When I heard that the state of New York is giving welfare payments a tiny bump up, I had two different reactions.
Payments for a family of four are rising from $375.70 a month to $413.70 under the new state budget. (Yes, Albany did manage to pass a budget before it went into gridlock. Other states have crises when they face big, unpleasant decisions. Our government can fall apart just for the heck of it.)
It's the first hike in welfare payments in 19 years and of course, your first thought has to be: How in the world does any family of four get by in New York City on $413 a month? Even with help from food stamps, Medicaid and possibly housing subsidies, that's about $25 a week per person.
My second reaction was to marvel at how welfare has vanished from the political debate. There was a time when it was center stage. People were obsessed with the idea that there were "welfare queens" or "welfare cheats" out there somewhere, living high on their government handouts and continually having more babies just to boost their payments. Upstate politicians routinely ran against New York City, assuring their constituents that their state tax dollars were all going to keep unwed mothers in the Bronx in the lap of luxury.
It was part of a long national diatribe, even though in reality the program never accounted for more than a tiny bit of the federal budget. Then, Congress ended welfare as an entitlement and it vanished from the conversation. Millions of Americans still receive subsidies, usually temporary, under rules that differ from state to state. New York is more willing than most to let the aid go on indefinitely, but keeps the number of recipients down by being very quick to cut off payments if an appointment or paperwork is mislaid.
No matter what the state policy, almost overnight, welfare stopped being controversial. Here, like in the rest of the country, the subject never seems to come up any more.
In a way, the silence was golden. The debate, when we had one, was usually mean and often racist. (You could only explain that most families on welfare were white so many times before giving up in exhaustion.) In New York, we have terrible budget problems on the state and local level, but you almost never hear anyone claim that the root of the problem is poor people. That has to be a plus.
But we're also not talking about how a family survives on $413 a month.
On the blog front, please check out Sheryl McCarthy's illuminating look at the vexing problem facing the historic Riverside Church. And Jerry Capeci, a top organized crime expert, has another yarn on the New York underworld.