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Amid news of a looming fiscal crisis, the governor’s Economic Security Cabinet concluded a statewide tour last week. By the time the last of 13 town hall-style meetings – held in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens – wrapped up, the initiative that began as an effort to coordinate services among the state’s far-flung social service agencies had taken on the role of priority-setter in an atmosphere of likely budget cuts.

“We want to hear what we need to do to protect New Yorkers from the coming economic storm,” said cabinet co-chair David Hansell, commissioner of the state’s welfare agency, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, at last Monday’s meeting in Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building. A report on the testimony will be presented to Gov. Paterson this month – but officials didn’t make any predictions or promises about what he would do with it.

Former governor Eliot Spitzer launched the cabinet in August 2007, as a sort of in-house think tank aimed at “strengthening and growing the middle class.” The cabinet’s primary job is to harmonize the actions of 20 government agencies whose policies affect low-income workers. (Hansell’s co-chair is Department of Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith.) Under Gov. Paterson, that broad mandate has narrowed to two focus areas: strengthening the workforce development system, and streamlining access to and coordination of benefits programs.

At the meetings, Hansell and representatives of various government agencies – from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal to SUNY to the Division of Human Rights – listened to hours of testimony from activists, nonprofit heads, educators and community members. Some speakers expressed support for specific bills and budget items, while others shared stories of personal struggle. Brenda Beal, one of six representatives from the low-income activist group Community Voices Heard, described losing her job as a bookkeeper, then moving to a shelter after being told that, at age 61, she was too old to receive job training. Beal’s voice broke, and she added quietly, “To live under these conditions in a rich city like New York is inhumane.”

Similar stories have surfaced throughout the state – with little regional variation, according to Hansell – though upstate residents were more worried about affording home heating oil, while in New York City there was more concern about welfare-to-work policies. However, certain concerns came up again and again. In the words of some of the residents and professionals who addressed them, here’s a sampling of those issues:

Health care: Access to affordable basic coverage was discussed by many as key to economic security. At the Harlem session, Jeremy Reiss, director of workforce mobility initiatives at the Community Service Society, a major NYC antipoverty organization, said that many New Yorkers are unemployed because of health problems, while others avoid taking low-wage work for fear of losing their public health insurance.

Housing: Jennifer Vallone, director of Project Home at University Settlement, advocated for what she called a true “housing wage” in New York City – the minimum required to cover housing and other costs – which would be around $20 an hour, a far cry from the current minimum wage of $7.15. Others cited exorbitant housing prices, the threat of foreclosure, and the exclusion of renters from homeowner tax breaks as top priorities.

Job Training and Placement: “It has been my experience that job assistance means nothing more than handing me a long list of websites to post my resume,” said William Cerf of Community Voices Heard. Others spoke of the need for more specific training programs in high-demand fields like construction and home health services. Speakers urged the cabinet to ensure that work programs help former welfare recipients build a real track record, rather than just give them busy work.

Help for Special-Needs Groups: Many urged the cabinet to target policies at specific at-risk populations, including women, who on average in New York state earn 78 percent of what men do, and are more likely to fall below the poverty line; disconnected youth, the growing population of 16-24 year olds who are neither working nor in school; immigrants, who need more access to English classes; ex-offenders, who face many unique barriers to employment; and the mentally and physically disabled.

Living Wage: Other speakers pointed out that a full-time working salary often does not cover basic necessities. “Work should provide a road out of poverty,” said Cathleen Clements, public policy and client advocacy director at the Children’s Aid Society, speaking for many supporters of an increased minimum wage; Reiss from the Community Service Society proposed raising it to $9.50 per hour.

After School Programs: At the Queens session held at York College on Thursday, John Albert of The After-School Corporation said, “After school programs are crucial to the economic security of parents.” Albert noted that there was demand for 102,000 more after school slots for children in Queens alone.

Hansell acknowledged that some requests fell beyond the scope of the Cabinet’s ability to fulfill. For instance, the federal government, not the state, sets eligibility requirements for food stamps and home energy assistance. However, one way the Cabinet can make a difference without dipping into state coffers is to help ensure that everyone who is eligible for benefits receives them. Earlier this year, the Cabinet launched a one-stop portal where people can check their eligibility for local, state and federal benefits and, in the future, apply for them—an initiative that echoes the city’s Access NYC website.

In western New York, the Fingerlakes region, and the New York City area, people can also call 211 for referral to state and private assistance. “Finding social services can be extremely difficult,” said Leta Weintraub, a former social worker and co-chair of the 211 policy board, in a later interview. “We find there’s something invaluable in having a live conversation to figure out what might be possible.”

The Cabinet does not control a large budget; rather, its role is to set priorities in an era of dwindling resources. Many who gave testimony acknowledged the new limitations. “What we’re hearing is giving us insight into budget policy priorities,” Hansell said before the Jamaica session. “Our original mandate was to look into how 20 agencies could achieve their priorities by better coordination – not necessarily by spending more money.”

While the impact of the Economic Security Cabinet’s report remains to be seen – especially in these belt-tightening times – the open format of the town hall meetings inspired optimism in some quarters. “I’m happy the governor’s doing this,” Irasema Garza, president of the women’s rights group Legal Momentum, said after the tour had ended. “Often people who go to Albany get busy with other things, and stop consulting people back home.”

Others, however, took a more cautious view. Randolph Robinson, 44, who appeared in Harlem with Community Voices Heard, spoke about the difficulty of finding work as a former felon. “When my daughter starts seeing a boy, I tell her, ‘Don’t listen to what he tells you; look at what he actually does,'” Robinson reflected later. “So with this cabinet, I say: ‘Show me first, make me a believer.'”

– Lindsey McCormack