Governor Pataki proposed a budget on Tuesday that would cut $362 million in state welfare spending and drastically change eligibility requirements. While it highlights the importance of creating incentives and removing barriers to work, the plan is also clearly aimed at shrinking the state’s $5.1 billion budget gap.
“A lot of what is being proposed are tactics to move people off the rolls under the guise of promoting compliance,” said Maureen Lane, codirector of the Welfare Rights Initiative.
One provision already generating intense opposition from advocates is the call for full-family sanctions, under which a family’s entire cash grant can be withheld if the head of household does not meet work requirements. Currently in New York State, children continue to receive grants even when the parental portion is sanctioned.
A brief firestorm erupted last fall when Verna Eggleston, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, implied in an interview that her department might support full-family sanctions. The Bloomberg administration has not yet taken an official stance.
That, in itself, concerns welfare advocates. “Partial sanctions already hurt children, but if you leave a family without any income, you leave them with nothing,” said Cristina DiMeo, a policy analyst at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. Sanctionable offenses can be as minor as being late for an appointment or not filing paperwork with the right office.
In addition to imposing stricter penalties for noncompliance, Pataki wants to significantly cut payments to families who have a member receiving social security, reduce job earnings a recipient can keep before losing benefits and limit some grants given to families on the rolls longer than five years, and singles longer than a year.
Pataki has long defended the idea that harsher penalties force recipients to become more independent. Yet that connection is still unproven, says Margy Waller, a visiting economics fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Waller acknowledges that current federal work requirements have had positive results, but said there is scant research to show that rigid requirements lead to better outcomes.
State Senator Liz Krueger, a member of the Social Services Committee, agrees that more rules are not the solution. “Those families on the rolls for more than five years are by definition the least employable people,” she said. “They are the severely disabled or they are mentally ill or have limited English skills. They are folks with so many issues, they can’t enter the labor market.”
The debate over Pataki’s budget proposal is widely expected to be less vicious than last year’s, but his welfare ideas may draw particularly intense scrutiny as federal lawmakers begin to consider reauthorizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The TANF bill proposed by President Bush includes its own set of new work rules that would supplement any new statewide regulations.
Yet opponents of Pataki’s plan are still optimistic. When he first proposed full-family sanctions in 1997, the legislature rejected it as too punitive. Times have changed, said Krueger, noting that the state did not have a $5 billion budget deficit in 1997. “But it is our obligation to stop [these proposals] from happening,” she added. “I believe the legislature has the will to prevent them from going forward.”