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Home Publications Blogs CEPR Blog Has Bill de Blasio Resurrected the Welfare Rights Movement?

Has Bill de Blasio Resurrected the Welfare Rights Movement?

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Thursday, 24 October 2013 10:49

In his most recent column, Thomas Edsall says that New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio "... supports programs to ensure that every New Yorker eligible for food stamps, health care, income security and social services gets on the rolls, effectively resurrecting the welfare rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s."

While it's true that de Blasio supports efforts to increase the number of low-income people who receive basic benefits that they are eligible for, equating this with "effectively resurrecting the welfare rights movement" seems a bit of a stretch. After all, these days even McDonald's is happy to do its part to ensure that its poorly compensated workers sign up for food stamps, Medicaid, and other benefits their low wages keep them eligible for.

As Felicia Kornbluh, one of the welfare rights movement's leading historians, has written, "the overarching goal [of the movement] was to establish welfare, or a minimum standard of living, as a citizenship right and human right. This minimum was to be based neither on wage work nor on any other specific contribution to the state ... but was conceived as a universal 'right to live.'"

In the issue paper cited by Edsall, there's little indication that de Blasio will work to establish a minimum standard of living, based neither on wage work or any other specific contribution to the state, as a right of New York City residence, or even that he'll put forward a more modest guaranteed income proposal, say along the lines of George McGovern's 1972 call for "demogrants", a $1,000 refundable tax credit for all Americans.

The closest de Blasio comes is this: "While Bill de Blasio believes a job is the best help we can give to families struggling in poverty, he is also committed to providing income and food security to those who can't work, who can't find work, or those who are pursuing educational opportunities to escape poverty." But far from being an expansive statement of left principles, this kind of general support for work as well as unemployment, disability, and educational assistance garners broad support from not only the left, but also independents and the center-right in public opinion surveys.

Edsall also quotes, without rebuttal, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who claims de Blasio will "gut welfare reform."  But what de Blasio's issue paper actually calls for is a more progressive version of welfare reform—"the city's welfare-to-work program needs to emphasize job creation, job training and education, while stopping efforts to divert individuals from accessing cash assistance"—along with expanding child care slots. There's no reason to think these common-sense reforms would gut "welfare reform." A good, evidence-based model here  for de Blasio to elevate would be the original demonstration version of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a program that a rigorous random assignment evaluation by MDRC found to have "strikingly consistent positive effects across a range of adult, child, and family outcomes." Positive effects that, it bears noting, have not been found in any of the conservative welfare reform efforts that the Manhattan Institute fears will be gutted.

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