Robin Hood in reverse

May 1, 2000. An editorial in the Albany Times-Union:

New York state is taking federal welfare money to pay for middle-class subsidies

It’s been a while since a welfare scandal made headlines. Something like a welfare mother driving a Cadillac or someone collecting checks under several different names used to make for such easy political points. All that stopped, ostensibly, when President Clinton and Congress made good on their determination to end welfare as we once knew it.

Misuse of welfare funds is now as different as the new laws are from the old ways. The money being squandered now is federal funds sent to the state capitals to run the very program that the federal government has otherwise washed its hands of. Billions of dollars that could be going toward job training and other programs for the hard-core welfare population instead are being spent on tax cuts and municipal aid. Sadly, New York leads the way.

At least $1 billion in money intended to fund anti-poverty efforts has been indirectly diverted to uses more likely to appease the middle class, according to a New York Times report. The state can do this because the amount of available federal block grants is well in excess of the $1.7 billion a year that it is required to spend on welfare.

Only wait until Washington catches on. How easy it would be to cut such funding, on the grounds that it isn’t needed.

But it is. New York still has more than 800,000 people on welfare, even as the deadline — five years and your benefits are exhausted — looms so close for any of them. Less than half of those on welfare now have a high school education. At least a quarter, it’s estimated, have drug and alcohol problems that could make it hard to hold down a job.

Self-sufficiency won’t be nearly as easy a journey for them as it’s been for the more than 540,000 who have left New York’s welfare rolls since the new federal law took effect. Whatever it is that the state intends to do when their public assistance runs out will cost, yes, money. Now might be the time to heed the warning of Roberto Ramirez, D-Manhattan, chairman of the state Assembly Committee on Social Services: “What the state is doing here is subsidizing other areas of government at the expense of welfare recipients. … We are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The Pataki administration counters that the state has spent $10 billion of its own money on the welfare class since 1996, and stresses how that’s a lot of money.

And it is. But it might not be enough, especially when federal anti-poverty funds can be spent elsewhere.