5 Ways New Yorkers Say Welfare Policies Fail Them

| July 11, 2011 6:00 AM

City Limits logoThe 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.

Tanya Fields

Tanya Fields first went on welfare when she lost her job. Now she is starting her own non-profit organization. City Limits/Marc Fader

#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.

  • Kendall Jackman

    If you won’t move out of our “RICH PEOPLE ONLY” city, we will starve you to death.

  • Shanita

    It would be so much easier if the laws governing welfare had guidelines that were more reasonable. If they would just look at each applicant on a case by case basis the 1996 law wouldn’t be so bad, but it doesn’t seem to take into account what people are left with after they pay for their necessities.

  • LIz

    I agree with Shanita and believe that if the system that is supposedly put in place to help families and individuals see that their system isn’t working, then replace it with fresh concievable ideas to truly help society. It would be a more comprehensive program if they alotted recipients to focus on education and their future; to earn a degree without the pressure of finding employment while working towards a degree and raising a family.

    • Pamela Barnes

      While I do believe that people on assistance should be afforded the opportunity to pursue their education while on assistance, there is no reason they should not have to work and go to school. Many people, myself included worked full-time and pursued an education, and in my case without the assistance of welfare.

      • Tanya

        Pamela, welfare cuts you off as a fullt time student if you do not work 30 hours a week in THEIR back to work programs, meaning that you must spend all of your time in these useless programs for lousy benefits that are hardly enough and place your education on the back burner. Welfare provides no training for jobs r allowable tme for obtaiming a degree. If a person is a full time student and works a regular job 30 hours a week, they would not be getting welfare. Your comment doesn’t make sense. They are talking about working 30 hours a week fkr yor benefits, hun. Being a full time student takes away from working any porton of the 30 hours they set aside for you to participate in their wageless programs, and these wageless programs are in existence to ensure that the recipient works for their benefits. These programs usually do not offer a wage or a paycheck. You worked full time and went to school but you didn’t have welfare so this doesn’t apply to you. You had a job, and the 30 hours of work beiwagng discussed here is not a wage-paying job. They are talking about making recipients work for their benefits.

        • altagracia

          You are absolutely right Tanya!

        • zFashionizta

          Those HRA Work programs are B.S., those programs only help the permanent employees by giving them a paycheck to sit there and do nothing; they provide little to no assistance in training or providing good job leads for the recipients. They also have a high overhead expense by hiring way more employees than they actually need.

          The HRA programs are unfair and biased, they require Americans who have lost their jobs or are poor to work for their benefits (even if it’s only a $100) but people who have recently moved to the United States (and have not contributed one red cent towards taxes) and those who are drug addicted get all benefits with no strings, attached, they DO NOT have participate in the program… in other words they are the ones who get everything for free!

          I have also noticed that although I see them come in to apply (and I have had chats w/a few of them), the work requirement programs do not have participants who appear to be of Middle Eastern or Jewish background; from what I see they are getting preferential treatment.

      • zFashionizta

        technically welfare is not giving you anything because if you have to go to work to receive assistance, it’s not assistance it’s working for way be low minimum wage. OH, by the way even though you have to put in working hours for this so-called assistance, when you get hired by anyone & your case is closed you have to pay HRA back. WTF you worked for it, so why should you have to pay it back….YOU MORE THAN EARNED IT!

        • pretap

          zFashionizta, “Pay them back”?? Seems that tread mill to nowhere is getting even more crowded. A nightmare that gets worse as time goes on. Maybe if folks started protesting and not taking this mess, perhaps things could be reformed.

      • pretap

        Pamela Barnes, Did you happen to read any of the comments before posting yours? I Know where of these folks speak, but if you don’t believe it, you can check it out for yourself. What you did others are still trying but some have their hands tied, and are in horrific situations, that hopefully they will be able to get out of SOON.

  • DEI

    A major problem with welfare reform is the mandate for municipalities to keep clients engaged in job training in order to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reimbursement; that has caused New York City’s multimillion dollar job training program to become an engagement program instead of a jobs program. Almost none of the thousands of participants in the NYC/HRA Back to Work program stay on a job for more than a few months at a cost of thousands per person. This is not good for the clients or the tax payers. I’m sure the city’s numbers are different because they eliminate the “unemployable” from the reporting.

    • altagracia

      Pardon my language! The people do not remain on a job not only because they leave but most of the time the jobs they are place in are BULLSHIELT JOBS that do not make way for a stable career path! Most people get laid off or the job has no opportunity for progress or advancement!! That is what the city uses it’s money and the millions of dollars in child support they collect from these fathers! To keep the poor exactly where they are “POOR!” Sad but true!

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  • Eric Cummings, Jr.

    You’ve got to keep pushing no matter how tough it is while on Public Assistance Welfare Reform programs. You’ve got to think like a winner even though HRA employees look and treat you like a loser. You’ve got to create your own luck, as HRA employees seem no different as their clients – they’re lucky to have a job. And if you start feeling sorry for yourself then you’ll complain about it for the rest of your life. Some will, some won’t – NEXT – somebody else is waiting!

    • Jan K

      Eric Cummings, Jr. Just so ‘you’ should know, it’s *3 years later* and NOTHING has changed as far as the above mentioned stories. These ‘systems’ do NOT work with you, and I’ve seen them from close up myself. It’s a revolving door of mess, that has yet to really be fixed. Folks who have jobs, must ‘constantly’ go to appointments, rather than making them once (or if they really have to twice) a month. Can you imagine how upset the employer would be, with an individual worker having to continue to take off so many days? The system Needs to be over hauled, asap, but I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. Lord help these folks, and others entering the system as it continues to grow.

  • Nicole

    I just had a baby. My boyfriend is in training for the military. Welfare wants me to work 35 hours per week. I want to pursue my education. So, I will have to go to school, work for welfare and come home and take care of my newborn and toddler, and then study. This is very tedious and discouraging. It’s like they are hanging you by your you know what…I was also breastfeeding my daughter, but I doubt I can still do this. :( Everything seems so impossible.

    • altagracia

      Yes Nicole! Sad but true! They try to make it impossible for the real people like us that want to get an education can get an education! But dont let that discourage you! Its hard but you can do it. Start with part time classes so you dont overwhelme yourself and then increase gradually! And here is something usefull that I found, read it!

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  • CaBrown

    TAG Caseworker (4/2011): “…no, Bachelor degree programs are not accepted work activities. You have to do a WEP assignment!…”
    WEP Assignment Orientation (5/2011) ______ [I don’t know the woman’s exact title, but it was the lady who was assigned to direct and explain to the audience the WEP assignment schedule/procedure]: “….*in a most Madea style voice & demeanor* …they’re aren’t any clerical assignments! The City only has Maintenance positions, so if you don’t like it, go BAck to your center and TEll your caseworker! If you don’t show up, YOU’ll be fTC’d!….”
    (5/2011) contents of letter: “…come for re certification…” spoke to supervisor (& showed documentation) PRIOR to appointment date to reschedule in order to be present at a job interview. The supervisor was pleased and rescheduled. Went to interview. Went to recertification appointment.
    (6/2011) Case closed due to missing recertification appointment.
    Demanded (with documentation) to rectify the problem immediately since the agency was at fault.
    (7/2011) New WEP assignment. Told caseworker at orientation that the assigned tasks were inappropriate [CHF patient]. Was told to do it anyway and bring in documentation from upcoming doctor appointment.
    Fell ill at WEP assignment
    Went to hospital
    Admitted to hospital
    Referred to WeCare FEGS
    They deemed me unable to work for 3 months

    So is it better to complete a Bachelors with a 4.0 GPA (something that I have done for the past 5 semesters, including summer) or go to WEP/Back-to-Work? WeCare/FEGS assignments? Spring 2012 would have been the last semester

    or to do all this just to keep a roof and get credentials to get a real GOOD job with a BA?

    ..but no, not much in the way of connections or assistance finding a job (the BTW stuff is basically you doing your own web/street/however job search)..they seem to think that everyone who receives their assistance only can work as a retail salesperson, maintenance worker, driver, housekeeper, Home Attendant, or food service worker, with the extremely rare AdMin position announced –
    For the rest of us, there’s no degree, but WEP assignments until we find our own job and I wish for all those who read this, that they find the job that they can be financially comfortable with & something that they like.

    • Jan K

      CaBrown, your response is ‘dead on’, and NO Liberal Arts Degrees either. This program is a disaster which is steadily getting worse, but how many ‘Mayors, Governors, etc.’ have you even seen address this important issue? Nada, zip, NONE. If you haven’t already, I say complete your BA and get the heck out of the system as quickly as you can.
      P.S. I thought WeCare FEGS was for those with special needs?

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  • Genna

    Welfare system is all f-ed up!!!!they suppose to help u mean while they treat u like shit and talk to u like ur shit! They really dnt give a crap one worker said well ur da 1on welfare I wanted to punch her face in if I had a job I wouldnt b there duh!then they got a btw program which is useless they make u sit in a rm all day fullinh out aps online they want u to work for benifits dat aint wprth n.t cleaning trains even after I told them I was in school!!!!they make ppls life,hell rather then helping u…i guess they want u to drop skool n work for free!!soo they can get a pay check the whole system is a FAIL!!!its no wonder ppl r still on welfare they trap u to da point were workimg is impossable becuz they want u to put time in for a few benifits they “help u with…those workers could alll sux a d!!!if u know wat I mean

    • Jan K

      Genna, very sad but also very true.

  • Genna

    The worst center is 161 bx Melrose!!!!having ppl line up out side lile dogs!!! Its trully a shame how they do ppl…rain snow they dnt give a f..

  • Genna

    Ftc fail to comply!!!? I was in skool I always say its more like f.tc -f-the client!!!

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  • George

    The problem is personal responsibility. Tanya is in trouble because she had babies she could not afford. The welfare system itself is the problem. If it did not exist, Tanya would not have babies unless she had a stable male companion to help raise them. And then the two of them, together, would decide if they could afford children. That’s what people used to do. Now, people have babies without thinking about whether they can afford them, and then think they have a RIGHT to have taxpapers support them and their children.

    • rob1ofme

      some people will be in poverty all their live ill they die but still want to be in love and experience in their lifetime the joy of having a child. no one should have a death sentence imposed on them saying they dont deserve to live life to the full because they are poor. thats even if politics ruined jobs sent jobs overseas or to social service contracts forcing you to choose poverty priority hiring for people with multiple case issues and imigrants, destroyed rent assistance programs. And corporate America turning it’s nose up at you finding any petty excuse NOT to give you a job you are more than qualified to have because they are seeking individuals that come with government contract tax breaks and money or have very specific hiring criteria. In spite of all of these factors poor people still have the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    • Steven P. Mitchell

      Yes, George you are so right. There were no single mothers in the earlier part of the 20th century or the 19h century or centuries before that who had to support their children. Who ever heard of a father abandoning his family, or avoiding child support or dying prematurely until the current era? Family abandonment is only a modern phenomena created by the welfare system that has created a decline in personal responsibility. Yeah.

      • pretap

        Steven P. Mitchell, THANKS so much, I totally agree.

      • zFashionizta

        BRAVO Steven!

    • pretap

      George, 2 years to late for me, but quite sadly ‘in part’, you’ve missed the boat it seems. You focus on Tanya being a single mom, but what about the others in the system (black and white), who are married, working (some with two jobs a piece), and are still ‘suffering’ through this nightmare? Take the focus off the single mom and put it on government programs that in truth profit no one, with dead end programs like Back 2 Work and WEP? Why penalize folks who “want” to get a higher education and get off that horrific roller coaster ride? Have you ever been to the Main Office for DHS in Manhattan and seen men with suits, working men (and black and white) coming in and out of that building, family, friends, co-workers, etc. NOT even realizing that those guys (and others) are homeless?? Please awaken from your slumber and get with it? Folks DO want to better their lives but quite sadly programs like those mentioned above are not the way to do it. Awful stink that’s getting worse.

  • carol

    I just recently applied.. I was approved and received expedited food stamps. they told me that my income isn’t countable since I am a full time student, but I would only receive food stamps for my three children. I just received a letter in the mail stating that I was denied due to my income and my income was included in the countable income.. how can they tell me I am approved and my income isn’t countable, and then tell me that I’m denied and my income is countable?

  • b2w is a waste of time

    I work part time but not enough hours because i gotta say i cant work mornings because
    I gotta go to back to work then they want me to
    Go to wep and i asked what happen if im schedule
    To go to wep and i work that day they told me i gotta
    Tell my employer that i cant work so i can go work for free
    Now my employer gonna get tired of the calling out and lower my
    Hours more hopefully they dont let me go this whole system is wrong but everybody
    Gotta do something about it to get these laws changed email the mayor
    What ever u gotta do

  • Todd A. Yizar

    I was attending community college while I was completing a drug outpatient program. So, technically I was in school on my own, because attending the outpatient program fell under the category of “work”. Once I completed the outpatient program I was told I had to do the back to work program or lose my benefits. For awhile I was able to do both because of my class schedule. As soon as there was a conflict between school hours and the back to work hours I was given an ultimatum: Do the back to work program or lose my benefits. There was no flexibility whatsoever. At the time I had to do an internship for my college course and I asked about trying to find an alternative. No luck. I chose to continue in school. I found out later, through my own research, that my internship could have counted as my back to work hours, which the director where I interned sent my caseworker a letter saying they would be willing to participate, but my caseworker said it couldn’t be done. Now I’m stuck with EXTRA amounts of student loans trying to survive until I become employed.

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