The Squeeze Is On

Bad news for poor kids: Under new welfare law, state has to meet yet another 'quota' of cuts

To legal advocates for the poor, it's an all-too-familiar litany: families butting heads with a system that combines the compassion of the DMV with FEMA's attention to detail. "They'll tell you what you're doing wrong, but they won't tell you how to make it right," sums up Roxanna Henry, a legal advocate for Hunter College's Welfare Rights Initiative.

Henry is an official nonparticipant herself: She works part-time for WRI while studying for her undergraduate degree at Hunter and raising a nine-year-old daughter. But since her college classes don't count toward the work requirement, she's considered not in compliance. A state law, passed at WRI's urging in 2000, prevents the city from assigning students to workfare during school hours—so instead Henry is called in for monthly appointments to justify why her case shouldn't be closed. "I get to catch up on homework," she sighs.

If Henry and her fellow students won't comply, the government needs to find someone who will, if it's going to meet that 50 percent quota. One obvious target is the sanctioned, who make up an indigestible lump in the system—according to HRA, 30 percent of "engageable" cases are in the sanction process at any one time. But for the people she sees, stresses Werdell, "it's not that they're not willing to comply with the work requirement. It's that they for whatever reason had an issue that prevented them from cooperating one day. In the normal world, you can just bring a doctor's note and the problem is resolved. But at the centers, if you're able to reach someone, they say, 'Well, that's too bad, we're coding you in the computer as not complying. You'll have to go to a fair hearing to resolve it.' " (It doesn't help matters that the HRA computers have a habit of spitting out letters at regular intervals, each providing a new opportunity to miss an appointment and earn the city's wrath.)

To further complicate matters, Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt is set to issue new regulations by June 30 that will determine just what counts as an allowable work activity. How terms such as "vocational education" or "community service" are redefined could affect tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Particularly worrisome to New York: Congress has reportedly asked HHS to look into counting child-only cases—where the parent or caregiver doesn't receive benefits—as "nonparticipating" (currently they're not counted at all). With fully 41 percent of city cases, or 34,000 families, categorized as "child-only," this change would flood the city's numbers with nonparticipants, potentially setting off a frenzy of case closings.

So far, the city and state mostly seem to be crossing their fingers and hoping that the new HHS rules let them off easy without requiring major program changes. The state legislature has proposed shifting some welfare recipients to programs that don't need to be reported to the feds, and adding some money for "intensive case management"— in the hopes that those "barriers" can be overcome through home visits by caseworkers—while Governor Pataki is providing bonuses to counties that meet the 50 percent threshold. But no one seems certain whether any of this will be enough to satisfy the new requirement, though state welfare chief Robert Doer says he's "modestly hopeful."

As for the city, it's leaning heavily on WeCARE, a program launched in February 2005 that provides a battery of specialists to develop a "biopsychosocial analysis" of every person who is assigned to it. "We're trying to provide more tailored, customized services that will help clients move towards employment," says HRA chief of staff David Hansell. "That includes addressing issues like medical problems, vocational issues, basic language problems—whatever the client's need is, we've developed programs to address those." Deputy Commissioner Pat Smith contrasts it with the old "cookie-cutter approach," where people complaining of bad backs, say, would be sent back to work until their next problem arose. "Many people have multiple issues," says Smith, "and certainly their presenting issue might be what they feel is the most disabling, but there are other things at work as well."

Werdell says WeCARE has "good intentions, with a lot of implementation issues," and the stories at the Project FAIR table back her up. One woman tells of how her own doctor informed her that a herniated disk and other ailments made her unable to work, or even sit for long periods; WeCARE's doctor added internal bleeding to her list of maladies but still told her to report for work activities. A recovering substance abuser from the Bronx says he was ordered by WeCARE to attend regular appointments to make sure he was taking his medication; when he missed one—because the prescription made him too drowsy to navigate the subway, he says—his case was closed, leaving him with no Medicaid and no way to afford the medicine.

"It's not designed for people with special needs," says his substance abuse counselor, who like her client does not want to be identified by name. "What happens to people who are dealing with special issues, like psychiatric disabilities, that hinder them from getting where they have to go? If you can't make the appointment, [they say to] call and let them know on the phone. But that mailbox is always full, so you can't leave any messages."

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