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Against the Giuliani Legacy

Part III: "Respectability" and the War Against the Poor

The first two installments of “Against the Giuliani Legacy” challenged deep-seated definitions like “quality of life” and “decency” as defined the Giuliani cabal.  Now, I want to explore some conservative definitions that have gained significant ground during the Giuliani years: that poverty is solely the individual’s fault, not societal or structural, and that there is an ultimate standard of “bourgeois respectable” behavior.  Nowhere are these ideas more evident than in the policies of welfare reform implemented in the “new” New York and gaining both national and international influence.

            The “new” New York is giddy and gleaming for many, a place where it is acceptable to be satisfied with simplistic ideas about the poor and their behavior; where it is fine to revel in wealth (or credit it) and not to be publicly confronted with the homeless, as in the past; where it is fine to publicly flirt with stereotype about “welfare mothers” or the “liberals,” the likes of which Rush Limbaugh demonizes.  Given this atmosphere, the question I want to ask goes deeper than an attempt to contextualize the decrease in crime rates or evaluate “decency”: what king of city do we collectively want and what objectives should we as a diverse city aspire to?

Defining “bourgeois respectability”

It’s 1998 and the scene is a symposium titled “The New Urban Agenda” sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, the primary intellectual backbone for the Giuliani administration.  City Journal Editor Myron Magnet introduces the keynote speaker Tom Wolfe as “one of America’s foremost urbanologist” to believers in the “new” paradigm of the “new” New York.  Wolfe, satirical novelist and white three-piece suit wearer, then defines the ideal of “bourgeois respectability” in Giuliani’s New York.

            Wolfe’s speech proceeds from the assumption that the welfare rights and constitutional protections that grew in the 1960’s are failures and have the potential to destroy society.  In Wolfe’s stuttering cavalcade of judgments, peppered with a few live renditions of exaggerated rap music, he puts forth a definition of “bourgeois respectability,” one he says that “every culture in the world that has the wheel, shoe and toothbrush agrees upon… to live the bourgeois life is to be obsessed with order, moral rectitude, courtesy, cooperation, education, financial success, comfort, respectability, hard work, pride in one’s offspring, and, above all, domestic tranquility.” 

            Wolfe goes on to say that “one of the perverse triumphs of this century is the triumph of the unrespectable over the respectable” and that “if we had stuck with this idea of respectability then we would not have a poverty program whose main emphasis is giving power to people in the slums.”  He laments over the literature, theater, and movies that portray a “dark side” to wealthy bourgeois existence and decries the lack of this bourgeois standard, which has led to everything from loud and profane hip-hop to alternative high-school classes where graffiti is taught as art.

            Tom Wolfe does have a reputation for satire but in this case he represented views rife in the Giuliani administration regarding poverty, cultural diversity, and what the 1960’s did to society.  By setting up a paradigm of “respectable” versus “unrespectable” Wolfe appropriates terms and ideals that everyone aspires to on some level and implies that the “unrespectable” don’t have any of these characteristics, which are somehow solely in the domain of conservatives. Of course, his definition of “respectable” carries with it a standard of appearance and behavior reflecting a privileged vantage point.  But this has not stopped these ideas from being an integral part of welfare reform initiatives.

The “Revolution of Values” 

Along with the folks imported from the “Wisconsin Works” welfare-to-work programs, The Manhattan Institute is the premiere node of policy formation for welfare reform in New York City.  Its writers and policy wonks consistently treat the rhetoric around “bourgeois respectability” as synonymous with blaming the individual for their own poverty.  During the same symposium that Wolfe spoke at, Heather Mac Donald –the author and conservative pundit who believes that all poverty comes from single-parenthood illegitimacy—declared that “the revolution of values is the true goal of welfare reform: to be forced into an idea of bourgeois respectability.”

            Of course, Mac Donald blames the ideas of the 1960’s for promoting that poverty comes from systemic problems rather than the behavior of individuals and for advocating that poor people, especially minorities, had the right to government assistance.  Looking to systemic ills makes answers and solutions to inequality and poverty much more complicated and, consequently, demands more change.  But that is just the point.  The Manhattan Institute, the Giuliani administration, the New York Post, and many other fans of the “new” New York follow a largely Republican tradition: they consistently promote simplistic notions that all poverty comes from individual behavior.

            So what does this “revolution of values” implicit in welfare reform preach?  Is it really believable that people don’t want to work if they can only get a bare subsistence from the government?  Do the meager alms of welfare really foster dependency in poor communities?  Do people really enjoy taking advantage of the government and getting a “free ride” on welfare?

            Profoundly retrograde conservative thinkers, in their vituperation against the changes of the 1960s, seem to believe these characteristics of the poor are true.  They forget or deny that the era’s protests over civil rights and welfare rights brought essential issues of racism, poverty, and inequality into the American mainstream.  Through intense pressure and protest, these problems were discussed and debated in government and, at least partially, solutions legislated. 

            The changes of the 1960s also introduced an ethos into bourgeois middle class culture that responsibility to society, as well as an awareness of inequality, racism, and injustice, could co-exist with the ideals of education, cooperation, respect, comfort, and other ideal categories that Tom Wolfe throws around.  The anachronistic conservative view would have people believe that awareness, responsibility, and the freedom to protest are incompatible with hard work, morals, and “respectability.” 

            In 1966, Jesse Helms stated that:  “Americans need to stop protesting, marching, looting, burning, destroying, threatening, posturing and loafing.  They need to start minding their own business again, go back to work, regain respect for decency and personal responsibility, and to pray for God’s forgiveness for what they have deliberately tried to do to America.”

            Unfortunately, this simplistic brand of thinking regarding both social movements and the rights of the poor to protest is surprisingly alive and kicking.  The neo-conservatives talk about imposing their brand of “bourgeois respectability” on the poor, but they are without the respectability that comes with being part of a progressive democratic society.  The vast majority of people understand the value of work if it is work that leads to opportunity and allows self-respect.  The “success” of welfare reform in moving people from welfare-to-work is a much touted part of the “new” New York City, as well as a clear manifestation of the kind of tactics that the Giuliani administration has undertaken in regard to poor New Yorkers.  But what is the change?

“Welfare to Work” and the increase in Poverty

“One of the greatest things I have done in New York City, and one of the things I will be remembered for years from now, is workfare –putting people back to work!  It is probably one of the best things I have done.  When students read history books… twenty years from now they are going to see that I took a city of dependency and made it into a city of workers!”  -Mayor Giuliani, 1998 Town Hall Meeting

Just how has the Giuliani administration applied its policies to bolster their version of “bourgeois respectability” and values in poor communities?  As with “quality of life” policing, countries all over the world are looking to Giuliani’s New York as the model to rollback welfare in order to save money and gain political favor.  Welfare reform and welfare-to-work is nation-wide and spreading to Western Europe and other industrialized countries.  But what is it really made of?  

            In New York City, there has been much ballyhoo about the success of the welfare-to-work program that statistically shows the rolls have gone down by over one-half million since the early 1990’s.  As Wayne Barrett has argued, although welfare reform is the largest social experiment in the modern history of New York City, no one, even those who helped frame the policy, have put resources toward figuring out where those who have left the rolls have gone. 

            The Giuliani administration consistently boasts about these numbers as “ending welfare.”  But a closer look into the techniques that allow such dramatic numerical reductions to occur reveals the administration gives nearly nothing to those whose lives are already in crisis.  Here is a brief summary of the main elements of the administration’s program:


By most accounts, the transition from “Income Support Centers” to “Job Centers” is first and foremost a policy of active deterrence.  In other words, if you go to get help, no matter what your situation in life is, they tell you government benefits don’t exist anymore, that you are not eligible to apply.

            In fact, there have been federal, state, and local lawsuits against the Giuliani administration’s changes to welfare centers.  One 1999 decision still in appeals found that New York City’s Job Center staff illegally discourages and denies needy people from applying for food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance.  Most recently, an August report by the by the New York City Bar Association noted that while public assistance rolls dropped by almost half since 1995, “rising requests for emergency food and growing numbers of homeless people in city shelters point to worsening conditions for the poor.”


Work Experience Program (WEP), the crowning glory of the Giuliani administration’s welfare-to-work program, is premised on the idea that one must work for the little survival money one gets because it will “instill the work ethic” into the recipient.  WEP workers many times work alongside city workers who make real living wages doing the exact same thing.  Most of the jobs WEP workers fill were once salaried city jobs that were taken away in the early cutbacks of the Giuliani administration and reinstated as close-to-unpaid WEP jobs worked on by welfare recipients.  Many times the work does not provide real skills and, worst of all, since 1995 twenty-one thousand students have abandoned their studies at CUNY because of the WEP program. 


Enforcing the policy of active deterrence, sanctions are imposed severely on those who actually make it on the rolls.  This form of punishment can happen because of everything from missing a meeting to misunderstanding a direction and often results in being kicked off the rolls.  In such an event, it can take weeks and many times months to reapply and receive benefits again.


According to the NYC Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner, the primary philosophy guiding reform comes down to creating a “personal crisis” in the lives of welfare recipients.  The fundamental idea is that poverty is the result of personal behavior, and falls right into place with simple line of conservative demagogues. 

            This “tough love” approach toward the poor disregards people as individuals struggling with abuse, mental illness, addiction, or discrimination.  Rather, it sees them as a group leeching off the system, making it easier to impose the harsh, cruel rollback currently underway.  This tactic is a dehumanization of the undeserving and “unrespectable” of the undeserving and “unrespectable” in the view of the “new” New York.

            Simplistic neo-conservative ideas of behavior and personal responsibility allow for citizens to blame the victim and disregard any concept of structural or systemic faults.  One fifth of New York City residents live under the federal poverty line.  Can “personal crises” explain this fact?  Most welfare advocates would be the first to support job centers if they were really able to help people with education, child support, and the training it takes to get a decent job with a decent wage.


If we are so prone to looking down on “welfare cheats” in mainstream American society for the supposed millions that they suck from our tax money then let’s at least also look to economic strata above.  From the savings and loan debacles to defunct hedge funds to massive tax breaks, there are millions upon millions of tax dollars that are absorbed in the echelons far above the average hard-working middle class American.

            Looking down on the poor is just the gateway to a whole worldview that has gained ground in New York City under the Giuliani administration.  It is a view that marries the jingoism of conservative “voices” from the Heartland who excoriate “welfare mothers” with an urban bourgeoisie that is not willing to face the ills of society.

            The Giuliani administration can preach policies tantamount to forgetting about the poor and embracing privilege without social responsibility.  That is fine for some short-term politicking, but over time such a mindset will destroy the city’s progressive democratic traditions.  It is impossible not to give Giuliani credit for change.  But it is the type of change that should be critically evaluated.  It is ludicrous to mistake short-term policy aimed at alleviation of numbers with needed long-term policies for education and training.  While the welfare system has problems, money must be spent on long-term solutions.  The ethos of “shocking” people off the rolls will ruin lives and families.  It is simply cruel. 

            It is important to dissect, challenge and investigate how and why the “new” New York City has “turned around.”  It is an issue of not only what kind of city we want in the future but what kind of society we essentially strive for.  It is not an easy task and there are no simple answers.  But the tendency to put forth for simple answers, statistics and proclamations –about quality of life, decency or the poor—is the primary legacy of the Giuliani administration.  For the sake of all people suffering in poverty, let’s hope the next Mayor does not follow this tradition. 


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail


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