The following is adapted from a City Limits Magazine report on the 15th anniversary of welfare reform that examines what life is like for New York City’s poor.
Many people navigating the maze of regulations and appointments necessary to qualify for welfare find it exhausting, humiliating and fraught with obstacles. Following are the top five issues New Yorkers face when seeking public assistance.
#1 You’re Just Not “Poor” Enough: Tanya Fields, 30, a Bronx mother of four and a graduate of Brooklyn Tech and Baruch College, was just getting by with the help of food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance from the government. Fields was earning $1,100 a month before she lost her part-time job. The problem? Her former $1,100 income exceeded — by $38 — the $1,062 monthly maximum earning for public assistance eligibility. Fields lost her $450-per-month shelter allowance and her $23-a-week public assistance. She was left with only $1,006 a month in unemployment insurance and $698 in food stamps to feed her family and to pay household expenses, including her $727 monthly rent.
#2 You’re already working, and that’s a problem: The centerpiece of the 1996 welfare reform was the requirement that people work. States must now report that at least half of all able-bodied individuals receiving public assistance are working at least 30 hours a week (20 hours for those with children under 6). Stephanie Benjamin, a senior at Hunter College, was working part-time when she thought about applying for cash assistance — she was already getting food stamps to supplement her income. When Benjamin tried to apply for cash assistance she learned that in order to receive benefits her husband would need to attend the city’s “Back to Work” program because his part-time job at a day care center was less than the 30 hours a week eligibility minimum. Recent research has shown that the city’s “Back to Work” program is inflexible (read the New York Times Op-Ed on this issue here) and pushes participants into dead-end jobs instead of providing them with education or training that could lead to economic prosperity. But the city’s Human Resources Administration, which runs the program, says its efforts to divert people from welfare into work have netted jobs for tens of thousands of New Yorkers in recent years.
#3 You aren’t allowed to cook in the shelter, but eating out is too expensive: Walter Greene, 51, was laid off and then became sick. Greene and his wife have lived at a Department of Homeless Services shelter in the former Aladdin Hotel on West 45th Street for the past year. He picks up groceries at a local food pantry, but cannot prepare a full family with them because the facility where he is housed does not allow cooking, microwaves or hot plates.
#4 Computer error? Case closed: Walter Greene needed money to get out of the shelter system, so in addition to working day jobs here and there, he applied for public assistance. Greene was allotted $76 a month in cash benefits and food stamps. He was required to report any changes to his income, so after earning $136 for a one-day moving job, Greene submitted his pay stub to his caseworker. The caseworker appeared to have incorrectly logged it in the system as a regular, day-rate of $136 even though the job was a one-time gig, thus erroneously moving him off the rolls.
#5 Full-time student? You still need to work 30 hours a week: Before the 1996 Welfare Reform law, 30,000 students who received benefits attended CUNY. Today, CUNY only has only 6,000 students who receive benefits The 1996 law limited recipients of cash assistance to one year of post-secondary education and began cutting off benefits for students unless they spent 30 hours a week working.