A Tear in the Net

As Federal Dollars Disappear, No Security for City’s Poor

It's easy to see how Shakima Canty could fall through the cracks. The mother of two young children, she has spent weeks traveling from her home in Bed-Stuy to welfare offices in Coney Island and downtown Brooklyn and back again, trying to ensure that her family's public assistance continues after she reaches her lifetime limit for federal aid on December 2. "I'm very nervous," she says, because a month of filling out paperwork and meeting with caseworkers has brought her no closer to getting on the state program, Safety Net, that is supposed to pick up the fed's slack.

Canty's situation is exactly what advocates worry will befall too many of the approximately 38,000 families—mostly single mothers and children—in her boat. Those families will be the first in New York to reach the five-year lifetime limit on federal cash assistance set in the 1996 welfare law. They'll be doing so during the city's worst economy in 30 years, with thousands of jobs disappearing, and homelessness and hunger at record highs. As federal aid ends, state and city dollars are supposed to replace it. But a policy requiring the time-limited to apply for Safety Net—when they could be transferred over automatically—already shows signs of malignant neglect.

On one visit to a welfare office, Canty filled out a lengthy Safety Net application. On another visit, she was told those papers had been lost. A staffer at one center told her she couldn't apply there and sent her to another office. On top of her Safety Net troubles, Canty discovered her benefits were in jeopardy because of an alleged violation unrelated to the time limit. These were problems for a lawyer, so Canty found one in New York Legal Assistance Group's Randal Jeffrey.

Jeffrey fears "there are going to be thousands lost in transition for both intentional reasons and unintentional [error]." From his work on Reynoldsv. Giuliani—in which a federal judge found the administration to be routinely and illegally blocking access to federally funded food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance—he's familiar with the kind of bureaucratic accidents that can add up to unwritten policy.

In fact, conversations last week with several other recipients facing time limits revealed the only constant among their application experiences to be agency errors—different ones in different cases. Advocates have long alleged that Giuliani's welfare administration uses frequent evaluations to fetter recipients with sanctions and red-tape errors. Only such a practice, they say, can explain one of the mayor's proudest achievements: having sliced welfare rolls by more than half, from 1,160,593 in March 1995 to 482,499 in July 2001.

The city's Human Resources Administration (HRA) did not respond to several Voice calls, but John Madden, a spokesperson for the state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, says the Safety Net application process is "case management, not harassment." Officials' only concession to concerns over the complicated, 45-day process: If HRA fails to call in recipients at least 45 days prior to their time limit, they will be automatically transferred into Safety Net pending future application, to avoid a gap in benefits. Any delay on the recipient's part, however, will not be forgiven.

Another cushion may be a jobs program, which the city has said involves approximately 1800 temporary spots, mostly in the parks department, for people reaching their federal assistance limit. The gesture may be less benevolent than it seems. Don Friedman, chair of the Welfare Rights Network, has heard that "massive numbers of people" have been contacted and told "take it or you can't even apply for Safety Net." And he wonders whether the city's enormous post-September 11 expenses will make these temporary positions even more fleeting.

Canty, who has been offered one of these jobs, also has her doubts. "Is this a job just to get us off, and we'll get fired in six months?" she says. "It's too many people they're trying to cut off, too many people to just put into a job. Something is up."

But with Giuliani an apparently lost cause and nearly an old story, the welfare-rights community is holding out hope for the billionaire mayor-elect. "We know very little about what to expect," says Friedman, given Michael Bloomberg's failure to discuss welfare in his campaign. One welfare-rights group, Community Voices Heard in Harlem, faxed a letter to Bloomberg last week, requesting a meeting. At press time, their letter had not received a response, nor had several calls from the Voice.

Bloomberg's few relevant comments have left an ambiguous impression. When Giuliani endorsed him, Bloomberg praised the mayor for having "brought down crime, built jobs, and reduced the welfare rolls." But during a Republican debate in August, Bloomberg said about the five-year time limit, "The people that we're talking about generally are not those that have been able to get jobs or will get jobs. . . . We have to go out and outreach to them. . . . Otherwise they're going to be sleeping on the streets, their children are going to go hungry. You just can't do that. . . . Nobody wants to waste money, but these people need help." He refused, however, to call for automatic transfer into Safety Net. But the poor and their advocates hope that campaign ambiguity will evolve into mayoral compassion.

 
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