The absence of a proper sense of duty to self and society in the impoverished classes is a matter of such continual complaint from our governors that by their own logic they should have been heartened to come upon Zoraida Velasquez.
Mrs. Velasquez is a divorced woman responsible for carrying three children through their formative years in the South Bronx. She works in a plastics factory for gross wages of $636 a month. Our president’s exactions for the public revenue are almost as merciful to the working poor as they are to the corporations, and Zoraida Velasquez’s wages are taxed only $67—a bare 11 percent—a month. After paying for transportation to work, indulging in her lunch, and paying for child care, she has $334 a month to dispose of as she pleases.
If Zoraida Velasquez would only sink into total welfare dependence, the city Department of Social Services would send her a monthly check for $424. Until the summer of 1982, Social Services was rendering to her the proper justice of a $90-a-month check for the difference. That supplement had been larger before her oldest daughter passed her eighteenth birthday and ceased to be eligible for Aid to Dependent Children. This newly fledged adult, of course, would need only to leave home to qualify for welfare herself. But her mother pinched her budget and kept the family together for the sake of the better future community college offered her daughter.
Instead of the reward deserved by the evident splendor of her character, Zoraida Velasquez earned only punishment. In July of 1982, she was informed that, under the new regulations of the state Department of Social Services, her family was no longer eligible for its $90 monthly welfare supplement.
She appealed for an administrative trial, and in November, a welfare hearing officer prematurely celebrated Christmas by ruling the Velasquezes henceforth ineligible because the Reagan budget forbade the use of federal funds to assist families whose gross income was more than 150 percent of the basic welfare budget. Mrs. Velasquez’s gross income happened to be 50 percent higher than welfare provides, but the cash actually available for the support of self and children was $90 lower.
Most of us, even his detractors, are at one with the president when it comes to scouring for scapegoats whenever we are pressed to explain some social evil. Official liberalism comforts itself in that key by blaming Reaganomics for inequities of the sort visited upon Mrs. Velasquez. And yet Reaganomics is much too narrow a word for describing an all-but-universal public policy. The notion that the reality of the Velasquez situation could be defined according to the illusion of this woman’s gross wages was approved by a majority of the Democrats in the Senate. And once it became law, the social instruments of a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor of New York hastened with enthusiasm to put it into effect.
Mrs. Velasquez has never been one to give up. She turned to Bronx Legal Services, one of nineteen litigating offices for New York’s poor, funded since 1966 by the Office of Economic Opportunity and beset, as never before, by a Reagan administration whose distaste for this sort of thing exceeds the hostility of social service administrators of every persuasion only in the vehemence of its aggressions.
Congressmen have come to cherish the federally subsidized poverty-law offices as places useful for the deposit and quite often the satisfaction of constituent grievances; and legislators have so far stoutly preferred their own convenience to relieving mayors, governors, and even presidents from the resultant inconvenience. And so the federal poverty-law agencies still endure, impartially disliked by executive officials at every level: when Bronx Legal Services undertook Mrs. Velasquez’s cause, it came to court unsurprisingly opposed by an enlightened state attorney general and city corporation counsel whose affirmations of the concern of the mayor and the governor to withhold the protection of their wings from all except the truly needy sounded remarkably like the president’s own.
Early in December, New York State Supreme Court Justice Allen Murray Myers ruled that Mrs. Velasquez had been unjustly treated. The city and state could not be permitted to argue that the refusal of federal funds for cases like hers excused them from the responsibility to the needy mandated by the New York State constitution. They must use their own money to make up the gap in her budget.
Pittance though it has won, the Velasquez family could look forward to a better Christmas than last year’s. But let us leave off condemning Edwin Meese as a lamentable aberration in the official conscience. Ebenezer Scrooge is counselor and inspiration to both parties.
February 2, 1984