The Squeeze Is On

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

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 zero—meaning 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 assistance—because 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 appointment—often 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."

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."

"I think that some people they're just forcing [WeCARE] on to see if people could just walk," says Diane Robertson, a woman with internal bleeding. "Because you get aggravated and say to hell with it."

At this point, it's likely the participation rate crisis won't hit the fan until after the new HHS regs are released, and possibly not even until state participation rate numbers start to be reported in October. If New York still lags behind the 50 percent benchmark, the worry is that welfare officials will either start closing cases or stepping up pressure on recipients to toe the work-rules line. One likely scenario is that Governor Pataki would renew his push for full-family sanctions, denying benefits to kids whose parents aren't engaged in work programs—a policy that would, says WRI's Dillonna Lewis, "pretty much wipe out the remaining 6,000 students from CUNY" who are seeking degrees while getting public assistance.

Advocates for the poor acknowledge that the new federal law has put New York officials in a tough spot. But they insist that Pataki and Bloomberg still have options: The federal law allows up to one year of vocational training for welfare recipients, for example, and while it's limited to 30 percent of the total caseload, New York is well below that figure. (The HRA's Hansell will only say that "we assign people to vocational education and training when we think it's the most appropriate activity for them, and we'll continue to do that.")

"The new law sends a terrible set of signals that in the end still leaves the decisions up to states," says Greenberg, who has been advising officials in several states on how to respond to the new welfare rules. "It doesn't force states to cut off assistance, and it doesn't force states to make bad decisions about how they implement."

Janet Moody just wishes that if the government wants her to comply with its rules, it would make it easier to do so. "Not saying work and training isn't good," she says, "but if they would maybe give two notices instead of one, or make sure the address is correct. Or maybe they could answer their phones."

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