Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the appointment of Steve Banks as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration on Friday, February 28, 2014.

Photo by: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the appointment of Steve Banks as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration on Friday, February 28, 2014.

For anti-poverty advocates – and for the millions of struggling New Yorkers we represent – there has been a 180 degree change at the city’s leading social service agency, the Human Resources Administration (HRA). And all that change is for the better.

When much of the mainstream media (outside of covers city government, they tend to fixate on minute political squabbles, personality clashes, and procedural tiffs, rather than the far more important issue of whether city government is working better or worse for average New Yorkers. Most media is even less likely to cover issues impacting poverty. That’s why I am glad that not only conducts in-depth news reporting on these issues, but also provides platforms (such as this opinion piece) for advocates and other policy experts to weigh in on matters of substance.

For the previous two decades, under both Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, HRA was a right-wing bastion that was frequently incompetent and intransigent, and often even lawless. The agency, responsible for the administration of food, health, cash assistance, and select types of job training and child care aid to low-income New Yorkers, frequently lost paperwork from applicants, forced people to wait on lines for days, failed to return calls, treated its clients rudely, refused to admit any errors, and stubbornly clung to failing policies.

Public interest lawyers – including then Attorney-in-Chief of the New York City Legal Aid Society Steven Banks – routinely sued the agency. Courts repeatedly ruled that HRA seriously violated the law by abrogating the rights of its clients, often by illegally denying struggling New Yorkers life-saving benefits. Even after tragedies like Hurricane Sandy, HRA still went out of its way to deny help to families in need.

Mired in a “blame the victim” mentality, the old HRA designed most of its policies and procedures around the demonstrably false assumption that the main reason that so many New Yorkers were poor was that they were lazy or crooked. While the agency still had some talented managers – and many dedicated front-line workers – those remaining stalwarts had their hands tied by top agency management that was openly hostile to the agency’s clientele. Thus, the very agency tasked with lifting New Yorkers out of poverty all-too-often pushed them deeper into destitution.

During these two decades, poverty, hunger, and homelessness in New York City all soared. By the time Bloomberg left office, 1.8 million New Yorkers were poor, more than 1.3 million were food insecure, and more than 50,000 per night were forced to use homeless shelters, an all-time high. Yet the key metric that HRA used to determine its success was how many people it removed from its programs. That makes as little sense as a hospital determining its success solely by how many people leave the hospital, without differentiating how many people leave it cured, dead, or just as ill as when they entered.

Ironically, the city’s policies of removing families from federally-funded programs often increased the burden on the city taxpayers, by forcing families into extraordinarily expensive yet shoddy shelters and job training programs that were of more benefit to the politically-connected contractors who ran them than to the families that they were supposed to help. The city’s policies were the worst of both worlds: they violated both the conservative ideal that government should use money efficiently and the liberal ideal that government should help lift up those most in need.

Enter Mayor de Blasio, who, in his previous roles as Chair of the City Council General Welfare Committee and Public Advocate, was a consistent, thoughtful, and progressive critic of HRA leadership and policies. Since his election, de Blasio has held two separate public events to reinforce his commitment to fighting hunger – and many more to announce plans to fight poverty and inequality.

De Blasio’s bold social service appointments backed up his rhetoric. He appointed a long-term champion of low-income New Yorkers, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, as his deputy mayor of health and human services. And, in a move that demonstrated both daring courage and perfect common sense, de Blasio named Steven Banks – the long-time HRA watchdog – to head that agency. That’s the equivalent of a President naming Ralph Nader to oversee a federal consumer protection agency.

Literally, minutes into his new role, Banks started making massive reforms, providing exactly the kind of competent progressivism that de Blasio promised.

For starters, the agency is now treating low-income New Yorkers, and the advocates who represent them, as trusted partners, not as feared adversaries. Beyond the improvement in tone, the agency has, in just the last few months, advanced mightily in its policies and processes, by:

1) Taking, for the first time in nearly two decades, the federal waiver to enable unemployed recipients of SNAP (the new name for food stamps) to continue to receive this vital nutrition aid as they continue to look for work. This step alone will immediately aid tens of thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors.

2) Making it easier for people to pursue a higher education degree and still receive benefits.

3) Releasing data proving that the previous administration significantly exaggerated the success of its job training contracts.

4) Starting a top-to-bottom overhaul of job training programs to make them more cost-effective and productive in enabling families to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

5) After releasing information proving that, under the previous regimes, when clients were denied benefits and then brought cases to “fair hearings” before administrative judges, HRA often lost those hearings, HRA is now pledging to take steps to reduce the need for such costly and time-consumer hearings.

Low-income New Yorkers represented by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger are already starting to notice these positive changes, but they understand that systematic change will take time.

With a bureaucracy of HRA’s size, change can be slow to come. Here are some of the problems that remain:

1) Clients don’t always receive the scheduled interview calls they are supposed to receive from HRA. It can be a difficult and time-consuming process for clients and advocates to get these rescheduled.

2) Many clients approved for SNAP receive their first month’s benefit on time but do not receive ongoing (second month) benefits in a timely manner.

3) Documents placed by clients in the “drop boxes” at HRA offices are often not retrieved and entered into HRA’s computer system on a timely basis.

4) Clients receive notices requesting submission of documents that have already been submitted

As a result of these and other Kafka-esque access barriers, many of which are decades-old, SNAP participation in the city actually declined by 42,453 people in the last six months of the Bloomberg Administration, and by another 65,729 people in the first six months of the de Blasio Administration, despite the still-soaring local rates of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and homelessness.

The good news is that Commissioner Banks and his team are fully aware of these remaining problems, and they have already taken concrete steps to address them.

Challenges that built up over 20 years won’t be fixed in a few days. But the city’s new human services leadership is already making huge progress.

Taxpayers are getting a better bang for the buck, and struggling families are getting the basic housing, food, job training, and income support –and, with that, the hope – they desperately need. Thanks to the mayor and his appointees, these improvements area win-win for all New Yorkers.