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Now She's Done It

Maybe that nice centrist Mrs. Clinton really is against welfare reform.


Posted Sunday, April 16, 2000

        This column has been a model of probity and restraint when assessing Hillary Rodham Clinton's claim to be a welfare reformer. When Mrs. Clinton said she'd been in favor of her husband's signing of the landmark 1996 reform law, kausfiles was there for her, backing up her boast. When she charged that her Senate opponent, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had actually opposed the same law, kausfiles didn't believe it--until her bizarre claim checked out. When conservative columnists like Paul Gigot tried to paint her as a welfare-supporting lefty, kausfiles defended her against these crude right-wing cliches.

        But last week Mrs. Clinton, speaking to a crowd of unionized government workers in upstate New York, attacked Mayor Giuliani's welfare reform in using crude labor and left-wing cliches. Specifically, she said: "We have a mayor who perverts welfare reform, who puts people in make-work jobs and doesn't give them the support or the opportunity to get a job."

        What does she mean by "makework"? Does she mean that the workfare jobs that tens of thousands of New York City welfare recipients perform--cleaning subways and parks, for example-- are useless? This is a charge often made against government jobs programs--starting with Franklin Roosevelt's WPA. It's sometimes true, but it's provably false in this case. As the New York Post's Bob McManus points out, the public employee unionists who oppose workfare don't do so because they think the work performed is useless. They do it because they think it's useful--so useful that in many cases union members are already doing similar tasks. They fear workfare workers will put them out of a job.

        Is Hillary charging, then, that the jobs pay too little? It's true, workfare jobs (including Giuliani's) don't pay very well. Often workfare pays a bit less than the minimum wage. That's because these are jobs of last resort, and we want to preserve an incentive for workfarers to move into the private sector. If you offered a $20 an hour workfare job to everyone on welfare, half the workers in New York would quit their current jobs and try to get workfare. Roosevelt, for one, realized that public last-resort jobs had to pay less than private jobs Modern advocates of WPA-style jobs, such as William Julius Wilson of Harvard, have also come around to the sub-minimum wage position.

        The welfare plan proposed by Mrs. Clinton's husband in 1994--before the Republicans took over the House and passed their own plan--had 170,000 of these "makework" workfare jobs in it, all paying effectively less than the minimum wage. (Those who worked in the jobs would have gotten a minimum wage paycheck but would have been denied the normal Earned Income Tax Credit.) Is Mrs. Clinton saying she opposes her husband's own welfare reform plan?

        If you go around trying to discredit public workfare jobs "makework," you are in effect saying you don't support welfare reform. Political support for workfare is especially crucial at the moment, because the so-called "five year time limit" in the 1996 welfare law is about to kick in for some recipients. The limit is legally toothless--states can easily chicken out and effectively keep all their 5-year recipients on the dole indefinitely. They can also cut them off. But neither of these two responses is very attractive. The alternative is to offer them last-resort workfare jobs--a Third Way!--and only cut them off if they refuse to work.

        I suspect Mrs. Clinton understands this. My guess is she was just pandering to AFSCME, the anti-workfare government employees' union heavily represented in her audience. But that doesn't make it any better. One of the dirty little secrets of the left is that unions have always tried to throw a monkey wrench into public jobs programs, even when they have been proposed by union heroes like Franklin Roosevelt. That's because any program that threatens to put poorer people into government jobs threatens to undermine union wages and bargaining leverage. FDR had to break a strike against his WPA over this issue.

        It remains to be seen whether the unions will succeed in sabotaging the last-resort jobs programs that are the key to welfare reform. They are certainly trying, especially in New York City. By speaking out to discredit workfare as "makework," Mrs. Clinton hasn't merely lent them rhetorical support (which she might later withdraw, as is her habit). She's already done her bit to help them succeed.

        My apologies to Gigot. The right may be right on this one--it looks like Mrs. Clinton doesn't really support welfare reform after all.

        [Always good to get a nice welfare reform item. But where is the haiku contest?--ed. Unexpected technical difficulties. Our crack tech crew is working to resolve them. But it's still on.]

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