Welfare Reform in New York State

12:38 PM, Nov 30, 2008   |    comments
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New York State's public assistance program has come under scrutiny recently.  It receives high marks for helping people, but not for its sanctions.

Two On Your Side's Addie Bradshaw traveled to New York City to speak with a man who helped transform Illinois's public assistance programs. 

He tells us, welfare or public assistance programs, vary greatly from state to state. 

"There's no reason in this great country of ours, even with its current problems, why anybody should be on welfare, at least more than temporarily," says Gary Macdougal.

In New York State, more than 500,000 people receive public assistance and according to the urban institute it's one of only six, just six places in the country that doesn't limit how long adults can do so.  Many say that's because of the state constitution.  New York established its own system beyond the federal time limit.

The NY State Constitution reads, Article 17, Section one "the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state."

The constitution stops short of saying how much aid, how little or for how long.

County Executive Chris Collins says, "We have families moving to Buffalo from California, so that we will provide for them at a level they can't be provided for anywhere else."

Welfare reform advocate Gary Macdougal says once they're here, not enough is done to encourage a transition off the system.

In the state welfare report cards he co-authored for the Heartland Institute, Macdougal gave New York an "F" for its sanctions or penalties when a recipient doesn't work.

His study found that, across the country, eighteen states take away a recipient's entire check the first time they don't work. The length of that sanction varies, but, in New York, the sanction is only a percentage of the family size.

For example, a single mother with two children would lose a third of her check, a family of four, loses a fourth of it.  Even if the mom fails to work a second, third, even a tenth time, the check won't get any smaller.

Welfare advocates at Catholic Charities say that's punishment enough.

Addie Bradshaw asks, "A lot of people make New York's system out to be a very generous one. Do you see it that way?"

"No I don't," answers Doris Corley.

"Why not?"

"Because the system is the system. You're still not given anymore than anywhere else and there's expectations the system does have," she answers.

In Doris Corley's line of work, she sees people receiving public assistance and still needing help. She believes New York State is strict and that imposing hard time limits would be inhumane.

"How frustrating is it to hear someone say 'cut them loose. It's sink or swim. Either they make it on their own or they don't?" It lacks compassion. It lacks compassion and it lacks understanding."

And that, too, is one of Elnora Walker's chief complaints. Now, a program assistant with the Salvation Army, Walker received public assistance for years.  Despite having clerical skills, social services placed her on clean-up duty at Dunn Tire Park. Six years later, she found her current, permanent job.

Walker says, "Some people may need more time. I don't know what I would have did if that was the case."

"So even five years isn't enough?" Addie Bradshaw asks. 

"Five years isn't enough. No. Not to just say, 'you're cut off and on you're own."

While Walker wishes Social Services had given her more choices for employment, she admits getting off the system is a personal decision.

Despite ranking New York the fourth worst in the country for welfare reform policies, Macdougal gives the state an "A" for reducing its rolls.

He says federal welfare reform in 1996 contributed a lot to that, with more than a million people getting off public assistance since that time.

You can see, in recent years, though, the reductions have been relatively stagnant.

"I think the success, so far, has been done arguably with one hand tied behind their back," says Macdougal. 

And, yet, the question remains how could the system work better? Should New York have stricter policies and tighter time limits or should Albany provide more, more choices when it comes to employment, better services like job training and resume building? Welfare advocates believe that is the answer.

So we took those questions to David Hansell.  He runs New York State's welfare system.

He says the days of simply getting a check are long gone.

"You can't just stay home and collect benefits you have to participate in work programs," the Commissioner told us.   

At his Albany office, he told us, this system in place now is working.

"I think its working I think there's always more we can do and we are always looking for ways to improve our program," he said. 

We asked him about New York State's separate fund, so recipients can be on welfare forever.  He said, its mandated by the state constitution and historically continued by the state legislature. 

We went to Western New York Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, who sits on that committee.  

"Is it time to re-look at that policy?" asks Kristin Donnelly. 

"Well, I mean the federal government cuts people off with no regard for whether or not they're going to have a job with no regard for whether or not they're going to have somewhere to live and so suppose New York cut them off as well, what are we going to do start putting mattresses in all the streets," she answers. 

"It's easy to say, it's a whole nother thing to do," Peoples says.

And Hansell says welfare recipients checks are garnished if they refuse to work and that's only 7 percent of all cases statewide.

We also asked about County Executive Chris Collins' claim that some families move to New York State to take advantage of benefits.

"There are people that migrate across different parts of the country I'm not sure there's a trend, we don't have any evidence that that's the case," Hansell insists.

Right now, New York State spends about $2 billion dollars on the welfare program.

Hansell points to a change in the ways contracts are handled.  Community based organizations, once paid for seeing clients are now paid based on performance only.

"What would you say to taxpayers who want to see less money being spent and more money in their pockets?"

"I would say first of all less money is being spent on welfare today than 5 years ago or 10 years ago 15 years ago. And I would say that the way our program is structured today as opposed to the way it was structured 10/15 years ago is one that keeps people from taking advantage of the system," he answers. 

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