In 1935, in the middle of the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended a huge federal program that gave cash welfare to the able-bodied poor, declaring it "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
Instead, he created a large public jobs program, the Works Progress Administration, which eventually employed more than 3-million Americans and built a lot of New York City's public works, including La Guardia Airport.
What would happen today if we substituted FDR-style public jobs for cash welfare in New York City? We now know the answer. The effort would be attacked for taking work away from unionized municipal workers. It would be called "slavery" by union officials and criticized for forcing the poor into "menial" tasks like cleaning parks.
Such jobs, the critics would complain, don't necessarily lead to good private employment. These are the accusations currently leveled at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's workfare program _ which, like the WPA, offers the poor last-resort jobs instead of a cash dole.
Roosevelt's rationale for the WPA was basically the same as the rationale for workfare today: If people can't find private sector work, it's better to give them useful public jobs than to pay them to sit at home and do no work at all. The main difference is that today's workfare programs extend that rationale to a group the WPA didn't cover: single mothers, who often need subsidized child care.
Workfare, and welfare reform in general, offer a way to "break the culture of poverty and dependence," as Bill Clinton said during the 1992 presidential campaign. The idea is not merely to give those on welfare the dignity of earning their way. The hope is that once work is required, those not on welfare will avoid making the decisions _ such as having children out of wedlock _ that might put them on welfare. Eventually, communities of mainly fatherless welfare families will become communities of mainly intact working families. That's the hope, anyway.
Workfare in New York has hardly been perfect. Recent published reports have revealed major holes in the city's child-care system. Other accounts, and a lawsuit, have described workers as lacking adequate protective gear and restrooms.
But these problems can be fixed. Working conditions have already improved. The mayor's latest budget more than doubles the money set aside to provide child care to help welfare mothers go to work.
And other, broader criticisms of workfare reflect basic misunderstandings of its role, and of the goals of welfare reform. Here are the main spurious criticisms:
+ "Workfare doesn't move people into private full-time jobs."
Only those who fail to find private sector work wind up on workfare. Let's say someone walks in the door of a welfare office. If the reformed system works as it should, a case worker would immediately try to "divert" that person into private work by, say, helping her find child care, if lack of it is the reason she is unemployed.
Those who aren't diverted then go through a "job search" program, which teaches job-hunting techniques and provides leads. Only if the person can't find a job in 30 days would he or she "work off" the welfare check in a workfare job.
It's crazy to expect the people who end up in these last-resort jobs to be the ones who will fly out the door into the private sector. The people who move most quickly into private jobs will be those who don't show up at the welfare office in the first place, because they figure that as long as they're going to have to work, they might as well go straight into private employment.
If these people are getting jobs, the only statistical indication will be a declining welfare caseload. New York City's caseload has fallen by almost a third in three years.
Jason Turner, Giuliani's new commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, plans to do more to help welfare recipients find work in the private sector, through job search efforts that continue after recipients are assigned to workfare.
Even so, many will stay on workfare without finding private jobs. But at least they're working. They can hold their heads up. And there is some evidence that workfare teaches discipline _ such as showing up on time _ that can be useful in preparing these workers for the labor market.
A study conducted in San Diego by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation found that one group that got job search training followed by workfare was about 32 percent more likely to be employed a year and a half later than those who received only job search training.
+ "Most of those dropped from welfare don't get jobs."
There has been a big fuss about a survey showing that only about 30 percent of those who came off the welfare rolls in New York City from July 1996 through March 1997 showed up on the tax rolls as earners in the first quarter after they left welfare. But the survey doesn't include those who, thanks to workfare, go right into jobs without ever applying for public assistance.
It doesn't count self-employed workers _ such as waitresses, laborers or day care providers _ if they don't report their earnings. It doesn't count the large number of employers who file their quarterly reports late, or not at all.
Most important, welfare reform hasn't necessarily failed just because single mothers leave the rolls and don't take jobs. Many women leave the rolls because they marry men who can support them. Some get help from friends or family. If former welfare recipients were showing up in shelters or on the streets, that would be bad news. But that doesn't seem to be happening.
+ "Workfare workers are doing jobs once performed by regular civil servants."
Sometimes critics complain that workfare jobs are menial or dead-end. At other times they complain that workfare is taking desirable civil service jobs away from others. Which is it? The truth is that the more useful the work is _ cleaning streets, for example _ the more likely it is to be work that regular city workers once did, or still do.
It's perfectly reasonable for unions to insist that no current civil servants be laid off to make way for workfare. But once jobs open up through attrition or buyouts, why not fill them with workfare workers? Sure, workfare wages are lousy. Workfare can't pay union wages, or else half the city would go on welfare to get a workfare job.
Last-resort wages, as FDR said of the WPA, must be "not so large as to encourage rejection of opportunities for private employment or the leaving of private employment to engage in government work."
Incidentally, Roosevelt had trouble with unions too. In 1939, they demanded that the WPA pay "prevailing" _ that is, union _ wages, and they staged a strike. FDR broke it.
+ Mickey Kaus, the author of The End of Equality, writes a column for Slate magazine. +
New York Times News Service