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City officials are considering a move away from the strictest elements of New York’s poverty policy over the last decade, most notably by creating easier procedures for the poor to receive government aid and considering new ways to help needy people living above the federally-defined poverty threshold.

The Mayor’s Commission for Economic Opportunity drew attention last week after an internal memo detailing its likely recommendations, including targeting resources toward three specific demographic groups, was written about in the New York Times. But a closer look suggests that broader shifts are afoot. In a subtle but distinct departure from Giuliani-era approaches, the Commission also is looking to create “increased ease of access to benefits and work supports,” and believes the city “should move beyond the federal poverty threshold to build fuller and stronger measures of poverty in New York City,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by City Limits. (See the memo here: Strategies for Increasing Economic Opportunity and Reducing Poverty) City officials have made similar comments in public appearances recently.

The city looks to back up this talk with action, planning to roll out a program this fall that will enable potential aid recipients to simply go online and see what help they might qualify for, with an eye toward eventually taking applications online.

These new initiatives to help the poor, who currently make up roughly 19 percent of the city’s population according to census statistics, mark another attempt by the Bloomberg administration to temper the policies of former mayor Rudy Giuliani without disavowing his “work first” legacy. Under Giuliani, the city gained a reputation for taking a hard line, not only for its focus on work, but also for use of a strategy that policy experts call “diversion”: making applying for aid so difficult that many people simply find some other way to get by. The approach yielded federal litigation that found the city to be illegally denying help to eligible applicants for Medicaid and food stamps. Then-welfare commissioner Jason Turner told state policymakers that his agency sought to “create…a personal crisis in an individual’s life” when people requested government aid.

That precedent has created tricky footing for the mayor’s high-profile attempts to tackle poverty in the city, as he tries to appease liberals concerned with the city’s high poverty rate without alienating conservatives who favor a “tough love” approach. Last spring, conservatives criticized the Bloomberg administration for changing city welfare rules to allow single childless adults to pursue a year of education instead of workfare assignments. Then, earlier this year, the mayor drew ire from the left side of the aisle after he blocked an initiative by Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda I. Gibbs and his social services commissioner to expand access to food stamps for single unemployed adults.

Commission members and Gibbs, who oversees the body, declined to answer questions concerning the memo or potential changes in city policy before the commission’s recommendations are issued later this month. Gibbs would only say that her work is in line with the Giuliani approach. “I think we continue the legacy they created,” she said.

Regardless of political labels, the city has already begun experimenting with ways to make it easier for people to get help from public programs like Medicaid and food stamps. This spring, officials began testing an online tool that lets people see which programs they might qualify for out of 22 different city, state and federal programs. Based on financial and demographic facts entered by the client—family size, income, living situation—the program also estimates the amount of aid they could likely receive.

That’s a departure from present practices, which have typically included in-person appointments and separate, multi-page applications for each program; aid packages and eligibility are typically only assessed after the entire process is completed. The program, now undergoing a round of revisions, is expected to be available citywide this fall. “It’s being built with [easier access] in mind, to help people who are eligible to access benefits,” said Gibbs. Eventually, city officials hope to be able to process applications via the web, a practice that Pennsylvania has been developing since 1999.

Architects of the city’s work-first policy say an easy online process could undercut the philosophy that spawned the policy in the first place. “That’s not a good thing,” said Jason Turner, the Giuliani-era welfare head who is now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “One of the reasons for coming into a job center is you get oriented around what your obligations are going to be. That’s not really feasible when you’re doing something remotely.”

The city has a long way to go before access is as easy as point and click anyway, said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a frequent critic of the Bloomberg administration. “The concrete, day-to-day way they’re running social services on this, it’s still not that different than the Giuliani years,” said Berg. “I think it’s great they’re considering these longer-term projects, but it’s always in the details,” he said.

Bureaucratic processes aside, top-level officials have also been hinting at a deeper philosophical shift in the city’s antipoverty policy: A broader concept of poverty that would embrace more people than do federal poverty guidelines.

“We know that people who are earning twice the federal poverty level are poor,” Deputy Mayor Gibbs said recently at a panel discussion about the working poor. “What I hope we will be able to move forward with here in the city is to create our own definition of poverty that can help to give a better measure,” she said, adding that the federal poverty line is far below the estimated annual cost of supporting a family in New York City.

Setting a higher threshold for help is not a new idea — the federal poverty line, set in the 1960s at three times the cost of food for a year, has long been considered outdated. A number of aid programs, such as public child care, low-income tax credits and health care, are offered to families making as much as twice the federal poverty line. Indeed, many agencies serving poor families across the country now rely on the “self-sufficiency standard,” a measurement created in the 1990s by Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based nonprofit research group. The standard calculates the cost of rent, health care, child care and other basic expenses while controlling for local price differences. The 2004 self-sufficiency standard for a two-parent, two-child family in Brooklyn was just over $49,000—compared, for example, to $37,000 in Pueblo, Colorado. Federal guidelines label the same family poor only if its income is $19,800 or less.

If the self-sufficiency standard seems high, that’s an indication of a low federal measure and New York City’s high costs–not excess, said Nancy Biberman, executive director of Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, a Bronx-based employment services and housing agency. “There’s not a frill in there,” Biberman said of the self-sufficiency standard, which her agency uses to help its clients plan their budgets. “It’s bare-bones expenses. It’s housing, utilities, food, health care, child care, doing your laundry,” she said.

A broader definition will be a tough sell for conservatives. “Redefining poverty…is not going to foster self-reliance,” said Turner. According to Lawrence Mead, an advisor to the Giuliani administration and a national expert on welfare policy, declaring hardship beyond current federal guidelines would codify unrealistic expectations of living standards. “There’s never going to not be hardship. I think we exaggerate how easy life in America is,” said Mead. “The American dream doesn’t promise comfort to everyone.”

– Tracie McMillan

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