Ounces of Prevention Vie With Pounds of Core

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In the wake of the mayor’s presentation of the cost-cutting preliminary budget for fiscal 2010, city social services agencies are circling the wagons around “core services.” For the Department of Homeless Services, the core means maintaining the shelter system. At the Administration for Children’s Services, it’s protecting abused children and overseeing foster care. The Department of Corrections must maintain prisons, and the Human Resources Administration manages food stamps, among other duties.

In their push to protect mandated services, many agencies are cutting back on preventive programs—those aimed at addressing small needs before they become big ones. Such programs are premised on the idea of spending some money up front to prevent larger problems – and costs – down the road. The bill for eviction prevention is lower than for a stay at a homeless shelter, for example, and family counseling is cheaper than putting a child in foster care. But preventive programs are rarely mandated, and agencies that focus on the needs of lower-income New Yorkers came under particular pressure in the latest round of budget cuts.

“Social services tend to be looked at as non-core programs,” says Maria Doulis, a senior research associate at the Citizen’s Budget Commission. “Every program has its own constituency, and the greatest public outcry tends to be about education and police. Social services fall lower on the scale.”

Certain aspects of the mayor’s proposed $58.8 billion budget, released on the last Friday in January, bear out that assertion. While the police, fire and corrections departments all cut about 2 percent of projected spending, their budgets still exceed the FY 2010 baseline adopted by City Council last June. On the other hand, agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which cut 6 percent, and the Human Resource Administration, which cut 8 percent, are spending well below their baseline budgets. Children’s and homeless services also account for almost 95 percent of projected city layoffs for FY 2010 – not counting 13,930 teachers, whose threatened jobs may yet be saved by the state or federal governments.

All of this is part of a plan to bring the remainder of FY 2009 budget into balance, and to close the $6.4 billion budget gap looming next fiscal year. The mayor’s proposal forms the basis for rounds of community board feedback, City Council hearings, and other refinements that will occur before the budget is approved by early June.

Losing Capacity

ACS insists that the eventual loss of 842 staff members – 608 from layoffs – will not affect front-line casework or preventive services like mental health counseling and parenting classes. Outside the agency, though, some worry that the layoffs will reverberate. “It’s a significant number of positions, and those people must be supporting the efforts of the child protective workers,” said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy at the Citizen’s Committee for Children. “We’re concerned about the impact, but don’t know what it will be.”

During previous attempts to shore up New York’s finances, city agencies focused on relatively painless savings through administrative cuts and attrition. Last November’s budget did eliminate some preventive programs, such as the Fortune Society’s discharge planning services for detainees on Riker’s Island, which aim to reduce recidivism. That particular program was axed by the Mayor’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator. This time around, broader cuts to preventive programs, as opposed to personnel, include:

Homelessness Prevention

State funding for the Homelessness Prevention Program (HPP), which funds caseworkers to mediate rent disputes and connect low-income tenants to rental subsidies, already has been eliminated (as reported in Eviction Prevention Imperiled By State Cut, City Limits Weekly #671, Jan. 12, 2009).

The Jan. 30 budget peels $5.1 million from another program designed to prevent homelessness. A flagship effort of the Department of Homeless Services, HomeBase went citywide at the beginning of 2008, and currently serves more than 1,000 families each month at an annual cost of around $12 million.

DHS says it will seek “alternative sources” to replace city funding, which goes toward everything from legal services to household repairs. But some are nervous about where that money will come from, and when. “Quite frankly, if we were to lose HomeBase and HPP, we would no longer have any credible capacity to prevent low-income families in the Bronx from becoming homeless,” said Ken Small, development director at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which provides HomeBase services in the Bronx.

After-School and Youth Employment

A thick docket of research shows that after-school and youth employment programs provide long-term bang for the buck, both in educational attainment and child safety. With almost 80,000 kids enrolled, New York City has the biggest after-school initiative in the country, according to the Department of Youth and Community Development.

The latest budget reverses years of growth, cutting 10,750 after-school slots for elementary, middle, and high school students for the coming school year. Also, this summer fewer teens will take part in the popular Summer Youth Employment Program, as 1,450 slots are dropped. (Federal funding for the summer program has also eroded over the past decade, from $43.9 million in 2000 to $3.4 million this year.) Even without the cuts, the program is oversubscribed—last year more than 100,000 teens applied for 43,113 positions.

The cuts amount to $11 million in savings. But DYCD is also planning to invest $14 million in an internship program and two other literacy and skills programs for teens who have dropped out of school.

Services for People with HIV/AIDS

New Yorkers living with HIV are entitled to government-subsidized housing, a policy grounded in evidence that stable housing correlates with improved medical care. The city also funds a range of health, counseling, and housing placement services to quicken the transition to permanent housing.

In November, the HIV/AIDS Service Administration (HASA), a division of the city welfare agency, HRA, eliminated contracts with community agencies that provide case management to clients in some HASA-supported housing. The new budget maintains that cut, and expands it to another group of case managers that focuses on people with multiple diagnoses and advanced AIDS cases, for a savings of $5.9 million.

Sean Barry, director of the NYC AIDS Housing Network, says that fewer support services will drive some clients back to the streets, increasing the city’s reliance on emergency shelter. “They’ll probably end up cycling in and out of SROs, which cost a lot more than supportive housing. They’re unhealthy for clients, and unhealthy for the city’s budget,” said Barry.

Seeking Conclusive Evidence

Preventive programs are particularly vulnerable to cuts because of their often less tangible benefits. “When government cuts back, prevention programs can be at risk because short-run savings are immediate, while long-run costs may be hard to measure and hard to see,” said Mark Greenberg, a poverty researcher and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Some preventive services may work better than others. In the case of housing services for people living with HIV, there is evidence that a simple subsidy program without additional case management services is quite effective, according to Prof. Dennis Culhane, a specialist in homelessness policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Even for more generalized homelessness prevention programs, city decision makers have few hard facts to go on when making budget decisions. “We don’t have conclusive evidence to say whether in tight times a city should move its money towards prevention,” said Culhane. “I personally think we should move in that direction, especially since so much money is put into long-term shelter stays.”

It remains to be seen whether city government will use the budget crisis to redefine some core social services in a more preventive light. City Councilman Bill De Blasio, chairman of council’s General Welfare Committee, has scheduled a hearing in March to review potential cuts to prevention services, especially in the Department of Homeless Services. In that area at least, a new push for preventive emphasis may come from the federal government. Both the House and Senate versions of the evolving stimulus bill have provided $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention services, including rental assistance, legal help, and conflict mediation—but not for more traditional forms of assistance like emergency shelter. New York City stands to receive a sizable portion of that money, potentially making up for cuts in homelessness prevention programs like HomeBase.

– Lindsey McCormack

Correction: Last summer, more than 100,000 young people applied for 43,113 positions in the SYEP program — not 16,200, as previously reported. The latter number is the subset funded by the city, rather than by federal and state sources. 2/10/09

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