A Challenge for City Hall

New York Post February 24, 2000

It would seem that State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Sklar derailed City Hall's welfare-reform plans this week by ruling that New York cannot make homeless single people work for their keep.
But maybe not.
Sklar found that the city's policy of requiring shelter residents to work violates a 1981 consent decree that guarantees housing to the homeless. He also found against new state regulations establishing behavioral standards for the shelters.
This is a setback to reform. But it is also an opportunity to determine -- once and for all -- New York's constitutional obligation to the poor.
"The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state in such manner and by such means as the legislature may from time to time determine," says a Depression-era amendment to the state Constitution.
A little opaque, you say?
On the one hand, there's a clear obligation to the poor. On the other, it's up to the Legislature -- and local governments -- to define the exact nature of that obligation, and to determine appropriate remedies.
So, how far should the state go to help the poor? Is the constitutional obligation absolute? Or can reasonable limits -- including behavior and workfare obligations -- be enacted?
For decades, both advocates for the poor and state and local officials have hesitated to press for clarification -- because each side feared an adverse ruling. The 1981 consent decree was entered
into precisely to avoid such a determination.
The time has come to force the issue. And the Sklar decision is an appropriate vehicle for doing just that.
In this case, the city sought to modify the consent decree by imposing the workfare requirement, which by chance dovetailed with the state's behavior regulations. The city's opponents argued that the new policies were "patently and flagrantly inconsistent with the simple language of the decree." The jurist agreed.
But are the state's regulations -- and the city's workfare requirement -- consistent with New York's obligation to the poor? There's only one way for City Hall to find out: It must contest the Sklar decision -- and make the state Court of Appeals rule on the matter.
This must happen sooner or later: Sklar's ruling is in direct conflict with federal welfare-reform policy.
So why not make it happen now? The present administration is philosophically on the correct side of the issue -- and the Court of Appeals seems inclined to listen to reason regarding reform.
Tuesday, to the consternation of the advocates, the court ruled that workfare enrollees should be paid at the federal minimum wage, rather than the higher prevailing wage. It found, unanimously, that workfare recipients are not actually employed by anyone -- that's why they're on welfare to begin with -- so wage laws don't apply.
The ruling suggests the court understands the complexities of welfare reform. Now's the time for City Hall to press the issue.