How Does His Dole Grow?

Bloomberg Balances Needs—His and the Poor's

Asked about the ongoing sanctions and this year's remarkable overall decline in welfare, HRA's Neustadt said, "We believe that some of the people whose cases were closed because they didn't show up [for an appointment] got a job." He said, however, "We don't have good data on what happens to people leaving," and said half the cases closed in the 2002 fiscal year ended due to "non-compliance" with rules.

Advocates for the poor took Bloomberg's rejection of federal food stamp money earlier this year as a sign that the Giuliani era wasn't over. The federal waiver would have extended food aid for some 24,000 childless New Yorkers. Neustadt says, "We don't believe there was a single person who'd been deprived of food stamps because of rejecting the waiver."

But the chair of the City Council's General Welfare Committee, Bill de Blasio, credits Bloomberg with bringing a "night-and-day culture change" to the welfare administration. He said, for instance, that Bloomberg officials are willing to share data and communicate with the council—improvements that perhaps speak to the low standards set during the previous mayoralty. In his May welfare address, Bloomberg surprised listeners with a compassionate tone and an emphasis on the value of education in helping people move off welfare, in contrast to his workfare-championing predecessor.

Recipient groups have said the shift in tenor has not been backed by much practical change. But just 10 months into Bloomberg's first year, HRA says improvements are still being planned. In one concrete advance, Bloomberg put in motion federal funds from the 1998 Workforce Investment Act aimed at helping low-income Americans—as much as $100 million that simply gathered dust under Giuliani. And at a hearing last week on a City Council bill to make high school and college more accessible to recipients—half of adult recipients never finished high school—an HRA official spoke of working toward a compromise. Giuliani flatly rejected the measure, and at a hearing several months ago, Bloomberg's HRA opposed an earlier draft.

If Giuliani made welfare so political that it seemed personal, Bloomberg has been harder to pin down on poverty. His greatest passions to date have included a smoking ban in bars and noise reduction—not quite subsistence issues. He recently dismissed suggestions that homelessness was rising, despite the unprecedented shelter numbers. And he largely supports the Bush administration's federal welfare proposal, which demands work participation at a rate far higher than even Giuliani was able to achieve.

Meanwhile HRA, like other agencies, must tighten its belt to help close the yawning budget gap. Since cash assistance comes mostly from the feds and state, the cuts will likely be mostly administrative. The folks at 210 Livingston Street can expect longer waits. But with hard times projected for years to come, the real worry would be if the lines suddenly got shorter.

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