RECIPIENTS NOT SEEN, HEARD

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During the first steps of federal welfare reform reauthorization last week, city Human Resources Administration commissioner Jason Turner argued that Congress should end spending requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families bill. States should be allowed to spend as much or as little as they wish on poverty-fighting programs, Turner told Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, at the first of five welfare reauthorization “listening sessions” the feds are holding around the country this fall.

This proposal comes as no surprise–Turner’s been trying to limit the city’s welfare spending for years. It does, however, jeopardize state anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit. Under current law, the feds require states to spend at least 75 percent of what they spent the year before the 1996 welfare reform on anti-poverty programs. New York finances the tax credit in large part with that pot of money.

With just less than a year until Congress votes on renewing TANF, Turner and other East Coast welfare officials took the opportunity last Wednesday to bend the ears of HHS commissioners and debate issues, from funding levels to work requirements to the timing of benefit cutoffs. He and Commissioner Brian Wing of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance presented some of the most conservative views at the conference. Wing argued that TANF should continue its “work first” requirements. Education and training for welfare recipients for recipients are OK, he said, but only after work assignments were completed. “It provides discipline,” Wing said.

Meanwhile, just outside the Times Square Marriott Marquis, nearly 100 welfare recipients protested their exclusion from the meeting going on inside.

Even HHS officials noticed the void. “We specifically want to hear from beneficiaries,” said Horn, as he looked blankly around the meeting ballroom. There was an awkward pause. There were recipients present–two, to be precise, who trumpeted their personal success stories. A woman from Philadelphia told the appreciative audience that thanks to welfare reform she now has a job, with Educational Data Systems, a private company that contracts with Pennsylvania’s welfare agency. Why did her employer bring her to the listening session? “They were looking for a minority success story,” she later told City Limits.

A broader range of welfare recipients could explain to federal officials what it means to live on a welfare check that hasn’t increased in value since 1990, said Jennifer Flynn, executive director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network, one of a dozen groups that organized the protest. Horn says one of his upcoming meetings, in Washington, will be for advocates only, but Flynn says that’s not good enough: “How ironic that here we are at a listening session, yet those inside still can’t hear.”

This story has been updated to protect the identity of a source who wanted to remain anonymous. 11/6/08