Welfare reform–the 1996 changes in the federal-state system that require recipients to find work within five years or lose benefits–is overall a resounding success. Even during the worst of the recent economic downturn in 2001, mothers were joining the work force in record numbers and child poverty reached an all-time low. But as Heather Mac Donald points out in the new issue of City Journal, welfare reform works only where the administrators are willing to enforce it. In her own state, New York, she writes, that isn’t happening–because New York trims cash benefits by only 25 percent and noncash benefits not at all if a welfare mother refuses to look for a job.

The result of the slap-on-the wrist treatment of welfare scofflaws: Some 48 percent of New York’s welfare recipients aren’t engaged in 20 hours a week of  “work activities,” as New York law requires but are collecting checks anyway. And “work activities” doesn’t even necessarily mean actual work. It can include looking for a job, taking a class, and similar forms of non-employment. Heather writes:

“The dirty little secret of New York’s version of welfare reform is that you don’t have to do a thing to collect your government check, just like in the bad old days of the entitlement culture. A welfare mother can thumb her nose at every demand the government makes of her’she can skip appointments with her welfare worker, refuse to take jobs offered her, and sit home all day watching Jerry Springer’and still pull down three-quarters of her welfare check, as well as her full allotment of food stamps and Medicaid.”

Welfare-reform scofflaws, encouraged by negligent or secretly sympathizing bureaucrats, abound in my home town of Washington, D.C., as well. One of the side benefits of not having to work because you’ve got a guaranteed government check coming is that you never have to develop the basic social skills, such as common courtesy and consideration for others, that enable you to survive on a job. In my D.C. neighborhood, where middle-class condo-dwellers live cheek by jowl with residents of housing projects, the welfare mothers are conspicuous in the supermarket checkout lines for their all-around rudeness. They clog the express lines with overloaded grocery carts, curse those standing behind them who dare suggest that they move to a different line, and argue loudly and at length with the clerks over which items may or may not go onto the “electronic benefit transfer” cards that have replaced paper food stamps here. The example these uncouth women set for their children in tow is not inspiring, and the kids typically misbehave accordingly.

New York’s Gov. George Pataki is trying to tighten the welfare-eligibility laws in his own state–but as might be expected, the poverty establishment is fighting his every move. As Heather writes: 

“The poverty advocates are predictably playing the child card to block full-check sanctions. Cutting off a recalcitrant mother’s full check, they say, will punish her children. But nothing is more punishing to children than a lifetime of welfare receipt, which guarantees poverty and creates an entitlement mentality in family members.”

Yes–the worst aspect of welfare isn’t the fact that you’re not required to give anything back for what you get. It’s that you–and, sadly, your children–never have to learn the character traits that will equip you for anything better than welfare.