York’s welfare population “were individuals determined through our assessment process to be fully or partially unable to engage in traditional employment activities.” He argued that those people “need a broader range of critical services, plus adequate time to enable them to overcome the barriers that prevent them from achieving and maintaining self-sufficiency.”
Mr. Hansell proposed substantial increases in “funding for education and training, job placement, and programs to address special population barriers to employment.” Bloomberg aides and H.R.A. officials said that some of those training and counseling programs are already being administered on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Hansell’s assessment may not have gone over well with some of Mr. Giuliani’s true believers. But not everyone is so convinced that Mr. Bloomberg will betray the Giuliani legacy.
“The Bloomberg administration has changed the style more than the substance,” said Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of political science at New York University and a Giuliani supporter. “They haven’t rolled back the job centers or the Work Experience Program or the demand that people look for jobs up front.”
Mr. Mead said that Mr. Giuliani’s confrontational style had been necessary to inject responsibility into a lax welfare culture. “Now that they have done it, Bloomberg can shift to a more amenable style.”