Jason's Brain Trust

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In May, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was about to do something uncharacteristic. He was set to deliver a speech that would call illegitimacy–not crime, drugs or cabbies–the single biggest threat to the future of New York City. It floated on a raft of figures that showed children of single parents to be more likely to end up poor or in jail and said the only healthy family was one with two married heterosexual parents. For Giuliani, it was an unusual foray into family values territory.

But a draft of the speech was leaked to Newsday, and the paper derided the fatherhood topic as so much Murphy Brown bashing. Giuliani canceled his talk. When the speech was finally delivered in July, the language on parenting had been deleted.

The whole episode was a sign that the new thinkers had arrived. Hand-wringing over illegitimacy may have been strange territory for the mayor, but it was old hat for one of the Human Resources Administration's newest employees, Deputy Commissioner Andrew Bush. In April, new HRA chief Jason Turner had hired Bush to head the office of policy and program analysis. Bush came from the conservative Hudson Institute, where he had co-written a 1997 paper, Fathers, Marriage, and Welfare Reform, that made many of the same charged arguments that the mayor had planned for his speech.

Since Turner arrived at HRA last spring, he has taken a lot of heat from New York's activists and politicians for everything from ducking out of City Council testimony to tightening access to public assistance. But Bush–and a host of others–are right beside him in the kitchen, cooking up the future of welfare in New York.

You likely won't see the names or faces of the rest of this crowd in the papers. But these men have a track record that includes the tough Wisconsin Works welfare reform program, better known as W-2. In New York, changes like the transformation of welfare “income centers” into “job centers” are among the first signs of emergence of this group's long-held theories on markets, family structure and state control.

Jason Turner and his new staff may be true believers in ways that Giuliani is not. The resulting collision between full-blown ideology and political expedience may well leave the nation's largest welfare population with Wisconsin's strict rules, but without its attempts to ease the transition from public assistance.


Jason Turner is a man with a singular vision, one that's apparent in his most infamous quote. This June, he told a PBS interviewer that “It's work that sets you free,” apparently not realizing the source of the slogan: the sign above the gates of Auschwitz.

The phrasing may have been unfortunate, but the sentiment was vintage Turner. As far as he's concerned, what poor people need–more than education or child care or even money–is work. “What liberals have entirely failed to grasp is that social maladies, including poverty, are the result of learned behavior in which enforced idleness is a contributing factor,” Turner wrote in 1996 in Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship, a magazine published by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“Jason has very strong ideological commitments regarding the social contract and a very deep faith in the free market to provide enough jobs and pay decent benefits,” says Julie Kerksick, who, as executive director of a Milwaukee welfare reform demonstration project, met with Turner many times in the early 1990s. (No HRA employee, including Turner, would agree to be interviewed for this article.)

Turner doesn't see work just as a simple source of money, but as an antidote for a wide array of ills. “Work is not something that you need to do after you've received treatment,” was how he put it this spring, as an explanation of why the city requires individuals in drug treatment programs to sign up for workfare. “Work is something that is part of treatment. It helps make you better.” He has made the same argument in favor of assigning work to abused women.

But Turner is no hypocrite. Nearly everyone who knows the new HRA chief will tell you that he's motivated by a genuine drive to help the poor–and that he's a working dervish himself. “He might stay all night to work on a project,” says Jean Rogers, Turner's Wisconsin boss. “You could find a fair number of outfits behind his office door.”

Michael Wiseman, a friend of Turner's, and vice-chair of a Wisconsin W-2 evaluation committee, says that when the two went to Europe last summer, they spent off hours between meetings visiting Cambridge and the “grimy” parts of London to see how the Blair government handles social services. “I was amused by the fact that people go to the beach and museums and we go to welfare offices,” he says with a laugh.

Wiseman says that in England, Turner asked a lot of questions and got into spirited give-and-take with caseworkers at “very soft, touchy-feely programs.” Others also describe Turner as affable, a man who tolerates–even enjoys–a long policy debate.

Just don't base your argument on existing research. Turner dismisses most academic studies, saying they aren't relevant. “The truth is that much of the academic research being done today has no practical value to those designing programs,” he told an Internet forum earlier this year. “If the times call for bold or even radical change, then we must move ahead forthrightly and responsibly, but perhaps without a full complement of experimental research to guide us.”

Maybe that's why advocates say Turner rarely leaves the table convinced that he was wrong. “He would say, 'That's really interesting,' but didn't say one way or another if he would pursue it,” says David Riemer, author of “Prisoners of Welfare.” Riemer met with Turner numerous times to argue that W-2 fell far short in accountability, child care provisions and scope, arguments that he says had no discernible effect when the program began.


Jason Turner has recounted on many occasions that his interest in attacking poverty began with the November 1, 1965, issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Alongside Campus Communism: America's Time Bomb? and Moon Trip Doomed to Disaster? was a story that reportedly transformed the 12-year-old Jason as he sat in a private junior high school classroom in tony Darien, Connecticut.

The article, How It Pays To Be Poor In America, warned that for eight million citizens receiving public assistance, “idleness often turns out to provide almost as good a living as working at a low wage.” An accompanying box listed all the freebies available to the poor, including welfare checks, food stamps, public housing, free medical care–even free schooling. The conclusion: RESULT: a growing “welfare society” in the U.S.

“It just hadn't occurred to me that there were whole classes of people who didn't work, and who basically existed on government charity,” Turner would later recall. He immediately set to work scribbling designs for factories to put these dependents to work.

When Turner arrived as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he considered himself a liberal and has even copped to voting for McGovern in 1972. But as he got older–and he notes pointedly, after he was robbed twice at gunpoint while working a summer job in Houston as a cabby–he became more conservative.

After college, Turner followed his father into advertising. He used those skills in 1980 to stump for Ronald Reagan and was rewarded with an appointment to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But he has said that he couldn't find an opening for his ideas in the Reagan administration. He soon left HUD, and, for the first time, took a job that brought him face to face with the poor–he became a landlord.

In 1985, Turner bought a handful of Washington, D.C. low-income apartment buildings, calling his business Czar Realty. But real estate management in poor neighborhoods wasn't as easy as he had anticipated. Within three years, Turner says the buildings were overrun by crack addicts, and he lost his savings.

His rental empire in ruins, Turner returned to the federal payroll in the Bush administration with his first welfare job, as the director of the office of family assistance for the Department of Health and Human Services. He held the post until Bill Clinton moved into the White House in 1993.

Soon after, Turner signed up with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services. There, where welfare tinkering was already underway, he formed the team and sharpened the ideas that he would later bring with him to New York.


Wisconsin's reputation as a welfare lab began in 1987, when Republican Tommy Thompson was elected governor. He cut a deal with federal officials that allowed the state to reduce welfare benefits and use the money for job search and skill-training programs. The welfare rolls dropped 17 percent during Thompson's first term, and he continued to spin off experiments, letting ex-welfare recipients keep health benefits, penalizing families whose kids cut school, putting time limits on assistance.

By 1993, Wisconsin's Democratic legislature was sick and tired of Thompson's pronouncements that he was the only politician in the state interested in fixing welfare. They decided to out-reform him, passing a bill that would make Wisconsin the first state to totally dismantle the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC).

But Thompson surprised almost everyone by signing the legislation, using his line-item veto power to reshape the bill and betting that he would be re-elected to implement the changes. He won that bet by winning the election. The daunting task his administration now faced, reinventing welfare from the ground up, was an opportunity to try out long-held conservative theories.

Enter the Hudson Institute, a hard-right Indianapolis think-tank that counts Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and William Bennett among its members–the kind of outfit that recently published a cover story in their magazine, American Outlook, entitled Global Warming-Boon for Mankind?

Hudson offered Thompson's administration an outside group of consultants, and in 1994 they opened a two-person office in Madison. The institute staffed what became known as the Welfare 1999 Group, a half dozen welfare officials and think-tank experts, including Turner, Rogers, John Wagner from the conservative Wisconsin Policy Institute, and Bush, who had joined Hudson earler that year.

From 1994 until early the next year, the group held meetings late into the night in a sixth-floor conference room in Madison, reportedly staying at times for a solid week. They brought in a variety of conservative sages and barnstormed around the state, meeting with activists, legislators and bureaucrats.

The end result was an April 1995 draft which, from the first line, shows Jason Turner's influence: “The welfare system as an institution is abhorred by society because it separates the receipt of income from the need to work.” From there, it laid out a tough work-based system.

Hudson heartily approved of the plan and kept its office open to consult on implementation. In 1996, a new opportunity arose. The federal government passed its version of welfare reform, and suddenly everyone was talking about the end of AFDC. Bush went to Hudson headquarters in Indianapolis to open their Welfare Policy Center, which promotes the Wisconsin plan to other states and cities. He even did some consulting in New York for Hudson before he was hired by HRA as one of Turner's most trusted aides.


Before Hudson, Bush, a graduate of the exclusive Irving B. Harris Policy School at the University of Chicago, spent solid time among powerful Washington conservatives. He had worked with Ron Haskins, who would later script the 1996 federal reform bill, on the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was also a legislative assistant to Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican with a perfect rating from the Christian Coalition. Those who have worked with him characterize Bush as politically savvy and quite willing to work behind the headlines.

“He's a pretty fair straight-shooter,” says Jennifer Phillips, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation program officer for Hudson's Wisconsin operations. “I'm not saying he's not ideological, or that I agree with him most of the time. But he's pretty mild-mannered.”

If Jason Turner's one-word prescription for the poor is “work,” Andy Bush's is “marriage.” “Effective welfare reform means encouraging both more work and more marriages,” wrote Bush in the fatherhood and welfare report for the Hudson Institute.

He and his co-author Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, even go so far as to fret over how all these single moms will be able to meet the man of their dreams. “It is reasonable to expect,” they conclude, “that when a single mother on welfare gets a job, her marriage prospects will increase, primarily because employment exposes her to more marriageable males.”

On the other hand, they observe, these working women might price themselves out of the marriage market. “One must confront the reality that women do not like to 'marry down.'”

Welfare critics on both the left and the right complain that the system denies benefits to women who are married. Bush and Horn would turn this on its head, establishing preferences for married parents in housing, Head Start and welfare benefits. They would also require mothers to cooperate with child visitation orders as a condition of receiving welfare and aggressively enforce statutory rape laws, even when both parties are in their teens (the authors do say that they don't “necessarily advocate jail terms for offenders”).

But their pro-marriage stance goes further–they believe welfare caseworkers should be trained to present adoption as a “loving alternative” to raising the child without a husband.

“Because children who grow up in a loving, adoptive, two-parent home fare better than those reared in single-parent households, states should promote adoption as the best option for pregnant, single women,” the report says. “If improving the well-being of children is the goal…states should operate under the principle that adoption is the first and best option for pregnant, single women rather than the last.”

The paper ends with the theme that almost made it into Giuliani's speech: “There is no greater single threat to the long-term well-being of children, our communities and our nation, than the increasing number of children being raised without a committed, responsible and loving father.”

It's this correlation–single-parent families are bad for kids–which academics say is overly simplistic. “That's an example of really bad statistics-mongering, because they're not controlling for other factors” such as income or how often a family moves, says University of Massachusetts economist Nancy Folbre, an expert on women and poverty.

Princeton University researcher Sara McLanahan, whose book Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps is often used to buttress pro-marriage arguments, says that while children raised by single parents have slightly higher school dropout and teen pregnancy rates, forcing people into marriage is not the answer. “Illegitimate” children whose parents were both present for their childhood, she notes, do just as well as those whose parents were married at their birth–and children whose mothers remarry do just as poorly as those whose mothers remain single.

Bush has more ideas than just marriage, such as “real world equity.” He helped make the concept a tenet of welfare in Wisconsin. Basically, the theory treats welfare policy as training wheels for the “real world,” offering no special breaks or treatment.

When a Milwaukee community coalition suggested exempting women with children under a year old from workfare, for example, Bush replied, “In the working world, you don't get a year off to care for a child.” Advocates point out that his working-world ideals don't include working-world wages: He has said he's “not a big believer” in the minimum wage.


As Turner and Bush brainstorm new policies, they'll be assisted by New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead, who first met the pair in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. As a visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin's LaFollett Institute of Public Affairs a few years ago, he evaluated Wisconsin's programs. For the most part, he loved them, and now has a similar role in New York, spending each Wednesday consulting at HRA.

Mead's 1992 book New Politics of Poverty is a treatise on “how to cope with the poor,” noting that “for mysterious reasons, poor adults no longer work as regularly as they once did.” He calls W-2 “paternalistic” and says it attempts to “control the lifestyle of the poor.” But for him, this is the secret of its success.

Last year, Mead edited The New Paternalism, which explores this theme. “Many welfare recipients seem to need pressure from the outside to achieve their own goals. They seem to be looking for structure,” he writes. “Thus most recipients respond favorably to oversight. It honors them with the assumption that their behavior matters. They take it as a form of caring.”

All this rings true with the boss. In Policy Review, Turner wrote, “Interviews indicate that many AFDC applicants like the idea that someone is helping them decide to do what they knew was right all along. The point here is that many trapped inside the system are looking for some kind of moral guidance.”

Along with the standard-bearers of ideology, Turner has brought a troupe of technocrats to give his ideas substance, including new HRA staff like press secretary Debra Sproles, Turner's assistant Michael O'Malley and superbureaucrat Mark Hoover, a 32-year veteran of Wisconsin state government.

Hoover's specialty is budgets; he is known in Madison as the master of federal requirements and payment negotiations with nonprofits. “With Jason, it's a philosophical thing, with Mark it's a different story,” Rogers says. “Mark is the quintessential mechanic. He knows how to get things done in government, especially on the financial side, though I believe he has become a believer in welfare-to-work being the right direction for social reform.”


Local advocates have been watching for signs of New York Works since last winter, but HRA officials have been tight-lipped and slow-moving, stonewalling inquisitive City Council members and revealing only gradual and incremental changes.

But the first signs indicate that some W-2 provisions are under way. Wisconsin used to have quotas for its centers–in New York, the idea has turned into pay bonuses for workers who cut the most cases. Workfare participants are also being introduced to the simulated work week–20 hours of workfare, plus 15 hours on mandatory unpaid job search–another program pioneered in Wisconsin.

Turner's critics have long said that workfare participants don't leave the rolls for good jobs, but rather are driven off by severe requirements and bureaucratic capriciousness. That also seems to be happening in New York, as the application approval rate has plummeted from 60 percent at the old welfare centers to less than 10 percent at the job centers. The new city manuals define “diversion”–moving applicants to jobs, relatives, other sources of government support–as the primary goal for case workers. Employment is secondary.

Mead acknowledges that the application process is supposed to be tough. “Diversion does pose some risks, in terms that there may be people who don't get aid who should get it,” he says. “It is certainly not the intention to turn away those who need aid, but rather to make sure that people don't apply for aid casually.”

Turner has explained many times that, despite the city's relatively high unemployment rate, the market can handle all the new job seekers leaving welfare rolls. On NBC earlier this year, he told Gabe Pressman, “Our experience is that there are tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of jobs out there for individuals who need them.” Despite the official statistics, said Turner, jobs are there for the asking. “What we've shown to be true in Milwaukee is that lots of employers won't even advertise for a job until they can fill the existing jobs that they have that are unfilled.”

And that's where Turner's plans may fall apart. Some have predicted that the methods he used on Wisconsin's 200,000 welfare recipients won't work in New York City, with an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent and nearly one out of 10 welfare cases in the country.

At least one Wisconsin observer suspects that despite Giuliani's brief foray into right-wing family-values ideology, there's little love lost between him and his new hired guns. “Those guys are being used by the Giuliani administration,” says Bill Dempsey, executive director of Sustainable Milwaukee, a nonprofit involved in local welfare to work issues. “They have no political sophistication. The minute it gets hot and he wants people to sacrifice with no costs to his administration, he'll send them packing.”

Neil deMause is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Aaron Clark.