Mayor Giuliani likes shiny new welfare statistics almost as much as he likes the city's gilded crime rates. A few weeks ago he boasted to the press that the number of public assistance recipients in New York City has dropped to its lowest level since 1968.
But the mayor is only telling part of the story.
The overall number of people on welfare in New York City is actually about the same today as it was in 1992, if you include the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI). The SSI program provides income support for the elderly poor, and for disabled and blind adults and children. The rate of growth in the SSI program has been very high–more than 31 percent since 1992, according to city Human Resources Administration data–thanks primarily to a rapid increase in the number of disabled men and women entering the rolls in recent years.
“One year the city's numbers will be up and the federal numbers will go down, the next year the federal numbers go up and the city numbers go down,” explains Carmen Ross of the Social Security Administration. “It's all paper. It just means they're getting the money from somewhere else.”
In other words, a significant percentage of the growth in SSI can be directly attributed to the decline in the city's own welfare caseload. People lose their public assistance check–or can't get one in the first place because of the city's aggressive diversion efforts–and qualify for SSI instead. Indeed, the city has been careful to make all welfare applicants file an application with SSI if there's any chance they would qualify for that program.
Combining SSI into the public assistance numbers is a far more accurate way to count the city's welfare population, experts say. And while the combined total has certainly dropped since the city's economy bottomed out (from 1,484,887 people on welfare in 1994 to 1,284,147 today), comparing the overall drop to the booming 1960s heavily overestimates the role played by the administration.
What's more, the number of people applying for welfare has been a consistent 18,000 per month in recent years–regardless of who occupied Gracie Mansion, according to city data.
Giuliani is correct about one thing: the decline has saved the city a mint. City funds are paying the cost of fewer welfare checks than at any time since 1968. But the feds are picking up much of the difference–which is ultimately covered by city taxpayers anyway.