Veda Myers’ recollection of applying for food stamps in 2006 brings a noticeable strain to her voice. She remembers the application process as an ordeal taking place over three months. First she looked in vain on a city website for clear instructions. Then she called a food stamps office, but the caseworker hung up before Myers, then 22, had a chance to ask all of her questions. She decided to go to a benefits office, but that’s where the real trouble started.

In her first visit to the office on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn, she waited a total of four hours for a meeting that lasted 30 seconds. “The caseworker looked at my application, put a stamp on it, then put it in a file,” Myers said. The caseworker didn’t ask her if she wanted to apply for expedited food stamps, which caseworkers are instructed to do. She returned two weeks later at the scheduled time of her second meeting, the one at which her eligibility would be determined. She waited five hours, but had to leave for work before talking with anyone. A month later she returned for her re-scheduled appointment. This time she waited nine hours – without eating, since the office prohibits food. When she finally had her meeting, she recalls the caseworker asking, “Why’d you move to New York if you couldn’t afford it?”

Myers ultimately was deemed eligible for food stamps and used them for six months. The Brooklyn resident recalled her experience recently, from her current post as an economic security coordinator at Hunger Action Network of New York State. But a survey published last month by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum suggests that Myers is not alone in her frustration. The survey, which assessed client satisfaction at Human Resources Administration (HRA) Job Centers where New Yorkers apply for public assistance, was strongly critical of HRA. It found that the majority of those surveyed experienced long waits and had to come back multiple times, and that most felt HRA staff gave confusing or misleading instructions, and even lost application materials.

Gotbaum said the survey findings are significant in light of the anticipated influx of benefits applicants as unemployment rises – an influx which may be coming already. HRA statistics show 5,607 more New Yorkers receiving cash assistance in October than in September – the largest one-month increase since 2004 – and 21,394 additional food stamp recipients as well.

HRA has expressed strong dissatisfaction with the way the survey was conducted, questioning the motives of the public advocate and her allies at social services nonprofits. In particular, the survey seems aimed at reigniting an old argument over a piece of legislation introduced by Gotbaum that HRA has repeatedly opposed. It has also served to highlight ongoing distrust between HRA and its clients, advocates and others in government.

A disputed survey

The survey collected responses from 100 benefits recipients total, focusing exclusively on those who had visited city Job Centers more than once in the last year. Twenty people were surveyed at random outside five Job Centers (also randomly selected), one in each of the five boroughs. Respondents were asked 12 questions. Some were biographical, such as “How many times have you visited a HRA public benefits office in the last year?” Others assessed the individual’s experiences, such as “What types of problems have you had while dealing with public benefits offices?” A third type examined whether HRA staff explained the applicant’s rights to him or her, with questions such as “Are you aware you have the right to bring another person or an attorney to assist you with your public benefits case? If yes, were you allowed to bring another person or attorney to assist you with your public benefits case?”

HRA rejects the validity of the findings. “We don’t agree with the methodology of the Public Advocate’s report,” HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio said last week. Brancaccio wouldn’t elaborate, but suggested that similar studies in the past that were conducted by nonprofit welfare advocacy groups cherry-picked a population that did not represent the general experience of HRA clients.

Lawrence Mead, a political science professor at New York University, agrees that the survey was “completely one-sided.” Mead was a paid consultant to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration on welfare policy from 1998 to 2000, and currently advises Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs on poverty issues in an unpaid capacity. Reacting to the survey, Mead said, “no comment was asked from the agency. HRA might have good explanations for the problems found. It might even contest whether the abuses claimed by clients even occurred.” Mead believes that the best test of the agency’s accessibility to applicants is not a random survey, but an examination of the fair hearings process, where clients can contest their denial of benefits in front of an administrative law judge.

Gotbaum and advocates for welfare applicants argue that the question of the research methodology is less important than the possible systemic problems at HRA that the survey suggests. Most of the problems found in the survey occurred before a person was denied benefits – the kind of long waits and required return visits that Veda Myers experienced – well removed from the fair hearings process that Mead suggests focusing on. “We get this all the time: they didn’t like the way we did the study,” Gotbaum said.

Gotbaum’s office conducted the survey in part because it had received a number of complaints from citizens applying for benefits, which is in line with the office’s function of scrutinizing trouble spots around city government. The report also cited, as inspiration, findings from a 2008 report by the Brennan Center that found a number of significant barriers to accessing Job Centers and advocates the inclusion of help desks to aid applicants.

“We’re not here playing ‘gotcha,'” Gotbaum said. “We want to make the system better. This is especially important as we enter more difficult economic times. When you think about what’s coming, we need to expect a huge influx in people using HRA. Now is the right time to be looking at the problems people are facing at these Job Centers.”

Help desks are controversial

Based on the survey findings, the public advocate’s report calls for four changes at HRA. Two were discrete and limited in scope: provide clients with “proof of program compliance” (in other words, a receipt) to ward off erroneous “sanctioning,” or withdrawal of benefits, and develop clear instructional materials on application and compliance requirements. The other two were broader in scope: reduce wait times and improve customer service.

Most of the discussion in the findings section focuses on a 2006 piece of legislation that until recently seemed relegated to the Council dustbin. Gotbaum’s office stated that the survey is meant in part to kick-start the Ready Access to Assistance Act (REAACT), sponsored by Gotbaum along with Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio and Queens Councilman Eric Gioia. REAACT would give advocates access to the waiting rooms in HRA Job Centers to help people when applying for public assistance. HRA resisted REAACT from the start and succeeding in quashing it: after one committee hearing, it never came to a vote. Both sides seem to be gearing up for a fight that HRA has said it doesn’t want to have.

A 1995 executive order by then-Mayor Giuliani barred advocacy organizations from entering the public spaces in welfare offices without a specific purpose for being in the office. In reversing 18 years of administration policy that had allowed advocates to staff tables and distribute literature in welfare waiting rooms, the order read, “[T]he use of Agency premises shall be limited to the transaction of official business and such other activities as may be specifically authorized by the HRA/DSS Administrator/Commissioner.” A federal court upheld the ban (in a suit and appeal brought by the group Make the Road By Walking) on the grounds that Job Center waiting areas were not public spaces and that the advocates were not conducting “official business.”

The REAACT bill is intended to change city law and render the court ruling moot. What’s at stake is not the right of welfare advocates to enter HRA Job Centers—the agency continues to allow advocates to provide individualized assistance for applicants who make arrangements for representation beforehand. Rather, the bill calls for the agency to permit advocates to table in waiting areas in order to provide general information through pamphlets and offer individualized consultation—including translation and interpretation help for limited English speakers—upon spontaneous request.

HRA’s primary argument against REAACT is that the presence of advocates in waiting rooms would make an already chaotic environment far more chaotic—and an already difficult job even more difficult. “Many of the offices have minimal public spaces and are understandably crowded; giving advocates free access to these spaces would only make the situation worse,” HRA Deputy Commissioner Seth Diamond told the General Welfare Committee in the one hearing on the bill in Dec. 2006.

HRA liability for misrepresentation by advocates raises an even broader concern, Diamond explained in his testimony. “HRA would have to expend resources policing waiting rooms to ensure that advocacy organizations are … not engaging in unapproved activities.” Well-meaning advocates could be inadvertently providing false information, while not-so-well-meaning sorts could exploit the vulnerable. HRA, Diamond explained, would be legally responsible.

Supporters of the bill have generally countered this argument by observing that the model of advocates tabling in city offices has been effectively implemented elsewhere, including New York’s housing court – along with Los Angeles, Buffalo and San Diego, which all allow advocates in welfare offices. The state welfare division, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), also allows advocates to participate in its fair hearing process, in which an individual can appeal to a state administrative law judge regarding his or her locally-administered benefits case. The advocacy tabling system was in place when current HRA Commissioner Robert Doar headed OTDA.

“It’s a mystery to me why he was fine with it at the state office but not here,” said Laura Abel, who edited the Brennan Center report, as deputy director of the Justice Program there.

“These help desks work, and they work well. My bill authorizes agencies to make rules to implement help desks and if agencies have concerns about supervision of advocates, simple steps can be taken to address these concerns,” says Gotbaum.

The future of the REAACT bill is unclear. With 37 co-sponsors, it currently has a veto-proof majority. But its fate appears to be primarily in Speaker Christine Quinn’s hands. As is customary in City Council, the speaker has significant say in whether a committee—in this case, the General Welfare Committee, chaired by de Blasio—holds a hearing on a bill. Since REAACT has the support of most members of the committee and the general council, if Quinn allowed a second hearing and a vote on the bill, it would almost certainly pass. And if she decides to follow the administration’s behest, it would die in committee without getting a vote.

“The bill’s goals are laudable; everyone who deserves benefits should get them. The bill, however, poses difficult logistical and legal issues,” Quinn said through a spokeswoman last week. “We are in continuing discussions with the bill’s sponsors and the administration.”

Fundamentally different views

These disagreements over the survey and REAACT bill highlight a fundamental tension between the administration and its critics on welfare issues and raises a broad and difficult philosophical question: Ten years after welfare reform was enacted in New York state, what’s the best way to balance the competing and worthy objectives of getting benefits to those in need in the most painless way possible, while also moving toward an overall reduction of the population on welfare?

HRA has emphasized repeatedly that its primary objective is to get welfare recipients into jobs—which is why the benefits offices were renamed Jobs Centers in 1998. HRA’s commissioner at the time, Jason Turner, frequently provoked controversy with his ardent commitment to the “work first” ideology. In explaining in 1998 why the city required individuals in drug treatment to sign up for workfare, Turner said, “Work is not something that you need to do after you’ve received treatment. Work is something that is part of treatment. It helps make you better.” (Turner meant something along these lines when he said in a June 1998 television interview that “Work makes you free,” inadvertently referencing a slogan placed at the entrance to Nazi concentration camps.)

Paul Lopatto, a supervising analyst with the New York City Independent Budget Office, explained how a work-first welfare system induces local administrators to concentrate resources on eliminating fraudulent claims. The 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (commonly known as the Welfare Reform Act) restricted funding for local governments’ “workfare” programs to whatever federal money is left over once all cash assistance is paid out. In other words, the city can only use federal money for jobs and education programs once it doles out all the money it has committed for cash assistance and other benefits. This creates a clear (and intentional) incentive to eliminate fraudulent assistance applications and generally keep the welfare rolls lean, in order to fund the more favored programming.

Under Turner, HRA was explicit about its goal of making the welfare application process byzantine and inconvenient as a way to reduce fraud and dedicate limited resources to those who in fact needed them. Turner told state policymakers that his agency sought to “create … a personal crisis in an individual’s life” when people requested government aid.

In his 2006 testimony to Council’s General Welfare Committee, HRA Deputy Commissioner Diamond suggested that advocates could complicate HRA’s necessity to reduce welfare rolls by identifying and eliminating fraud. Diamond disagreed with an argument made by Gotbaum that advocates didn’t interfere with operations prior to the Giuliani ban, noting that the agency in the pre-welfare reform era was marked its inability to move people off the rolls. In “the period you’re talking about … we had the highest error rate [of fraudulent food stamp claims] the City’s ever had, well over 15 percent food stamp error rate,” Diamond said. “Now we’re down in the four or five percent range, and the world of public assistance has changed significantly since the late 80’s. We have a much different environment. We try and use a much more professional approach to those we are serving.”

Critics of HRA see the roll-slashing mentality as the main problem, and they want to get advocates in the room to help change what they see as an insidious culture. “Since welfare reform, the city’s goal has been to divert as many people away from public assistance as possible,” said Bich Ha Pham, Director of Policy, Advocacy and Research at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. “From the moment someone walks in the door to when they’re referred to a jobs program, the system is set up to get them out.”

Lawrence Mead, who played a key role in designing New York City’s reformed welfare system in the 1990s, believes advocates have a limited view of the circumstances. “[T]he very reason for the Job Centers,” he wrote in an e-mail, “was to be sure that people needing income took jobs where possible rather than immediately looking to welfare. For this reason, ‘public benefits’ had to become less immediately available than they had been before. The whole point of welfare reform was to end entitlement and condition aid on a serious effort to work. Clearly, the advocates do not yet accept this.”

This philosophical difference has engendered a high level of distrust all around. For Gotbaum, this distrust came to a head while her office was compiling the survey. “HRA had such a freak-out every time I was going to a Jobs Center. You’d think I was a terrorist or something,” Gotbaum said. She noted that Commissioner Doar requested advance notice whenever she visited a center, a request with which she did not comply. “‘Every time I do, you send some staffer to watch over me,’” she recalls telling the commissioner.

Looking back on her experience applying for food stamps, Veda Myers is certain that an advocate in the room would have helped. “The more you know, the less they can screw you around,” she said. “I mean, why do they put so much money to prevent against fraud? People aren’t trying to fraud the system just so they can get $100 of groceries.”

– Matt Schwarzfeld