How Does His Dole Grow?

Bloomberg Balances Needs—His and the Poor's

One chilly morning last week the waiting room at 210 Livingston Street was hot with impatience. Things at the welfare center behind Fulton Mall rarely move at a clip, but people swore the wait—two hours and counting for some—was worse than ever. Perplexed newcomers dotted the lines that were dozens deep, among them many single mothers with young children and some single men, seniors, and couples. There was also the unlikely presence of two advertising professionals, who own a two-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights but lost their jobs and health coverage for their four-month-old twin boys.

The scene was a snapshot of a recent shift: The welfare rolls are growing. Though the growth is only in fractions of a percent since July, it is enough to contrast with the continuous decline in the first half of 2002 and the famous drop during former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tenure. (There was a brief swell following last year's terrorist attacks, when the city temporarily suspended case closings due to computer problems, but it was quickly erased.)

Giuliani's halving of the 1 million-plus welfare population—with tactics that led the nation in toughness—came to rival crime reduction among his greatest political hits. Of interest now is how Mayor Michael Bloomberg will follow that popular precedent in an economy of mushrooming need.

A spokesperson for his welfare agency was quick to downplay the new rise. The rolls grew steadily from 418,277 in July to 421,446 in September, an uptick of less than 1 percent. That small period of increase, while notably unusual, "does not a trend make," said David Neustadt of the Human Resources Administration (HRA).

He had reason to be cautious, given how high Giuliani raised the political stakes of public assistance. When HRA commissioner Verna Eggleston suggested this March that Giuliani's manual-labor-for-benefits approach had been too severe, the Manhattan Institute, an influential conservative think tank, attacked. She was "a Dinkins-era throwback" indulging in "hypersensitive hand-wringing, remote from commonsense reality," went the rant in its policy journal.

When a budget watchdog agency in January mistakenly projected a hefty increase based on the post-September 11 blip, the tabloids zeroed in with gusto. "It's clear that those who hated welfare reform from the start will jump on momentary statistical anomalies just so they can undermine reform," the New York Post fumed. The Daily News railed against "the take-from-the-middle-class-to-give-to-the-poor exponents" and called for abolishing the Independent Budget Office. (By contrast, the News recently decried the mayor's budget-conscious decision to close 24-hour city animal shelters at night, writing, "Outraged? You should be. By the plight of all the poor pooches lost, abandoned or worse in our streets.")

Informed last week of the slight growth in the dole, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald warned, "If the rolls go back in New York in a significant way, it'll damage Bloomberg. Clearly, he doesn't have the same philosophical energy directed toward the issue of dependency that Giuliani did."

But anti-poverty advocates are alarmed that the increase isn't much bigger. Besides welfare, all other measures indicate a poverty explosion. City unemployment was at 7.6 percent in August, compared to just over 5 percent nationally—and according to the Fiscal Policy Institute it could rise to 9 percent and even higher among low-wage workers by year's end. Some 800,000 New Yorkers receive food stamps, while even conservative estimates suggest that just as many should be getting them but don't. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger has said over 1 million residents depend on charity for food, and HRA says soup kitchen demand is up.

Most dramatically of late, the city's nightly homeless shelter population is at its highest in history—37,129 as of October 16—with about 65 percent of families in the system receiving welfare.

Gone is the late-1990s boom economy that helped absorb the Giuliani welfare cuts. In the lesser fiscal crisis of the early 1990s, the city welfare rolls soared—from 671,000 in December 1990 to 859,000 in December 1994, according to the IBO. But this year, even as homelessness and hunger have ballooned, welfare rolls plunged over 9 percent from January through July to reach their lowest level since 1965.

"However you look at it, it appears there are a lot more poor people in New York City," said Wendy Bach, a poverty law attorney at the Urban Justice Center. "Why is the welfare system moving along business-as-usual?"

She says her staff of welfare advocates, who handle about 600 cases per quarter, "have seen nothing different on the ground" from Giuliani to Bloomberg. Sanctioning—the punishing of rule breakers by withholding cash assistance or, ultimately, closing a case—is "no more humane," she says. "Minor violations such as being 15 minutes late for an appointment or telling them you're sick can result in a sanction as long as six months. You can be in strict compliance with work requirements but [because of administrative sanctions] still have your case closed." The most recent city stats, from June 2002, show that approximately 33,000 out of 196,000 cases were in the sanction process.

"There's nobody sitting and living in luxury off of welfare," says Bach. The average monthly cash grant to a family of three was $517 in August, or $129 per week, and the vast majority of recipient families consist of a single mother and her children. Says Bach, the grants are "bare-minimum subsistence."

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