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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pataki’s Welfare Whopper

Former New York Gov. George Pataki credits his “conservative policies” for reducing the number of New Yorkers on welfare by 1 million. In fact, the sharp decline was part of a national trend thanks largely to a 1996 federal overhaul of the nation’s welfare system.

Under Pataki, New York saw a 76 percent reduction in the average monthly number of welfare recipients — a little better than the national average of 71 percent. Pataki, who tried to enact major welfare changes in advance of the federal overhaul, would have been on safe ground if he simply boasted that he was an early proponent of overhauling welfare and that New York did better than most states in helping to get people off welfare.

Pataki made his remarks in a May 28 speech in New Hampshire announcing that he is running for president of the United States. He mocked Democrats for enabling the poor and boasted that he was responsible for moving the poor from “a welfare check to a paycheck.”

Pataki, May 28: Seems like liberals have so much compassion for the poor that they keep creating more of them. When I took office we had every poverty program government could think of. And yet 1 in 11 of every single New Yorker state resident was on welfare. Not on Medicaid or disability. One in 11 of every man, woman and child in the state of New York from the tip of Long Island to the shores of Lake Erie were on welfare. The American dream did not seem real to them. But after 12 years of my conservative policies, we replaced dependency with opportunity, resignation with hope, mere existence with dreams, a welfare check with a paycheck. When I left office, over 1 million fewer people were on welfare than when I began. That’s what our policies can do.

Actually, the policy chiefly responsible for the sharp decline in welfare recipients was a federal law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton with prodding from Republicans and over the opposition of some Democrats. That bill was responsible for “ending welfare as we know it,” as Clinton put it.

Pataki did try to get out in front of the federal effort in 1995 and 1996 with sweeping welfare plans of his own that mirrored the federal legislation. But as we will detail later, he won what the New York Times described as “incremental change” in 1995. His effort in 1996 stalled in the state Legislature in July of that year — one month before Congress acted.

Pataki became governor on Jan. 1, 1995. The welfare program at the time was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the average monthly number of AFDC recipients in New York was 1.26 million for the calendar year 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On Aug. 22, 1996, Clinton signed a sweeping piece of legislation known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The law was controversial because for the first time it imposed time limits on cash assistance and required nearly all welfare recipients to work or engage in work-related activities in order to continue receiving welfare.

The law also created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which replaced the AFDC program. “TANF was a historic reversal of the entitlement welfare represented by AFDC,” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution testified at a congressional hearing on July 19, 2006.

In his testimony, Haskins — a former Republican House committee aide who was instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of the welfare program — noted that welfare caseloads declined “rapidly after the federal legislation was enacted in 1996,” and dropped nationally by about 60 percent between 1994 and 2005.

We looked at New York’s caseloads during Pataki’s time in office and compared them with the national average and other states, using data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pataki served two terms, from Jan. 1, 1995, to Jan. 1, 2007. The average monthly number of welfare recipients in New York dropped from 1,264,063 in 1994 to 297,574 in 2006. As we noted earlier, that’s a drop of 76 percent — slightly better than the national average of 71 percent and ranking New York 16th among the 50 states in terms of the size of the percentage decline. Among some of its neighbors, New York saw a steeper decline than New Jersey (71 percent) and Pennsylvania (64 percent), but not Connecticut (78 percent). Wyoming was No. 1 with a 97 percent decline.

When we asked the Pataki campaign for specific policies that the governor enacted that were responsible for the steep decline in the state’s welfare rolls, Pataki spokesman David Catalfamo referred us to the 1995 state budget. “Pataki passed welfare reform in 1995 as part of his first budget,” Catalfamo said. “It was ahead of the federal reform.”

Pataki did seek significant changes to welfare in 1995, but he was forced to give up in the face of Democratic opposition. In the end, Pataki had to “settle for incremental change,” as the Times put it.

“The compromise welfare agreement, outlined by state officials, includes several anti-fraud measures, like electronic fingerprinting of all welfare applicants, as well as a handful of policy changes that range from the significant to the relatively inconsequential,” the Times wrote.

The most significant of the changes won by Pataki that year was a change to Home Relief, a welfare program for mostly single, childless adults. Under the change, 95 percent of able-bodied recipients in that program would be required to participate in workfare programs — up from 20 percent. But he was forced to give up his plan to place a 90-day limit on welfare benefits for those recipients.

In December 1995, Pataki proposed a 1996 budget that included time limits and work requirements that “mirror measures that are being considered as part of the Federal welfare rules,” as the New York Times wrote. His plan would have cut monthly welfare benefits by 27 percent, and imposed a 60-day limit for single, childless adults in the Home Relief program and a five-year lifetime limit for families receiving AFDC, according to the Times.

But the budget passed in July 1996 without any of those changes. “The Democratic-controlled Assembly, the Governor’s main rival in Albany, responded with its own plan for time limits, but Mr. Pataki labeled it too weak and the two sides could not find a compromise, so the whole idea was dropped,” the Times wrote.

The next month, however, Clinton signed the federal bill into law, and New York had no choice but to impose time limits and stricter work requirements or risk losing federal funding.

— Eugene Kiely