NYC: Must Work For Food


It doesn’t take a billionaire businessman to know that New York City could use a little more help from the federal and state governments: That’s why Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for revising the way Homeland Security money gets allocated, and praised the recent court decision awarding billions more in state funding to city schools. So why would the Bloomberg administration turn down a chance to get more aid for hungry citizens?

Last week, New York City did just that. As it has every previous year of Bloomberg’s tenure, the Human Resources Administration rejected an offer to waive federal rules that bar some jobless adults from getting Food Stamps.

Under those rules, childless, able-bodied adults who aren’t working, training or in workfare cannot receive benefits for more than three months in any three-year period.

But USDA, which runs the Food Stamp program and pays for all benefits, offers to waive this rule in areas where state agencies report high unemployment or a shortage of available jobs. For several years running, NYC has qualified, but declined.

In other words, the Republican Pataki administration asks, the Republican Bush administration says “OK,” and several upstate counties (Allegany, Broome, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Erie, Franklin, Genesee, Jefferson, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, St. Lawrence and Schuyler) accepted the waivers. But the Bloomberg administration (along with upstate Lewis County) says, “No thanks.”

One hungers for the reason why.

While Food Stamp rolls have increased by about 200,000 recipients under Mayor Mike (to just over 1 million in March), need still appears to be unmet. A survey by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger found that “the number of people fed by the city’s kitchens and pantries rose by an estimated 9 percent in the last year (2003-2004).” The federal consumer price index indicates that food prices crept up 8 percent in New York City over the past three years.

HRA says that anyone who’s hungry can still eat—provided they work, join workfare, or engage in training.

“By declining to accept the food stamp waiver for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), New York City has reaffirmed its commitment to helping all who need and ask for assistance, and who are willing to do their part,” says HRA spokesman Bob McHugh in a statement to the Voice.

“Like all other individuals, those single, unemployed adults who need food stamps can receive them now, and they will continue to be able to receive them. If they cannot find a job on their own, the Human Resources Administration will provide them with the work experience or training they lack,” the statement continues. “The Bloomberg Administration believes that investing in people’s efforts to achieve self-sufficiency is sound public policy, and we will continue to make that investment.”

But is it sound public policy to require that a person work or train for food when the federal government declares that economic conditions make that requirement unnecessary? The New York Post thinks so: When Bloomberg first denied the waiver in 2002, the rightist paper declared, “Mayor Bloomberg seems to have passed an early test of sorts.”

“The Bloomberg folks seem to recognize the importance of encouraging recipients to work and keeping welfare reform intact,” the newspaper said back then. “They deserve kudos for seeing this essential truth.”

Indeed, whether it’s the administration’s motivation or not, the essential truth is that refusing the food stamp waiver shores up Bloomberg’s right flank. The mayor doesn’t throw many bones to conservatives, but playing tough guy with Food Stamps is a juicy one. After all, the maximum that a single person on Food Stamps can get is a whopping $149 a month.