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The mayor grabbed headlines earlier this month when he announced that welfare rolls had dipped to their lowest level in more than 40 years. But new data obtained by City Limits from the Human Resources Administration (HRA) reveals a less impressive trend: Of the recipients who leave welfare each month, only around 23 percent are known to have found work. The rest, according to HRA, just stop showing up for appointments.

Meanwhile, a dramatic 67 percent of cases added to the rolls each month are returnees, proof of what advocates call “churning,” the tendency of low-wage workers to cycle between government assistance and dead-end jobs.

“Oh God,” said Mark Levitan, senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society (CSS), a research and advocacy group, when he heard the new numbers. “Talk about a revolving door.” A recent report from CSS found that despite citywide job growth, real wages at the bottom rung have fallen by 3.6 percent since 2000, and overall employment levels have declined.

That's a far cry from the message of the mayor's April 5 press release. “We promised to move New Yorkers to self-sufficiency and we are delivering on that promise in a historic way,” Bloomberg states. Of those who leave welfare for work, 88 percent keep their jobs for at least three months, and 75 percent still have them after six.

But the press release never explains that those numbers apply only to the 23 percent of former clients known to have jobs at all. The other 77 percent aren't tracked by HRA, according to spokesperson Robert McHugh.

Responding to the mayor's news, Jillynn Stevens, director of policy, advocacy and research at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), pointed out that a drop in rolls could also reflect barriers that prevent clients from receiving or maintaining their benefits. “There is every attempt to not sign people up, to exclude them from eligibility, to make it as unfriendly and difficult as possible to be a welfare recipient,” she said.

One measure that lends credence to Stevens' critique is the number of administrative fair hearings, which allow recipients to challenge decisions made on their cases. Even as the rolls have dropped statewide, the number of fair hearings has stayed relatively flat. Roughly 70,000 were held in New York City last year, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Rather than celebrate declining welfare rolls, Levitan said, the mayor should focus his energy on substantive change. Levitan is encouraged, for instance, by Bloomberg's recent move to ease food stamp restrictions, and by his newly created Commission for Economic Opportunity, staffed with heavy-hitters from both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. The commission “could lift a significant number of New Yorkers out of poverty,” Levitan said. “It's a serious enterprise and an act of good faith.”

—Cassi Feldman

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