By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The line starts forming at noon. As people file in through a metal detector at the state's Temporary and Disability Assistance office in downtown Brooklyn, take their seats on the wooden benches, and wait for their numbers to be called, a steady stream of the young, old, and in-between drift over to a table in the corner that has a sign reading, "Project FAIR: We do not work for the state or city."
The help desk was set up five years ago to aid those awaiting fair hearings to challenge the city's rulings on welfare benefits. But the legal-aid attorneys who staff it end up taking questions that range further afield: How do I find affordable housing? How can I get my GED?
" 'Did I win the hearing or did I not win the hearing? Are they closing my case?' " says Project FAIR volunteer Margaretta Homsey of the City Bar Justice Center. "Just having somebody to decipher the legalese is valuable."
The headaches of navigating the legendary bureaucracy of the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA) are nothing new, of course. But there's a new welfare law in town, the original 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act"welfare reform" to those outside the Beltway having been renewed last year, after years of congressional wrangling. And legal advocates like Homsey are worried that subtle changes in the law could force New York State to take a welfare caseload that's already been slashed by nearly two-thirds in the last decade and squeeze still more people off the rolls entirely.
"People are struggling to make ends meet now, and to comply with the work requirements," says Project FAIR co-director Steffie Kinglake, Homsey's tablemate for the day. "It's going to be a tough job, and I hope it doesn't create more people on the streets."
While flashy items like marriage promotion programs and pitched battles over child care funding got all the ink, the provision of the new law that could have the greatest impact could be an obscure construct called the "participation rate." In theory, the 1996 law required states to maintain a rate of 50 percent, meaning half of all families receiving public assistance must be in 30 hours a week of either paid jobs, unpaid "workfare," job search, education and training, or other approved activities. However, the Gingrich Congress left a loophole: To encourage states to trim the rolls, they were allowed "caseload reduction credits" based on how many families had moved off welfare since the law was put into place. Thanks to Rudy Giuliani's caseload purges, New York State's effective required rate for years has been near zeromeaning that if the city had wanted to assign everyone to play Skee-Ball all day, the feds wouldn't have batted an eye.
Under the new law, though, states will be credited for caseload cuts only since 2005, and that has many poverty experts worried. "The practical effect is that unless states generate caseload decline after 2005, they face a 50 percent participation rate this fall and every year thereafter," says Mark Greenberg, executive director of the Center for American Progress' Task Force on Poverty. "So the law creates once again a tremendous incentive to simply cut welfare caseloads, whether or not people are getting jobs and whether or not they still need assistancebecause the easiest way to meet the new requirements is by restricting assistance to needy families."
New York's compliance rate currently stands at 39 percent, which leaves it better off than some states. (Pennsylvania scores a mere 8 percent.) Still, after a decade of shifting everyone possible into work programs or off welfare, coming up with another 11 percent is going to be a tough nut. "You're left with the kids, and the elderly, and the temporarily or permanently disabled," says Jennifer Werdell, a board member and former co-director of Project FAIR. Of these, tens of thousands of families are already "sanctioned" by the city every year, their benefits reduced or cut off for violating program rules. Usually, says Werdell, it's because they missed an appointmentoften because they couldn't find child care, or even had a private job interview and couldn't find anyone at HRA to reschedule their city appointment.
All of these "barriers to employment," as the welfare lingo calls them, feature in the steady stream of stories unspooled by visitors to the Project FAIR table. For Nancy Rodriguez, a Manhattan mother of two, her troubles began when she was informed that a new vocational program she'd started in September wasn't approved for welfare recipients. She dutifully quit school and waited for instructions on what to do next. The next thing she knew, she'd been "sanctioned"she lost her benefits. She successfully got her benefits restored in February, but in the interim piled up four months of unpaid back rent.
Rodriguez says she never received her official sanction letter from HRA, which is a common complaint.
"They send you mail, supposedly, and then you don't get it," says Janet Moody of Brooklyn. "You miss an appointment, they cut you off the next day." Moody has come to see yet again about obtaining benefits for her baby daughter, now four months old; she previously provided hospital discharge papers to a caseworker, at which point the paperwork promptly went AWOL in the HRA system. Another time, Moody recalls, she found she'd been sanctioned for missing a workfare appointment, though she'd repeatedly tried to inform the city that she was in the hospital at the time. "I left like 10 messages," she says. "Nobody got back to me."