The Other Disaster

Tough Times Ahead Bode Worst for City’s Poorest

But at the city's Family Assistance Center on Pier 94, where all relevant city and state agencies offered disaster-related services, the prevailing sentiment was: "If they're not documented, we're not helping," according to José Peralta of the Central Labor Council. Until CLC and others complained, he said, the INS table had stood right at the entrance, and its staff were informing other agencies' workers that the undocumented were ineligible for any kind of aid.

"Whether we have a nightmare scenario of increased homelessness and hunger depends on the city leadership," said Levitan. Advocates wondered last week whether previous trends restricting access to public assistance would continue. (A federal judge had to order the Giuliani administration to provide food stamps, an entirely federal expense.) And they questioned whether public resources needed by the poor would go instead toward corporate bailouts and rebuilding costs. In fact, Giuliani's policies aside, the welfare system has "historically been an area where many administrations tried to save money," Turetsky said.

Worries over public assistance extend to the federal level, as next September's debates over reauthorizing the 1996 welfare laws draw closer. Analyst Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in D.C. said, "I would be fairly pessimistic" about federal dollars going toward the poor. He cited the September 25 decision of a House Ways and Means subcommittee nixing a "relatively small" $200 million increase for a program to help abused children. "The subcommittee said, we can't afford it," said Primus. "What they're going to give unemployed workers is very little at all."

A bigger crowd, following September 11, waits at a Yorkville food pantry last Thursday.
photo: Keith Bedford
A bigger crowd, following September 11, waits at a Yorkville food pantry last Thursday.

The contrast to what could be saddens some. "The city did an amazing job marshaling emergency support for those affected by the catastrophe," said one food service provider. "Why can't that happen in other times in dealing with poverty?" Recent weeks saw the kinder side of a hard-nosed mayor and stereotypically callous New Yorkers, but antipoverty advocates worry that everyday need will not get the same priority as terrorism-related need. "We're frightened about our individual donors, because so much is being given downtown, understandably," said Ambers of Yorkville Common Pantry. "We hope that our contributors will remember us at the end of the year." At St. John's Bread and Life in Bushwick, one of the city's largest emergency food providers, director Larry Gile said the response to an annual September fundraising drive was down by 50 percent.

But welfare recipient Wooten suggested overall tough times could spur a new understanding for the poor. "Somebody might think he was all high and mighty before," she said, but "he might be on public assistance now."

Reporting assistance: Whitney Kassel

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