Time for de Blasio to Reform 'Welfare Reform'

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The city's Waverly Job Center.

Photo by: Marc Fader

The city's Waverly Job Center.

To become a city of equal opportunity, New York City must reduce poverty and advance upward mobility by shoring up the social safety net and ensuring workers receive training and supports. Nowhere is the opportunity for this greater than improving the efficiency, effectiveness and humanity of the Human Resources Administration (HRA).

With nearly half of New York City residents poor or near poor, HRA’s services could be brought to the forefront of Mayor de Blasio’s battle against poverty and inequality.

As a child, my family depended on welfare, Food Stamps and subsidized housing assistance. The availability of these social safety net resources allowed my parents to get an education, provide for me and my brother, and get back on their feet after leaving their war-torn country. Today, families in need unfortunately encounter an HRA bureaucracy that’s more focused on blocking access to help than providing vital services.

It has been nearly two decades since welfare reform was enacted. Many of the policies that could have been adopted to provide long-term solutions to address the education, training, employment and service needs of low-income individuals and families were not undertaken by the previous mayoral administrations.

Instead, HRA adopted the simple but extremely detrimental approach of placing barriers to benefits while providing job-placement services to a small percentage of individuals–and mostly at low-wage jobs.

The de Blasio administration has the opportunity to create pragmatic policies that provide efficient assistance and effective employment services to those in need.

New priorities needed

Over the years, HRA has been operating with little accountability in terms of accessibility, outcomes and service.

HRA must reform its service and accessibility model. Even during the Great Recession years, when economic needs skyrocketed due to the enormous loss of jobs and homes, the welfare caseload remained relatively stagnant. This was particularly shocking given the contrast to the increased caseload for Food Stamps and Medicaid during those years.

In the past seven years, the number of individuals on public assistance has declined by 11.4 percent, so that HRA now has its lowest caseload since 1964. Many families across the city faced unemployment, foreclosure and debt, while HRA continued its intentional policies to create inaccessibility for its services.

Amid a 35 percent increase in public assistance applications statewide, denial rates increased from 26 percent in 1999 to 42 percent in 2007. In New York City, half of the denials were based on HRA claims that these individuals were not complying with application rules.

HRA must address its complicated welfare application process, which is lengthy, confusing and complex. It should seek to align its application process to that of SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and Medicaid programs.

For those who have successfully managed the application process another problem persists—the threat of a reduction or complete loss of services because of HRA sanctions. Evidence shows that HRA sanctions are often imposed in error. In 2010, HRA won only 23 percent of fair hearings involving sanctions related to work activities. HRA must reform its error-ridden sanction policies and shift the emphasis from penalization to achieving compliance and working with people to avert sanctions.

More service, fewer sanctions

This leads to the second HRA reform priority, the need to reform the city’s ineffective employment services programs for individuals receiving welfare.

HRA’s Back to Work program only placed 60,457 clients during the four-year period between August 2006 and November 2010. Of the 60,457 clients placed, only 35 percent retained their jobs after 180 days, and 52 percent after 90 days. Despite this fact, HRA claims 298,271 total qualified placements between 2007 and 2010.

HRA admitted that these large employment figures included individuals who did not receive HRA employment services, but rather found jobs on their own. HRA must begin providing accurate job placement figures and significantly improve the effectiveness of its employment services programs.

HRA’s goal should be to help keep people employed long term so that they don’t end up back on welfare, in the shelter system or living in extreme poverty disconnected from employment, benefits and services.

The third HRA priority must be centered on the service it provides to customers (or clients), including those with disabilities. According to a just-released report by the Urban Justice Center, nearly 80 percent of respondents surveyed said HRA staffers spoke to them in a mean or hostile manner, 86 percent said calls to HRA workers were rarely or never answered and almost two-third reported lost paperwork or other problems with submitting information. A significant percentage of welfare recipients have disabilities, yet HRA has not adopted a New York State-validated mental-health screening tool that would identify these individuals and their needs. The city must adopt this screening tool without further delay.

In addition, HRA must address its flawed response system. According to HRA’s own internal audits, job centers have a very low rate of answering calls and returning voicemails, forcing applicants to return to the HRA offices multiple times. HRA must also undertake comprehensive customer service training for its workers.

Connecting clients to work

In addition to these HRA reforms, one promising development is Mayor de Blasio’s recently created Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force to thoroughly reinvent workforce development in the city. One of the goals is to reward “skill-building and ongoing advancement into full-time, higher-wage jobs in those sectors that are actually growing” and move away from the city’s current training programs that reward job placements primarily in low-paying jobs.

There are also some Bloomberg administration policies that should be considered for continuation, including programs like the Young Adult Internship Program (though the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity, or CEO) and CUNY-connected education programs that help low-income New Yorkers gain education, training and employment. However, the de Blasio administration should remove HRA policies and practices that impeded participation in these programs such as HRA requiring appointments that conflict with education or training hours.

Recently, HRA began a contextualized GED program, which has shown some promise in other states. HRA’s Parks Opportunity Program, a transitional jobs program, should be greatly increased, but with an added vocational training component, so that thousands of more unemployed New Yorkers can participate and gain accredited training.

Welfare reform, reconsidered

Conservatives who oppose these welfare improvements argue that there’s no need for changes since welfare reform has been successful. They base their conclusion heavily on the low welfare caseload, regardless of the data showing the need.

Today, only 33 percent of the poor across the state receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) fact sheet. Some of these families are working, but are still below poverty; TANF could provide them with the help they need to make ends meet. Others are disconnected from both assistance, and employment, and languish in poverty. According to the CBPP, since welfare reform the TANF caseload nationally has declined by 60 percent, even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened.

While the official poverty rate among families declined in the early years of welfare reform, when the economy was booming and unemployment was extremely low, it started increasing in 2000 and now exceeds its 1996 level. Similarly, employment among single mothers increased substantially during the early years of welfare reform, but many of those early gains have been lost.

As a city, we must hold HRA accountable for measuring its success based on how many families it helps to stabilize instead of focusing on how many people it can block at the front door.

The other common conservative argument against HRA improvements is that the “work first” policy has been effective. HRA’s incredibly low employment outcomes for the percentage placed in jobs, the low numbers who maintain those jobs, the low average wage rate and the high return-to-welfare (or churning) rate, shows that “work first” is not effective workforce policy. We can no longer continue to waste city funds on ineffective employment programs, but instead, we must move towards a comprehensive, streamlined and cohesive workforce system that treats the unemployed with dignity and provides quality training and employment programs.

The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies believes that equal opportunity in New York City will only be achieved if policies and programs that strengthen low-income individuals, children, families, and communities are implemented. We will be holding a City Advocacy Day on May 14th to advocate for strong workforce programs so that New York City becomes a place where the social and economic well-being of all of its residents is a priority.

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