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Welfare, yes; work optional

Changes in New York since Mayor Bloomberg’s departure show local bureaucracies can make or break welfare reform

Welfare, yes; work optional

Steve Banks (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times/Redux)

Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig

Luisa (right), who did not want to give her last name, pays for her groceries using a food stamp program.

Yoon Kim

Robert Doar

Two years ago, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the appointment of Steve Banks to head the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), Banks joked that his HRA would be “the first one I’m not going to bring a lawsuit against.” The new mayor laughed, but nobody doubted a major philosophical change was underway at the city agency that administers public benefits.

Banks had previously headed the Legal Aid Society for decades, where he often sued the HRA, including under predecessor Robert Doar, arguing the agency was not liberal enough with benefits. The HRA in the past, said Banks at his appointment, “hasn’t been a helping hand.”

Change at HRA happened quickly, and it demonstrates the importance of local bureaucrats in the success of welfare reforms that encourage responsibility and work. The number of New Yorkers on cash assistance month to month is now growing, even as New York City boasts an unemployment rate of 5 percent and the addition of 84,500 private sector jobs in the last year. During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the monthly recipients of cash welfare benefits declined about 20 percent. Two years into Mayor de Blasio’s administration, the number of monthly recipients of cash assistance is up 7 percent to 371,000, a number nowhere near the 1.1 million who received cash assistance under Mayor David Dinkins in the pre–welfare reform 1990s but one that is climbing steadily. (Medicaid still far outstrips cash assistance and food stamps, or SNAP, in costs.)

“That increase isn’t that big, but it isn’t that long of a time,” said Doar, the HRA director under Bloomberg.

The HRA disputes this characterization of the numbers. HRA spokesman David Neustadt says the monthly numbers aren’t accurate, and that the annual number of people receiving cash assistance has been about the same for nine years, at around 500,000. He said the lower monthly number reflects a “churn” of people who are temporarily kicked off assistance “for often minor violations of rules” before they have a hearing and return to the rolls later.

But the city under de Blasio has loosened work requirements, allowing certain new categories of education to fill work requirements. For fiscal year 2015, the HRA requested and received a $195 million increase to its $9.7 billion budget.

“The new administration is less likely to hold people accountable for complying with expectations about work or showing up for training or job search activities,” Doar said. “In our world when we were there, we had rules with regards to those who received cash welfare. If someone did not attend a required activity, it had consequences. That could be a reduction or a grant terminated—they could always have a fair hearing, to correct it, but we moved quickly on that.”

Doar (the son of iconic civil rights lawyer John Doar) instituted stronger work requirements for cash assistance at HRA, among other measures. The new HRA leadership ended Doar’s controversial subway messaging campaign urging marriage for young parents as a way out of poverty. 

The anti-poverty efforts under Bloomberg weren’t flawless, but the number of those receiving cash assistance dropped 20 percent, and Bloomberg officials say 900,000 New Yorkers moved from welfare to work over that period. WORLD profiled Doar in 2013 (see “Powerful obscurity,” April 6, 2013), when he said that he believed welfare reform of the 1990s was “the most significant social policy change in America since the civil rights movement.”

When I asked Neustadt via email if work requirements were still a priority under Banks, he responded, “Yes, absolutely, we meet state and federal rules regarding employment and training.” But there are subtle changes: The agency has not pursued moving people off the rolls as zealously as the agency did under Bloomberg. Neustadt said the city faced a possible $10 million charge from the state for “excessive fair hearings,” which means that a lot of recipients threatened with an end to their benefits had requested hearings under Bloomberg.

Changes also came to SNAP, or food stamps. Bloomberg had refused to request a federal waiver from work requirements attached to SNAP; de Blasio’s HRA requested and received the waiver in 2014. Then de Blasio and Banks announced an outreach campaign to spread the word about SNAP benefits and encourage New Yorkers to apply.

WHILE ELEMENTS OF WELFARE REFORM may be falling out of favor in New York City, some Republicans are trying to revive the concept at a national level. Congressional Republicans have recently been pushing for more state and local control of welfare money, building on the reforms President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. That local control means the local bureaucrats have more flexibility in how they implement reforms—which increases the importance of their worldviews.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed a measure for “Opportunity Grants” that would allow states to consolidate 11 federal welfare programs into one. It would also give them the freedom to contract with religious nonprofits in job training and the like. Often the county welfare agency is “the only game in town,” he said, and then he listed off nonprofits in Anacostia in Washington, D.C., as one example, that could provide services “so that it’s competitive.”

Ryan said he wants “to confront all of these status quo monopolies. … Loosening the strings … that doesn’t mean we care less. That doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas. That means we’re trying to liberate the people who are there fighting poverty eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person, with the power to do it, to actually change and effect. And yes, there are resources.”

Ryan won media praise after he organized a poverty forum in Columbia, S.C., to discuss the matter with top Republican presidential candidates. The Atlantic glowed, “At this rate, Ryan could soon find himself with the sort of public profile less typical of a politician than of a Pope.” His congressional colleagues haven’t felt that warmth toward Ryan’s reform ideas yet.

‘We had rules with regards to those who received cash welfare.’ —Robert Doar

But the issue can still find bipartisan support. Doar praised Maine’s welfare chief, Mary Mayhew, a Democrat working under a Republican governor, who has instituted strong work requirements.

Maine changed its food stamp program, imposing a three-month limit for able-bodied adults without minor dependents (ABAWDs) unless recipients worked 20 hours a week, volunteered, or took job training. The number of ABAWDs on food stamps dropped 80 percent over the next year.

“You’ve got to incentivize employment, create goals and create time limits on these welfare programs,” she told The New York Times last year. She fielded criticisms of her measures similar to those Doar heard over his tenure: “tough” and “harsh.”

Doar said it’s a difference in approach.

“I would say I was trying to help people just as much as they’re trying to help people by not sanctioning,” Doar said. “I’m not sure that these changes are so big that they’re undoing welfare reform. … Remember, people got the message about these rules and requirements and they adjusted. They may have seen the benefits of being employed and not being on cash welfare. It may be possible that notwithstanding the changes at the HRA that people won’t come rushing back in.” But, Doar added, “If these changes continue ... then we could be making some serious steps backwards.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.