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It might have seemed like a big party over a small victory, but the dozens of people gathered to celebrate the opening of a Citibank ATM in Williamsburg last Tuesday had reason to make a fuss. For the thousands of welfare recipients in the neighborhood, this new ATM meant that they would no longer have to choose between either traveling out of the area or paying a $1.50 surcharge in order to get their welfare benefits.

“We need the machine here because in order for me not to get charged, I had to travel far away,” said Yahaira Calderon, a local resident and welfare recipient. “Either that, or I could go to a local check cashing service and get charged.”

Because Citigroup, the bank's parent company, has the statewide contract to manage the electronic distribution of welfare benefits, welfare recipients must either use their machines or pay a fee at other ATMs or check cashers. That arrangement has come under fire from both recipients and advocates, who point out that many poor neighborhoods don't have a Citibank ATM anywhere nearby. Williamsburg's ZIP code has 7,489 welfare recipients, but the nearest Citibank is about a mile and a half away.

This new ATM, installed in Echo Drug on Broadway, was one of 25 that Citigroup promised to site citywide in areas with a lot of welfare recipients and few Citibank machines. Advocates say that the process of getting the bank to follow through was arduous. “Through extremely hard work we got this to happen,” said Sarah Ludwig, who worked with a coalition of local residents and advocates to push for the new ATM. “It's something very tangible and concrete.”

For drugstore owner Lev Rifkin, it's also a good business decision. “We have had a very positive response to the machine,” he said. “We have a very successful store, and it would be proper to do something in return for the community.”

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