Mayor Michael Bloomberg couldn’t attend the annual meeting of the Brooklyn neighborhood group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, but he was there anyway. A giant photo of the mayor’s face sat propped near the podium, as FUREE’s speakers, nearly all Latina and African-American women, challenged the mayor’s child care and welfare policies.
The loudest applause that November afternoon came when FUREE urged the giant mayoral head to stop fighting a City Council law that ensures welfare recipients’ right to attend school. Known as the CATE (Coalition for Access to Training and Education) bill, it’s been the biggest issue for welfare advocates and membership groups like FUREE in recent years. The council passed the bill over the mayor’s veto last April; the administration promptly sued, and the matter remains tied up in court.
Pressuring the City Council to pass bills to make welfare kinder and gentler has been one of the main tactics of New York City’s welfare recipients and advocates. With few friends in Washington or Albany, the council has been the logical place to air beefs–and seek better policy.
Or at least it was. Looking to the council may now be futile, after a state Supreme Court judge in May quashed an earlier welfare law–ruling, in essence, that social services policy is none of the council’s business. Ruling on Killett-Williams v. Bloomberg, Judge Faviola Soto threw out a three-year program the council created in 2000 to fund 2,500 jobs for public assistance recipients. Soto ruled that the council cannot create such laws, since “state law preempts legislation in this area of social services.”
Activist groups like FUREE may now need to focus elsewhere. A good place to start is Albany, where a little-noticed series of regulations that went into effect in November may reshape several decades of welfare policy–and move thousands of families to the brink of homelessness.
It’s been 16 years since Legal Aid Society attorneys first sued New York state, arguing that the money families on welfare get for housing, the shelter allowance, isn’t nearly enough. The courts agreed and, after a pivotal 1991 ruling on Jiggetts v. Dowling, ordered the state to pay the difference between the housing allowance and the true cost of rent for families on public assistance facing eviction.
Today, 14,000 such families, most of whom were unable to get other housing subsidies due to long waiting lists, receive Jiggetts, up to $650 a month. It’s a lot more than the shelter allowance itself, which until recently, was just $286 a month for a family of three.
Until November 1, that is, when the state issued new regulations and increased the shelter allowance by more than 30 percent. A family of three now receives $400. It’s the first increase of any kind in New York’s welfare check since 1990.
That’s the carrot, but the stick soon follows. On the grounds that the housing allowance is now enough, the new rules call for the end of the Jiggetts program after two years. If a family on welfare has been sanctioned and lost benefits, it will no longer be eligible for any emergency rental assistance.
It’s a classic case of good news-bad news: Most families will get a little more, but some families will lose a lot. Shelly Nortz of the Coalition for the Homeless calls Jiggetts the “single most important homelessness prevention vehicle, probably anywhere in the country.”
For now, the parts of the new rules that Nortz and other advocates oppose are on hold–Legal Aid attorneys got a preliminary injunction blocking their implementation. (The new shelter allowance amounts are in effect, however.) In March, a state Supreme Court judge will hear Legal Aid’s arguments that the new rules, and housing allowances, are still inadequate to prevent homelessness.
Not so, says the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which will be heading to court with research that shows the new shelter allowances would enable New Yorkers to rent “modest housing that meets basic quality standards,” says spokesperson Jack Madden.
No one knows how the judge will rule, but even strong Jiggetts advocates acknowledge that increasing the shelter allowance by more than 30 percent may impress the courts–regardless of whether you can actually rent an apartment for $400 in New York City.
The possibility of losing Jiggetts would likely worry the New York City Family Homelessness Special Master Panel. The panel, which grew out of last January’s historic homelessness settlement, is charged not only with monitoring the city’s treatment of the 30,000 individuals and 8,200 families who currently seek shelter each night, but with evaluating the city’s efforts at preventing homelessness.
In a November report, the panel bluntly wrote that the new housing allowance numbers “do not reflect the rental market or rent costs in New York City.” It also urged the city to “increase access to emergency cash assistance to cover basics such as rent.”
That language is a strong rebuke to the state’s attitude towards rent supplements. In comments the state published along with its new rules, it warned local social services districts not to be too generous with welfare recipients–even those facing eviction–because “it is a well- established fact that increases in grant levels…reduce the incentive to work.”
If the courts rule that Jiggetts should disappear, the new state rules offer cities a chance to create their own emergency rent programs. That raises a critical question that will play out in coming months: Will the Bloomberg administration, which has been lauded for its pragmatic approach to homelessness, fund a new program to keep families on welfare off the street? Or will it follow the state’s lead, and try to push more families from the rolls?
Given recent signals emanating from welfare headquarters, the city may opt for the latter. For the first time since 1995, the number of recipients began to inch upward this summer. As of September, 424,862 people in the city were receiving public assistance, up more than 6,000 from February’s eight-year low. When the press questioned the tiny bump, Human Resources Administration officials replied that they were worried, and needed “new tools” to help move people off assistance, a deputy HRA commissioner told the New York Times.
One “tool” that worries activists is full-family sanctions: Instead of punishing a recipient who misses a work assignment or otherwise screws up by nixing the “adult” portion of their welfare check, HRA could eliminate the money that’s intended to feed and house their children, too.
Other states use these sanctions, arguing that they help prevent parents–mostly single women, of course–from working off the books while still collecting their kids’ benefits. HRA says it has no immediate plans to seek full-family sanctions, but welfare advocates like Don Friedman of the nonprofit Community Service Society say the agency’s recent comments hint that they could. “It makes us very nervous,” he says.
The fate of emergency rent payments isn’t just a question for the courts–it’s also one for politicians, especially Bloomberg. Hailed by most as a welcome change from Giuliani, some fear that, given big deficits and pressure from Republicans, he could embrace similar tactics.
“Political leadership matters on this issue,” says Nortz, “the courage to say that government should make sure that poor people’s children thrive–and not fail.”