FAMILIES ON THE LINE: WELFARE
CHANGES WOULD SLAM NYC

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Federal welfare legislation, slated for a final vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 1, has both the mayor’s office and local anti-poverty activists demanding more funding for struggling New Yorkers.

As currently drafted, advocates argue, it would provide insufficient resources for child care, a key tool for helping families move off welfare and into the workforce. It would also mandate higher work participation rates, though states would be given no new funding to meet this requirement.

“This could really harm low-income working families,” said Danielle Ewen, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), when asked about the provisions.

The original 1996 Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program expired in 2002. Congress, conflicted over budgetary priorities and unable to agree on new long-term welfare policies, has already extended TANF 12 times, for three-to-six month spurts. With a consensus out of reach, Congress opted this year to include TANF in its 2006 general budget. If the budget fails, advocates may have an opportunity to modify the program. But if it passes, there will be no chance for renegotiation.

Mayor Bloomberg, in a December 8 letter to Congressional leaders, took a strong stand against the policy. It would “provide woefully inadequate funding for child care,” he wrote.

While the budget adds an additional billion dollars for child care over the next five years, advocates say that won’t come close to meeting the demand. A recent CLASP report found that funding for new families would break down to $68.97 per family per month.

The city would be forced to make up the difference by pulling from its own coffers. “It would be problematic,” said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for the mayor. “The city has limited resources.” Currently, the city’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), issues some 50,000 childcare vouchers, according to spokesperson Bob McHugh. [Full disclosure: this writer once worked at HRA.]

Another point of contention is a new rule requiring states to make sure 50 percent of recipients are employed, starting in October 2006. Most states, including New York, have far lower work participation rates, and would thus risk losing federal funds. In the past, these percentages were more flexible, based on caseload fluctuations. HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston acknowledged in a 2003 report that “a growing percentage” of local welfare recipients are “hard to engage” due to factors such as mental illness and disability.

Local activists fear that such strict regulations and budgetary restrictions will prevent welfare recipients from getting the job training they will need to earn a living wage. Bich Ha Pham, executive director of Hunger Action Network, noted that HRA has recently made it easier for clients to access these opportunities with programs such as WeCare [see “Ending Welfare as We Know It,” City Limits magazine, July/August 2005]. “We’re concerned that the new law will place limits on HRA to refer recipients to welfare and education training programs,” she said.

Don Friedman, senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society, echoed her sentiments. “This is all about bad or worse,” he said, “as opposed to good or better.”