Down and out in New York, or maybe not

The New York Times has lately been dwelling on the problem of homelessness in New York City, which they have been going to great lengths to blame on outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg and, more generally, evil rich selfish white people.  It all smacks of battlespace preparation for the incoming socialist mayor, Bill de Blasio, whose reign will doubtless be hailed for its compassion, no matter what happens to the city’s economy, or its crime rate.

The Times focused on a single homeless girl named Dasani, painting a detailed and heartbreaking portrait of poverty that several critics called shenanigans on, making some interesting points along the way.  The original NYT story is behind a paywall, but Daniel Greenfield at Front Page Magazine has some hearty excerpts, in which he points out that the Times actually debunks its own spin in real time.  For one thing, it briefly describes Dasani’s parents by saying they are “unemployed, have a history of arrests, and are battling drug addiction.”  One suspects those factors have a great deal more to do with their daughter’s plight than any Bloomberg policies, and it’s unlikely any de Blasio programs are going to make much of a difference.

But the really amazing passage of the Times story talks about the bountiful taxpayer-funded benefits made available to this family, in what reads like a spoof of liberal editorial writers missing the forest for the trees:

Suddenly, Supreme leaps into the air. His monthly benefits have arrived, announced by a recording on his prepaid welfare phone. He sets off to reclaim his gold teeth from the pawnshop and buy new boots for the children at Cookie’s, a favored discount store in Fulton Mall. The money will be gone by week’s end.

Supreme and Chanel have been scolded about their lack of financial discipline in countless meetings with the city agencies that monitor the family.

But when that monthly check arrives, Supreme and Chanel do not think about abstractions like “responsibility” and “self-reliance.

[…] January brings relief, but not because of the new year. It is the start of tax season, when Dasani’s parents — and everyone they seem to know — rush to file for the earned-income tax credit, a kind of bonanza for the poor.

Their tax refunds can bring several thousand dollars, which could be enough to put down a rent deposit and leave the shelter.

Instead of drawing the conclusion that the welfare state, either locally or nationally, has to become even more generous, we might instead learn the more difficult lesson that individual behavior matters, and some people aren’t going to make the right choices, no matter how much money you give them.  The safety net becomes counterproductive when it provides a perpetual simulacrum of lower-middle-class life, with zero effort demanded in return.

Government welfare spending is often presented as morally equivalent, or even superior, to private charity, but it’s difficult to imagine a well-run charity enabling such a lifestyle in perpetuity with no character-building reciprocal demands, much less providing such accessories as prepaid cell phones.  Something more than ineffectual “scolding” would be taking place.

The New York Post ripped into the Times’ “homeless hooey” with gusto:

One city official tells us Elliott and the Times ignored many key facts about the family and that its situation is “atypical.”

“New York City provides families in need, including this one, with subsidized health care, child care, shelter, job-training, counseling and placement services,” as well as cash assistance, a spokesman said.

For this family, shelter, rental assistance and food stamps alone have added up to nearly half a million dollars since 2000. In addition, Medicaid covers health care. Even so, the parents have consistently failed to meet basic eligibility requirements.

Yes, the family’s housing has problems, including mice and reports of sexual assaults and other crimes. But the Times and Elliott, like much of the liberal establishment, seem to think it’s the city’s job to provide comfortable lives to outrageously irresponsible parents. In this case, that’s a couple with a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs.

Something’s wrong with that picture.

If the city is at fault here, it might well be for having been too generous — providing so much that neither the father nor mother seems much inclined to provide for their kids. That would be a story worth reading.

The welfare state is generally presented in three incarnations: charity for utterly desperate people who might die without it; a “helping hand” to give people who are down on their luck a shot at returning to productive working life; and, increasingly, government protection for even those who are working and making a decent living.  The final frontier of dependency politics is the dissolution of middle-class independence.  The best vehicle for reaching that goal is socialized medicine, which makes formerly independent people reliant upon the government for an expensive service that everyone needs, or sees themselves as possibly needing someday.

But while the welfare state makes that long safari into the middle class, it mostly presents itself in the second manner: a safety net that any hard-working family might someday need, following a reversal of fortune.  It’s an investment in human capital, repaid to society by the work product of its beneficiaries, once they get back on their feet, or while they’re working at jobs that don’t pay enough to take care of a family.  For example, the free welfare cell phones referenced in the New York Times piece are justified on the grounds that welfare clients need them to secure employment and summon emergency services… which seemed considerably more reasonable when the program was originally conceived as a plan to provide land-line telephone service, rather than cell phones.

But how do you separate good “human capital investments” from bad?  If there aren’t any firm requirements that must be met, the self-motivated down-on-their luck types will climb out of the safety net at their earliest opportunity – assuming the free-market economy is allowed to generate opportunities for them.  What about those who remain, those who develop a comfort level with lifetime dependency?  The normal mechanisms of motivation and responsibility are remarkably easy for the welfare state to dismantle.  The humility necessary to feel gratitude and honorable responsibility toward the society that takes care of a dependent also tends to be done away with, replaced by a sense of bitter resentment toward a world that isn’t treating the beneficiary better.

There’s no better way to stamp out the last vestiges of shame than to embrace a sense of victimization and entitlement, which almost invariably come together.  It doesn’t help when the dominant media culture is eager to nurse both.  Is there any better antidote than the spiritual nourishment and character development offered  by the best private and religious charities, but which no government program will ever be able to provide?  That seems like an important question, as the welfare state extends its reach through several levels of society.