E. Tammy Kim

New York City changes course on welfare-to-work

Twenty years after Clinton introduced program, a public assistance agency tries a different approach

NEW YORK — “No more one-size-fits-all” was the theme of a public hearing on welfare policy held Thursday in downtown Manhattan. About 80 people, many of whom receive public benefits, came to give and hear testimony on a seemingly esoteric, 56-page “Employment Plan” issued by the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency that oversees cash assistance, food stamps and other “safety-net” programs for New York City’s poorest residents. Advocates and dozens of participants in the city's "welfare-to-work" programs took turns at the microphone, expressing their frustration with a system that, in one man's words, "in no way meets my individual needs. I sit in a classroom six to seven hours a day doing absolutely nothing," he said, while ostensibly being trained on how to find a job.

To the right of the podium was Steven Banks, the new HRA commissioner who, with over 30 years experience in legal services, built his career on suing the agency he now runs. His appointment by liberal freshman Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year was, in one housing activist's words, “the equivalent of a president naming Ralph Nader to oversee a federal consumer protection agency."

Banks' two-year proposal for the HRA (public comment ends Nov. 7, at which point the state yeas or nays the plan) softens certain work requirements and procedures for the approximately 260,000 people receiving cash assistance in New York City, 50 to 60 percent of whom have their benefits conditioned on weekly work, training, job-search or "work activity" hours. Advocates for the poor are, by and large, thrilled by the amendments. But critics accuse Banks of “dismantling welfare reform” and undermining New York’s triumph over fraud and waste. Former HRA commissioner Robert Doar, now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently warned that welfare recipients and caseworkers will try "to steal — usually from government and usually to obtain benefits that one isn't entitled to," if given the chance.

Since Banks took over HRA, he has vowed to make it easier for New Yorkers to access public assistance. Some changes were introduced in the spring: no longer requiring adults to work full-time in order to get food stamps; allowing college enrollment to count as work in “welfare-to-work;” improving customer service; and being less quick to “sanction,” or withhold cash assistance, from recipients due to computer glitches or minor infractions, such as showing up late for job search.

HRA Commissioner Steven Banks addresses the crowd assembled for a hearing on welfare policy.
E. Tammy Kim

More details on the sanctions procedures appear in the official employment plan, along with a significant additional promise — to “phase out” the city’s work experience program (WEP), which posts individuals for up to 35 hours per week at public agencies, non-profits, religious institutions and private companies, for no pay other than cash assistance (typically, about $50 per month for a single adult).

President Clinton's 1996 federal “welfare reform” law established work requirements for federal cash assistance — the small payments available to families living well below the poverty line. State and local governments were left to design their own programs, usually a blend of internships, job training programs and subsidized employment. But unpaid WEP assignments proliferated in New York City under mayors Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg. As of Sept. 28, about 12,000 city residents were in WEP, described by Tim Casey, attorney at Legal Momentum, as "one of the largest workfare, or unpaid work programs, in the country.”

WEP participants work in sanitation and at city administrative offices, often alongside, or in place of, well-compensated union employees. "I've worked with 200 or so different clients on public assistance who've dealt with the system, and, across the board, WEP is a humiliating, frustrating experience for people — being forced to do these sorts of positions without any opportunity to be hired or get trained or advance," said Helen Strom, an advocate in the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center.

“There are many ways you can meet the work requirement [under federal law] and we in New York have had a very one-size-fits-all approach — that WEP is the answer,” said Sondra Youdelman, director of Community Voices Heard, a group that organizes welfare recipients. Emily Miles, policy analyst at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, endorses transitional jobs and career ladders as an alternative to WEP.

In principal, conservative opponents of Banks and de Blasio do not oppose work-based alternatives to WEP, but they worry that the HRA has lost its focus on employment. “The de Blasio administration is moving the system back to the failed status quo before welfare reform, toward so-called education and training," said Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute. "It turns out that that's less successful at moving people into work, which is, apart from not being a single mother, the best way to raise yourself up economically." MacDonald believes that the discipline built into WEP — waking up early, showing up for work, putting in long hours — is essential to escape poverty.

Appointing Steven Banks to lead New York City's welfare agency was 'the equivalent of a president naming Ralph Nader to oversee a federal consumer protection agency.'

Former commissioner Doar has said that, from 1995 to 2013, "New York City's cash-welfare caseload shrunk from almost 1.1 million recipients to less than 347,000." At Thursday's hearing, however, Banks said that 25 percent of those previously reported to have left welfare for work returned to the caseload within 12 months. 

"I am one of the people in that 25 percent," testified Kelly Watson, a trained performance artist currently receiving cash assistance. In addition to her WEP assignment, she has spent hours at a job-search program called Back to Work, which referred her in August to what was supposed to be a full-time job. "Then the job was cut down. I only got 5.5 hours last week," she said. And, at $8.75 per hour, "the jobs that are offered are not jobs that will move us out of poverty." 

Wendy O'Shields, 53, was similarly frustrated with the city's welfare-to-work infrastructure. After a series of unforeseen setbacks — illness, a death in the family, unemployment and falling prey to a Ponzi scheme — O'Shields fell from an "upper-middle-class life" to getting by in a shelter, buttressed by $45 per month in cash assistance and $194 per month in food stamps. At WEP and Back to Work, she said, "Everything is set up for people who've never worked. That's not very many people. I'm shocked at how inefficient it is."

O'Shields and other recipients hope that the HRA under new leadership will fulfill its promise of serving individual needs, in contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of the current system. According to Banks' proposal, an unemployed college graduate would spend more time on the computer looking for work, while a lower-skilled participant might work an internship or be placed in a part-time, subsidized office job. 

But the new reforms will still depend on the strength of the market and employment laws — the wages and positions necessary for New Yorkers to transition from welfare to work. "There aren't that many jobs out there, and the $8 to $10 jobs, they don't last," O'Shields said. "I think Banks is on the right track, but will he be able to implement these changes effectively?"

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