As if being poor in New York City weren’t enough of an indignity — affordable apartments are nearly impossible to find, your kids go to schools with no classroom supplies because the parent associations can’t afford to foot the bill, and nobody wants to buy your $7 cupcakes — add “trapped in a bureaucratic hellhole with no escape” to the list. That’s the conclusion of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a new study out today from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies that finds that at any given time, nearly one-quarter of New Yorkers receiving welfare benefits are in the process of being “sanctioned” — having their benefits cut for perceived infractions of city rules — and that when the city is challenged, most of the time it either backs down or has its decision overruled by a judge.
City officials have long insisted that the sky-high number of New Yorkers stuck in sanction status — about one in four welfare recipients at any given time — is due to its tough enforcement of rules requiring that any “able-bodied” aid applicants either find a job or enter a city-approved job search program. In the FPWA report, however, Columbia University researcher Vicki Lens counters with numbers that seem to indicate some excessive zeal on the city’s part: When individuals apply to a judge to challenge their sanctions for violating work rules, the city withdraws the sanctions 63 percent of the time, versus 29 percent statewide; and when the case goes to a judge’s decision, the city won its case just 23 percent of the time, versus 66 percent statewide.
So what kinds of violations has the city been cracking down on? Lens provides anecdotes plucked from the state’s own database of hearing decisions, including:
The FPWA report places a fair share of the blame for excessive sanctioning on the process of “autoposting,” a much-derided HRA practice in which people have their benefits automatically cut off unless a city worker makes an electronic note that they’ve jumped through all of that month’s required hoops. On top of that, says Lens, the massive workload being dumped on HRA workers (and the non-profits that the city contracts out to for job placement and other services) helps encourage “creaming,” where caseworkers focus their efforts on the applicants who are easiest to place.
“It’s much easier to sanction someone who really needs help,” says Lens, “because you don’t have the resources to help them, and it takes too much time. You would discourage people who give you a hard time — you want them to go away, because they’re going to reflect poorly on you.”
All of these sanctions have resulted in a mountain of paperwork, and a cottage industry in adjudicating all the cases that get appealed. The FPWA report estimates that the city spent $18 million last year on holding 57,704 fair hearings to review people’s sanctions — about three-quarters of which were either withdrawn or overturned.
“The withdrawals, oh, we would see them all the time,” says Ed Pearson, who retired last year after a long career as an administrative law judge overseeing fair hearing cases. The title of the FPWA report couldn’t be a better description of the city’s approach to sanctions, in his view: “They take the view that everybody’s lying unless they can prove otherwise.”
HRA wouldn’t comment on the as-yet-unreleased report, but has noted that the persistently low numbers of people receiving welfare in the city, despite soaring poverty and unemployment figures, should be considered a success. “HRA’s work first philosophy has led to thousands of job placements with high retention rate in industries such as health care, education services, leisure and hospitality, and retail sales,” said an agency spokesperson, adding that “clients who comply with HRA’s employment activities are helped along their path to self-sufficiency and long-term financial outlook.”
For Lens, though, the issue isn’t those who are able to comply, but those who can’t, at least not to HRA’s satisfaction. “I’ve seen such crazy results of people who get cut off and lose their support services,” she says. “They could be in, like, a GED program and then they can’t finish it. It’s constantly having to reset and start over again, even if you’re making strides. That’s the bigger problem — ultimately it interferes with people’s attempts to get off welfare and to get employed.”