Robert Rodriguez, a food stamp recipient who does not receive welfare, says until now, people in his situation have not been required to work for their benefits. He's seen here volunteering at Neighbors Together, a Brooklyn anti-poverty agency.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Robert Rodriguez, a food stamp recipient who does not receive welfare, says until now, people in his situation have not been required to work for their benefits. He’s seen here volunteering at Neighbors Together, a Brooklyn anti-poverty agency.

When Brownsville resident Robert Rodriguez went to the city’s Pine Street food stamp center in East New York last month to recertify his eligibility for food aid, he was brought up short by what he saw in the waiting room.

“There’s a big sign in there telling everybody they gonna have to start working for the food stamps,” he recalls. “Last time I noticed, you had to work if you get cash money, but I never knew no shit about no food stamps.”

It’s a story that is increasingly being repeated among the city’s 1.8 million people receiving food stamps: With no public announcement, the city has begun requiring them to either prove that they hold down jobs, or enroll in city work programs — and face having their benefits cut off if they don’t comply. Though the city Human Resources Administration insists that there’s been no official change in policy, interviews with food stamp recipients, public service lawyers, and advocates for the poor reveal that over the past year, an increasing number of people have been informed by HRA that if they aren’t working, they can’t get food aid.

There’s been “a definite increase since the recession” in requiring food stamp recipients to prove that they’re working, says Roxanna Henry of the Hunter College-based Welfare Rights Initiative, which counsels CUNY students receiving public benefits. “They’ve never imposed the 20-hour [work] mandate for food stamps, and now they are.”

The potential ramifications of stepped-up work requirements could affect tens if not hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Advocates like Henry worry that the apparent crackdown not only comes at a terrible time, with unemployment near record highs, but that it could end up driving needy people away from food stamps, just as the city’s “work first” policies have been instrumental in massively reducing the welfare rolls — largely, say many welfare experts and poor New Yorkers, by creating such onerous bureaucratic hurdles that it’s easier to give up aid than to meet the city’s requirements.

(HRA, on the other hand, attributes the persistent low welfare caseload to a desire by low-income people to eschew cash assistance for the combination of a job and non-welfare benefits, like food stamps.)

“A backpack filled with lead”

Of the 1.8 million New Yorkers receiving food stamps, most are exempt from work rules: Either they’re already working, are disabled or otherwise unable to work, are too old, have children, or are children themselves. That leaves the so-called Able-Bodied Adults Without Children, or ABAWDs, of whom there were 90,512 in the city in July 2011, according to the most recent count by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. About three-quarters of these receive food stamps only, with no cash welfare benefits.

If there’s been a big jump in the number of these individuals pressed into city work programs, it hasn’t yet shown up in the official numbers: About 20 percent of ABAWDS are currently in HRA job programs, up from 19 percent a year earlier. And in any case, HRA officials have long argued, falling city welfare rolls — now down to about 350,000 from an all-time high of 1.1 million in 1995 — are a sign of the success of work programs in moving people into jobs.

Longtime critics of “work first” beg to differ, saying that by placing unnecessary hurdles in the way of people seeking food aid, it runs the risk of reversing the gains made by the Bloomberg administration’s own efforts to encourage city residents to apply for food stamps.

“People are climbing over a mountain with a backpack filled with lead — every extra thing you add is another barrier,” says New York City Coalition Against Hunger director Joel Berg. “So there’s no question that this could take benefits away from people.”

Denying food stamps to those who are not working has actually been legal since 1996, when the federal welfare reform law signed by President Clinton limited childless individuals who were able to work to three months of food stamps in any three-year period. Anyone seeking benefits beyond that limit could be required to show that they were working 20 hours a week — or else, like those applying for welfare benefits, they would be required to enroll in a government job training or work program.

There was one out clause: Cities or states with chronically high levels of unemployment could apply for a waiver that would allow anyone with a low enough income to keep getting food stamps indefinitely, regardless of whether they’d found work. Forty-two states, plus parts of six others, currently have such waivers, according to the USDA.

Mayor Bloomberg, however, consistently refused to apply for the exemption — even on one occasion overruling two top officials, deputy mayor Linda Gibbs and then-HRA commissioner Verna Eggleston, when they expressed their intent to accept the federal waiver. Gibbs’ explanation of the reversal at the time: “We believe that every New Yorker who can work should work.” Likewise, when the federal stimulus bill suspended all food stamp work requirements for 2009 and 2010, the Bloomberg administration ensured that a provision was included that exempted municipalities that could provide enough work assignments for all.

Still, according to numerous city poverty experts as well as food stamp recipients themselves, the work rules were never widely enforced in New York City. “We had this knockdown dragout fight in the media, twice front page of the New York Times, and they weren’t even really enforcing it,” says Berg, who has fought unsuccessfully for years to get the city to apply for an ABAWD waiver. “What I never knew — and I never wanted to ask — was how high up did they know that?”

A new enforcement push

According to numerous sources with daily experience with the food stamp system, however, all that began to change in the last year or so. Late in 2010, according to the low-income membership group Community Voices Heard, people receiving food stamps began receiving letters reminding them that they could be asked to work for their benefits. Ken Stephens of the Legal Aid Society says that in the following months, he started hearing from clients receiving food stamps who had lost their benefits for as small a violation as missing one job-search appointment.

Two years ago, when WRI’s Henry herself applied for food stamps after her husband lost his job, she says she was told: “You want food stamps, you’ve got to be working.” As she was working at the time, she was cleared, but she was still surprised by the request; during a stint on food stamps several years earlier, she says, she was never asked about her work. Henry says she’s been approached by four students since this spring who were told they’d need to prove they were working in order to keep getting food stamps.

HRA, for its part, insists that there has been no change in policy, telling City Limits in an emailed statement: “As has been the City’s policy, Food Stamp program participants who are deemed employable according to federal Food Stamp rules must comply with the Food Stamp Program’s work requirements as a condition of on-going eligibility.”

There are indications, however, that while official policy may not have changed, how it’s being applied has: In addition to the anecdotal reports of more food stamp recipients being sent to work programs, HRA issued a “policy directive” in April 2010 reminding food stamp center workers that “participants who are deemed employable (nonexempt) must comply with the FS Program work requirements as a condition of eligibility.”

Though they admit that HRA’s actions are within the bounds of the 1996 law, the agency’s critics nonetheless say that it’s picked a terrible time to enforce work rules, given that jobs are few and far between.

“This actually could be the killer, just because some people who are looking for work just can’t get it,” says Berg. (There are currently about 4.2 job seekers per available job in the Northeast, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 1.8 before the recession.) And while HRA officials insist that they’re still able to place people in jobs, both the quality of those jobs and the success rate is under question; Berg notes with alarm the recent charges that one HRA contractor, Seedco, falsified job placement records for clients for a different city program.

Moreover, says legal aid lawyer Stephens, city work requirements can present more difficulties for low-income applicants than merely having to work. By putting people who are getting food stamps only into the same much-criticized “work activities” system as those receiving welfare, it means that they’re also subject to the same bureaucratic hurdles that force them to continually prove their work status — or else risk having their benefits cut off. It’s this sprawling system — which includes HRA-sponsored Back to Work job search programs run by private contractors, the city-run Work Experience Program that assigns people to “work off” their benefits checks by doing free labor for city agencies and private companies, and continual rounds of mandatory meetings and recertification paperwork — that many have blamed for a city welfare caseload that remains at historic lows even in the midst of the worst economic conditions in two generations.

“The notion that low-income families, particularly families in which people can demonstrate that they are working or are actively seeking employment, should be denied food stamp benefits because perhaps they missed one appointment is truly outrageous,” says Stephens.

A surprising move

That’s precisely what happened to Jvonne McMichael, a 40-year-old Brooklyn resident who filed for food stamps last winter, using the city’s new apply-by-phone system. Having exhausted her unemployment insurance (she’d previously been in the city Parks Department’s six-month transitional jobs program, but was not hired full-time) and having lost her apartment and resorted to staying with a succession of friends, McMichael asked that HRA send her mail to Neighbors Together, an agency that runs a soup kitchen and provides information and referral services to residents of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville.

A month or so later when she checked her mail drop, she says, she was surprised to find a letter from HRA. “I open it up, and it’s a letter from public assistance stating that I’d missed an appointment,” and that she was in “noncompliance” with work rules.

“I’ve gotten food stamps before, so I was under the impression if you’re getting food stamps, fine,” McMichael says. “I know if you get other assistance, there’s other steps you have to take. So when I finally get this letter, I think, when did this start happening?” She has since filed for a fair hearing to appeal the decision.

The stepped-up enforcement of work requirements is slightly surprising coming from the Bloomberg administration, which even as it’s bragged about falling welfare caseloads, has lauded itself for rising food stamp enrollment as a sign of successful outreach to poor New Yorkers. Though the Bloomberg administration has sometimes clashed with food advocates — in particular over its insistence on requiring food-stamp applicants to make a separate trip to an HRA office to be fingerprinted, a step City Hall says is necessary to reduce fraud but that critics say only costs money and adds needless roadblocks to accessing food aid — in general the mayor has portrayed food stamps as the “good” public benefit. (Food stamps are also, unlike welfare, fully funded by the federal government.)

Still, HRA officials have been careful to describe food stamps as a “work support” program — the implication being that they’re supposed to supplement work income, not replace it. At last month’s NYU panel discussion of 15 years of welfare reform, HRA commissioner Robert Doar noted with disappointment that “while we succeeded in moving many people off cash assistance, they are not off government assistance,” citing the rising food stamp rolls in particular; fellow panelist NYU politics professor Lawrence Mead followed this by saying that with so many people in the city receiving food stamps and not working, “like the commissioner, I start to ask, maybe we should extend something like the TANF work requirement to food stamps.” This is in line with stepped up rhetoric in Washington: At a recent House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, both Pennsylvania welfare secretary Gary Alexander and Maryland public policy professor Douglas Besharov called for expanding work requirements to all “able-bodied” food stamp recipients.

Still, the reports of stepped-up enforcement has begun to attract attention, particularly the prospect of food-stamp-only applicants being assigned to the WEP program — which HRA acknowledges to City Limits that its employment vendors are now doing. CVH is investigating whether sending food stamp recipients to workfare could violate minimum wage laws: The average food stamp benefit, according to USDA figures, is $287 a month, or not even enough pay for 10 hours of work a week at minimum wage, though some individuals may receive housing assistance as well. (Both state law and HRA rules require that any workfare participants are limited to the number of hours where their total public benefits come out to minimum wage.) Councilmember Annabel Palma, chair of the City Council general welfare committee, is currently investigating reports of individuals receiving food stamps alone being assigned to WEP, according to her staffers, and could hold hearings in the near future.

Meanwhile, unemployed New Yorkers who’ve relied on food stamps to get by while steering clear of welfare increasingly have a new choice to make: Give up food aid, or join their welfare-recipient neighbors in the world of HRA work assignments. Rodriguez, who is still awaiting notice from HRA on whether he’ll have to report to Back to Work or another HRA program, says he plans to try a third option: apply for an alcohol rehab program instead. “I’m not saying that it’s bad,” he says of his drinking, “but I’d rather do that than be working for some food stamps.”