Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union


Governor's Proposed Budget Bad News For Low-Income New Yorkers

The budget proposed by George George Pataki for the state fiscal year that starts on April 1, 2003 is bad news for low-income New Yorkers.

The state predicts a 5.3 percent increase in the public assistance caseload; the increase may be much higher unless the State Legislature makes major changes to the governor's proposals.

Ron Deutsch, of the Statewide Emergency Network for Social and Economic Security, notes that the Pataki budget "eliminates a variety of initiatives that the governor has credited with helping people transition off of welfare and into the workforce."


The shortage of affordable child care discourages parents from working, results in lost jobs due to child-care emergencies, and prepares the next generation for failure in school and the job market. The governor's budget maintains the current number of subsidized slots -- 183,400 -- but does nothing for the 29,000 families on waiting lists for child care placements. Day care subsidies for students at city and state public colleges would be eliminated, giving low-income parents a strong incentive not to continue their studies.

It costs an average of over $8,000 a year to send a four-year-old to a day care center. A parent working 40 hours a week at minimum wage can earn $10,712 a year. Without subsidized care, children in low-wage families miss out on the educational experiences that give their richer peers a head start in school.

Even for adults, basic education has become a controversial topic. Studies show that half of the adults on welfare have no high school diploma, and that this limits their ability to earn a living wage. Last year, the New York State legislature passed a bill allowing public assistance recipients to spend 16 hours a week in basic educational activities, while counting that time toward their 35-hour weekly work requirement. In December 2002, the governor vetoed this bill, in part because Mayor Michael Bloomberg lobbied against it. On March 13, 2003, the mayor vetoed a similar bill, Intro 93-A, offering education and training activities to welfare recipients.

With New York City's unemployment rate at 8.6 percent in January 2003, more local residents are competing for low-paying positions, increasing the need for affordable day care, and raising the bar for jobhunters' qualifications. Unemployment is not a major concern in Albany: last year, 97 percent of the net statewide job loss occurred within the five boroughs of New York City.

For city teenagers, unemployment is much higher, preventing most from getting work experience during and after high school. Last year, the Summer Youth Employment Program paid the salaries of 36,000 young workers. The governor has eliminated all funds for summer jobs from his proposed budget.


Every year, the legislature adds money to the governor's proposed budget to pay for programs it considers particularly important. A year later, the governor proposes a new budget that cuts out much of what was added by the legislature. This exercise contributes to the perennial lateness of the adopted budget.

Governor Pataki would prefer to give money for employment and training directly to local officials, without requiring them to fund any specific programs. In recent years, the legislature has diverted some of the governor's lump-sum proposals into specific employment-related programs which, once again, the Pataki budget proposal eliminates. They include transportation assistance, screening and services for domestic violence victims, wage subsidies, training in technology and English as a Second Language, basic education and literacy programs, and job training for people with AIDS/HIV infection.

According to Margaret Stix of the New York Education and Training Coalition, over the past three years, the city's share of the New York State block grant for employment and transitional services has dropped from $68.7 million to $2 million. The city has been slow to spend this money, first because the Giuliani administration preferred not to use it, and now because city contracts with nonprofit service providers require long-term goals to be met before providers are paid.

Stix points to wage subsidies, which have dropped from $45 million three years ago, to $5 million last year. The governor's budget cuts them out entirely. "This is a great program," she says. "How else are you going to get people like ex-offenders hired in this job market?" Subsidies pay 80 percent of an employee's salary for the first three to six months on the job. It has been shown that, after the initial period, two-thirds of the people hired under the program remain at their jobs without a subsidy.


People on public assistance receive a "shelter allowance," which has been stuck at $312 a month for a family of four since 1988. This amount falls far short of the "fair market rent" of $993 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, as calculated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even well below the median Bronx rent of $620 per month found by the Census of 2000. So many families were being evicted because of this shortfall that a 1987 lawsuit, Jiggetts versus Dowling, produced a stopgap solution of court-ordered subsidies, known as "Jiggetts" payments.

The state recently proposed a revised schedule of shelter allowances, with modest increases such as raising the allowance for a family of four to $450 a month. "The new allowance would be a good thing for New York City," says Susan Bahn of the Legal Aid Society. "It's not enough to be adequate, but it's a step in the right direction. It would help those families who might be evicted because their rent is only a hundred dollars more than the allowance they're getting now."

The governor's 2003-04 budget proposes that the new shelter allowances should become a state law, and implies that this would end the need for Jiggetts payments to prevent renters from being evicted.

Bahn recognizes the pattern: "Every year, back to Cuomo, they propose this, and every year the Assembly stops them from doing it," she explains. "There's no need to do anything as far as the statute, as long as we have the Jiggetts process." Bahn expects the Jiggetts case to continue for at least two more budget cycles.

"It's a cynical move on the governor's part," says Jonathan Hafetz, staff attorney at the Partnership for the Homeless. "Jiggetts has helped to redress the state's failure to increase the shelter allowance to reflect the true cost of housing." As of December 2002, Jiggetts payments of up to $775 a month were keeping about 14,500 families in their homes. The governor's proposed budget legislation would permit local governments to create their own supplements to the shelter allowance, suggesting that the Pataki administration recognizes the inadequacy of the new schedule.

Housing advocates admit that the Jiggetts mechanism has many flaws: families must be on public assistance, include children, be legally facing eviction, and apply for assistance through a few specific non-profit agencies.

However, Bahn credits the process with benefits beyond preventing homelessness. "We see many people whose lives have been stabilized by the subsidy," she says. "It allows the crises to stop, and I've seen moms get jobs because they were able to stop running to court all the time."


Elderly and disabled New Yorkers were expecting to get $13 more each month in federal Supplemental Security Insurance starting next year, but Pataki has proposed keeping that increase for state expenses to administer the Social Security program. Supplemental Security Insurance recipients with disabilities were supposed to be allowed to maintain their Medicaid coverage if they went back to work; this change has been indefinitely delayed by the state's inability to finish adapting its computer system to accommodate the new policy.


Senior citizens have not been exempt from additional cuts. Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities would lose the state funding that supports critical services keeping elderly apartment dwellers out of nursing homes. Subsidies for adult day care and for respite care would also be eliminated.


In response to a New York Times expose of the appalling conditions in adult homes, the governor appointed an Adult Homes Work Group, which recommended both short-term measures to correct the worst abuses in the homes, and long-term expansion of the housing supply to enable residents to return to the community. Pataki has proposed spending $8 million on the short-term measures -- far short of the $58 million needed, according to the New York State branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The Work Group called for 6,000 new community housing beds for residents leaving the adult homes. Pataki's 2003-04 budget offers 1,000 new beds, to be split among adult home residents, patients leaving state psychiatric hospitals, and homeless people. The new beds require a $52 million match from local government, at a time when the city is calling on the state for help with its own budget gap. The governor's budget fails to fund new scattered-site placements, in regular apartments where tenants receive case management services, as a faster, cheaper way to expand the supply of community housing.


For years community-based mental health services were expanded using the money saved by closing beds at state psychiatric centers. Pataki has recognized the value of the Community Reinvestment Act, which guided this activity, by proposing a new reinvestment bill. However, he wants to delay the bill's implementation until 2004; meanwhile, the savings from six more facility closings would go toward the general fund.

The new Mental Health Court in Brooklyn depends on a variety of supportive services to divert mentally ill, non-violent criminals from prison. Without new community-based housing for people with psychiatric disabilities, New Yorkers will continue to pay more than is necessary to keep these individuals in prison, the least appropriate setting.


The proposed 2003-04 budget uses familiar tactics: It shifts some costs from state-funded programs -- like state mental health facilities -- to areas with more federal and local financial support, like homeless services. It delays other costs, such as nursing home bills for seniors who can remain independent for months or years after community-based supports are taken from them. It transforms the price of subsidized day care centers into costs that never take financial form, such as single mothers worrying about what happens after they leave their children with an untrained babysitter.

In this period of economic stagnation, social service is one of the few industries for which demand is growing. Unfortunately, by choosing not to fill that demand, Pataki is closing down existing and potential jobs, and preventing thousands of welfare recipients from qualifying for the jobs that are left.

If he gets what he is asking for, Pataki's third term will be the worst yet for low-income New Yorkers.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

9/11/01-02: Charity Began At Ground Zero, But Where Will It Wind Up?

The American public responded more generously than ever before when the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11. As of September 5, 2002, over $2.2 billion was raised, according to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

One unintended effect of these gifts has been controversy over their distribution among victims of the attack and their families. If the nation had applied free-market philosophy to this situation, no charitable assistance would have been necessary. Victims' involvement in the attack would be attributed to bad luck and individual choice. Employees of businesses in the trade center buildings would be seen as having chosen to take their chances in a building complex bombed by terrorists in 1993. Police officers and firefighters would be seen as having chosen dangerous careers, with extra financial rewards in return for the risks. Even airline passengers could be seen as having chosen a form of transportation in which there is little hope of survival if the vehicle suffers damage.

Fortunately, people across the nation applied a different standard to this tragedy, one of mutual aid. According to a poll by the Independent Sector taken in October 2001, about 70 percent of Americans gave blood, donated money, volunteered their time, or in some other way tried to help the victims of the attack and their families.

However, the unity expressed by these donations does not extend to how they should be used. The resulting dissension reveals the diversity of meanings attached to words like "fairness," "victim," "family," and "need".


It was understood at the start that "victims" were people killed or injured in the attack, and that their "families" were their wives, husbands and children. The public was also eager to see help given to workers involved in the rescue and cleanup efforts.

Other relatives of the deceased soon made their claims on assistance clear. Parents, siblings, and domestic partners were added to a broadened definition of "family". Some charities gave help to anyone financially dependent on the victim, including former wives and their children.

Because so much money was collected, charities were able to stretch the meaning of "victim" still further, to cover others harmed by direct results of the tragedy: the 70,000 people who lost their jobs, the 6,000 downtown residents who had to leave their homes, and neighboring small businesses and nonprofits whose offices were thrown into physical or functional disorder by the event.

For some purposes, the definition of the disaster itself was extended to include anthrax attacks and post 9/11 hate crimes. The Uniformed Firefighters Association extended payments from its relief fund to families of all firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1980, and in the future.


"Fairness" is another ambiguous term; its interpretation goes to the heart of our inconsistent convictions about how people should treat one another. There are many methods for dividing up September 11 funds, and each has been championed by one or another constituency.

Distributing funds according to financial need would give more money to a family that was poor before the disaster, and less to one whose breadwinner earned a high income and maintained life insurance. According to Shawn Pattison of the Robin Hood Foundation, their September 11-related relief fund follows this principle. "Robin Hood wants to make sure no one falls through the cracks, particularly low-income people," he says. Robin Hood targets its relief efforts toward groups like immigrant communities isolated by language barriers and fear of deportation, and low-income people with mental illness. "There were Central Americans working as day laborers cleaning up the site," he explains, "and they were not given proper protective equipment. A number are quite ill now." Robin Hood supports the Latin American Workers Project, which provides health services and financial help to these victims.

Other cases inspire more disagreement as to what constitutes need. Does it include making monthly mortgage payments on a million-dollar house? Families of the victims expect donations to enable them to maintain the standard of living they had before the disaster. However, the Internal Revenue Service has explicitly barred charities from distributing money to families of victims based on their living expenses before September 11. The large nonprofits that control most of the September 11 donations have decided not only how much cash to give victims for paying bills, but also what kinds of services victims need. The major ones turned out to be mental health counseling and employment services, which are not what might be expected by viewers of news coverage of relief efforts in response to earlier man-made and natural disasters.


In the most literal interpretation of a distribution of aid based on equality, you would give the same amount to each victim. This would mean giving the same amount to a person whose store was closed for a week due to roadblocks, as to a widow with young children.

A more nuanced interpretation of "equality" gives equal shares to all people in the same situation. The Uniformed Firefighters Association gave $50,000 to the family of each married firefighter who was killed, but did not initially extend this policy to beneficiaries of single firefighters. After protest by the excluded relatives, the firefighters' union gave $50,000 to domestic partners, parents and other beneficiaries of deceased unmarried firefighters. The Robin Hood fund did not distinguish between levels of need when it sent $5,000 one-time payments to each family of the victims killed on September 11. "By late November, it was clear from talking to many of our families that the money was just not getting through," says Pattison. In this situation, all families were subject to the same bureaucratic delays in releasing aid; later and larger distributions could be expected to adjust the total aid to each family according to a yardstick of need.

The September 11th Fund, a joint project of the United Way of New York City and the Fund for the City of New York, collected $501 million, more than any charity other than the Red Cross' Liberty Fund. The September 11th Fund set the value of emergency cash assistance at two levels, depending on the degree of loss. Injured survivors and victims' families would get $10,000 each; people who lost jobs or homes as a direct result of the attack received $2,500 each. The same amounts were given in a second round of cash assistance.


The court system calculates the value of human lives as it goes about its everyday business. The wrongful death of a young person counts as a greater loss than the death of a retiree, because of the years of future work that are lost. Higher salaries at the time of death mean more lost income. Higher levels of education imply the possibility of career advancement leading to higher salaries. This method of determining the amount of assistance is favored by many of the victims' families. Those whose deceased relatives would have earned the most have the greatest incentive to call for this model of assistance, and it forms one element in the federal government's calculation of awards from the Victims Compensation Fund.

Financial loss also decides the size of loans and grants being given to businesses and nonprofits in the vicinity of Ground Zero, many of whom were unable to function normally for weeks or months. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises federally-funded grants and loans based on their annual revenues.


Most of the help being offered in recognition of emotional loss takes the form of mental health services or tangible gifts. The web site of the Twin Towers Fund "recognizes the importance of families spending time together in a fun and relaxing environment," and offers a variety of special events to the relatives of uniformed officers killed on September 11. They include sleepaway camp for children, golf camp for adults, free tickets to Mets games, sailing lessons, and sightseeing cruises from New York Waterways. Both the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the Twin Towers Fund are planning holiday parties in December for the families they serve.


The sacrifices made by police officers and firefighters inspired intense sympathy in the general public, which gives extra weight to the death of a member of these forces even in normal times. A study of 37 relief funds serving September 11 victims showed that nearly half of the cash paid directly to victims and their families went to relatives of police officers, firefighters, and court officers.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering payments to downtown residents, implying that people who remain in the neighborhood for the long term are more valued than those who leave or have recently arrived. Their web site offers a minimum grant of $1,000 to households, within specific boundaries, whose residents who lived at their present address last September 11. At least $750 more will be given to families who commit to staying in the area for at least one year, if they have one or more children younger than 18.


According to Barbara Bryan, president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, many charities were "overcome by the size of the generosity and by the size of the need, and all the different levels of need." At the end of October 2001, the Red Cross announced it had collected more than enough to meet the needs of the victims -- so much more that its Liberty Fund could start underwriting some of the agency's more routine costs for services to American troops on active duty; community outreach to encourage neutrality, unity and tolerance; and telecommunications equipment, computer systems and accounting services. It also intended to set aside about half of the Liberty Fund for future needs of the WTC victims or for victims of future terrorist attacks.

This plan made the Red Cross the target of a growing sense of frustration and distrust among donors, victims' families and Ground Zero workers. Chief Executive Bernadine Healy was forced to resign; the organization was questioned by the United States Congress. The Red Cross had to revise its plan, promising to give out about half of the Liberty Fund by the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.

The September 11th Fund chose a different route. It conducted surveys of the general public in October and November of 2001, polling both donors and non-donors to September 11-related charities. The results supported the fund's decisions to expand services to the broad range of victims described above, and to provide a variety of short-term and long-term services in addition to cash assistance.


Even with public opinion polls, it is not possible to aid disaster victims in a way that pleases everyone. Each method of dividing up disaster relief funds reflects a conviction about what makes a good society; the subject stirs up almost as much passion as the idea of the World Trade Center disaster itself.

Distributing charitable aid based on financial need implies that charity should even out economic differences between recipients. Giving equal shares to all implies that charity does not have to take into account the different situations of recipients before the event that created their shared need. Giving charitable aid in proportion to the recipient's economic loss implies that charity should honor victims' property rights by preserving the existing hierarchy of wealth. Using non-monetary aid to compensate victims for emotional losses suggests that such suffering cannot be measured and is best addressed symbolically. Basing levels of aid on the victim's value to society implies that charity's purpose is to benefit society as a whole. And leaving the decision of how to use donations up to the donor means that their right to control their money trumps the greater experience of charitable professionals in determining the best use of assistance.

Barbara Bryan believes that charities will have to change in response to the disputes over disaster relief for the victims of September 11. "You have to be very clear about what you're asking for, " she says, but she is not sure of the specific steps that will have to be taken. "People are still trying to take lessons from all of this."

Sites For Beginners:

  • Social Services Hotline for New York City Agencies and Services - Who to contact if you have no food, if your gas is about to be cut off or if you need information on HIV or AIDS; how to find an emergency shelter; what a battered woman can do--and more.
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence - Setting up a Safety Plan and Crisis Hotlines; Workplace Guidelines; Legal Guidelines; Public Policy which includes articles on Predictors of Domestic Violence and Barriers to Leaving a Violent Partner.
  • New York City Department for the Aging - Good resource for finding senior centers in your neighborhood. Where to turn for help with Legal Assistance, the Home Energy Assistance Program and Elderly Crime Victim Resources. Bilingual help in Spanish is available.
  • Center for Mental Health Services - Good resource for finding information on dual diagnosis problems of mental illness and substance abuse; Emergency Services; Children's Campaign; Mental Health Statistics. All information also available in Spanish.
  • Coalition of Voluntary Mental Health Agencies - Contains a neighborhood agency locator to find what services are available in your neighborhood; policy information and newsletters.

Other Recommendations:

  • Resources for Social Workers - NYU's social work library: key in any topic of interest and you are presented with a comprehensive listing of articles from government, not-for-profit groups and professional journals.
  • National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information - Extraordinary site, filled with alcohol and drug treatment information. Data archives include international articles on educational, political and social research on this topic. Go here for a primer on including persons with disabilities in a prevention or intervention program.
  • National Association of Social Workers, NYC Chapter - Social workers reporting on every issue: welfare reform, HIV/AIDS, addiction, mental health, families & children and health care
  • New York city Lesbian & Gay Community Center - Youth Enrichment Services, Gender Identity Project, AIDS Bereavement, Mediation Service, in addition to being cultural, political, educational and recreational mecca.
  • Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center - 312 East 94th Street, NY, NY 10128 (212) 423-3000 Confidential services for teens (ages 12-21) that do not require parental consent, including medical services, condom distribution, AIDS prevention & treatment, and counseling.

9/11/01- 02: Lower Rents, But More Homelessness, Fewer Vacancies, Canceled Plans For New Affordable Housing

September 11th significantly altered the city's housing landscape for many New Yorkers -- from Lower Manhattan residents who evacuated their homes, to city officials who crunch budget numbers, to advocates who devote themselves to the plights of the poor.

Immediate effects of the terrorist attacks included temporary homelessness for thousands of downtown residents. Dozens still have not been able to return to apartments closest to the World Trade Center site.

Vacancy rates in the buildings closest to the site reached 45 percent, according to a study of 7000 apartments in the area by the New York Times, though they have since returned to their normal rates of just under five percent.

Other housing economic activity, including new rentals, housing starts and applications for building permits, came to a virtual standstill after the attacks.

By October, economic activity rebounded, but home insurance costs were rising and they remain high. Rents in Lower Manhattan dropped because tenants wanted out. Rents elsewhere in the city softened too as real estate brokers experienced lower demand. The loosening of the housing market had actually begun months before September 11th, but the attack seemed to accelerate the recession and its effects on housing.

"9/11 was the kick in the gut to an already weak economy," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a retreating one leaves many more boats stranded.

The number of homeless families had been increasing for some time before the terrorist attacks, and has risen drastically since. Currently, the city's shelter system is strained beyond its capacity, sheltering about 8,600 families and 7,500 single adults each night.

The reasons for homelessness are complex, but the economy is among the usual suspects. Between the recession and September 11th, the city has lost more than 125,000 jobs.

"Clearly that is a big reason you see more and more families and individuals becoming homeless. It's a direct result and there doesn't seem to be any let-up," said Markee.

The softening economy has eased rents for the city's more expensive apartments, but it has also contributed to fiercer competition for apartments that rent for less. New York City's vacancy rate remains low. It was last measured by the 1999 New York City Housing and Vacancy survey at 3.2 percent, and it decreases along with rents, meaning that vacancies are lowest among the most affordable apartments.

The recession is creating other unpleasant realities for housing. Both the state and city budget are facing shortfalls which will mean less money available for housing programs.

In January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked all city agencies to trim their budgets by 20 percent. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development obeyed and slashed its expense budget, although it managed to replace much of the lost funding with federal money.

This past year, "all of our housing production continued as planned," said Carol Abrams, the agency's spokesperson. The agency even instituted a new program to distribute federal rental assistance vouchers for certain eligible individuals who lost, or are at risk of losing, their housing as a result of the events of September 11th.

Still, the agency has had to refigure its plans for the coming years. In response to less available city funding for its capital expenditures, 4,630 units of affordable housing that were supposed to be added to the city's housing supply over the next five years will be delayed, if not completely lost.

Affordable housing advocates bemoan such news.

"We are in a very difficult economic climate and we understand that there have to be cuts everywhere," says Bernie Carr, executive director of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade association for the for-profit affordable housing community. "But obviously, affordable housing, especially in a difficult economy, is a very important issue."

There were some silver linings to the sad cloud that rose in Lower Manhattan last year. The Rent Guidelines Board authorized lower than usual rent increases for the city's 1 million regulated apartments. And residents of the Lower Manhattan are eligible for more than $300 million in federal subsidies meant to encourage tenants to move into and/or stay, in the area.

But for many other housing indicators, the statistics are not yet in. Will foreclosures and evictions rise as more unemployed New Yorkers can't make their monthly rent or mortgage payments? Will rent levels come down from their heyday heights? Will cuts in city programs further restrict the city's supply of affordable housing and lead to even greater problems for the city's poor?

These and many other questions won't be answered for months, or even years, until statistics are gathered and studies completed.

Sites For Beginners:

Other Recommendations:

  • The Rent Guidelines Board - Comprehensive apartment-hunting guide for beginners or old hands. Great links to research and data on NYC housing, including the 1996 Housing and Vacancy Survey.
  • City Limits - Investigative reporting about housing and other issues facing New York's low-income communities for 22 years. Archives available to 1996.
  • The Cooperator - Free online magazine for co-op and condo dwellers. Articles on current news affecting co-ops and condos, such as utilities deregulation or indictments of corrupt management companies, change monthly. Includes helpful Q&A sections in which tenant questions are answered by lawyers and accountants, and a reference library of detailed advice on topics such as building finance or selling your unit.
  • NYU Law School Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy - A detailed summary of the NYU Law School Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy's report "Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City." Also features links to other research and the Center's programs and events.
  • Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve - HUD and the Urban Institute's new survey of homeless people and the service providers who work with them every day provides an intimate portrait of homelessness across America. Those surveyed revealed that more than 40% of homeless people work at least part time, 39% struggle with mental illness, and about a third of the homeless are now or were once child runaways. Only 8% are panhandlers.
  • Mr. Landlord - The Internet Resource for Landlords and Landladies. This comprehensive site offers a wealth of resources and free advice on do-it-yourself rental property management. Visitors can find help with setting up a webpage for their own rental ads or locating sample rent agreement forms. Its services also include a Q&A interactive discussion among fellow landlords; tax, mortgage and rent calculators; and a free weekly e-newsletter on management techniques.
  • Realty Times - This archive of free articles from the Realty Times, a realtors' professional publication, offers advice on issues of concern to apartment dwellers. Articles cover many legal concerns such as how to rent with roommates and tenants' rights to minor repairs, plus simple ideas on interior dicor or what to do if neighbors are noisy. The main page, http://realtimes.com, contains links on other residential real estate topics of interest to consumers, including mortgages and "The Truth About Condo Living."

How Welfare Reform Affects People With Disabilities

He hears voices and has been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and a learning disability. But these are not his only nightmares. There are also the ones he encounters in his dealings with the city's welfare agency. His welfare benefits, food stamps, and Medicaid coverage have been repeatedly cut off. Once he went to a Job Center and waited all day, four days in a row, because he couldn't find his way through the crowds and waiting lines to someone who would help him file an application.

Identified only as J.V., his story was included in a complaint filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights about the treatment by the New York City Human Resources Administration

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires state and local governments to make "reasonable modifications" of their programs to ensure that people with disabilities receive the same level of service and benefits as everybody else. This includes programs providing income support, food stamps, and Medicaid, which are disproportionately needed by disabled Americans. (Federal agencies, plus private agencies receiving federal funds, have their own law requiring similar modifications: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.)


Nationwide, people with disabilities are poorer and less likely to have jobs than other Americans. A survey by the National Organization on Disability found that 72 percent of people with disabilities wanted to work, but only 29 percent were doing so. According to the Census Bureau, 46 percent of single-parent households getting public assistance in 1997 included a mother or child with a disability.

Poverty can combine with even minor disabilities to produce major barriers to employment. Employers are not required to provide personal equipment, such as artificial limbs or hearing aids; jobseekers on Medicaid may not be able to afford equipment that is good enough to enable them to work. When a mother herself has a disability, she may need extra time to get her children ready for day care and to drop them off by public transportation.

"Most of the consumers I see have more than one disability," says Placida Wilson of Bronx Independent Living Services (where I work part-time). She often accompanies consumers to hearings about their eligibility for benefits. "Depression is the most common, plus a physical disability like arthritis, heart disease, or fibromyalgia. They're poor, can't work, feeling sick, and they may also have kids, can't get child care?A person without a disability would be depressed in that situation." She pointed to a box of tissues on her desk, and another on a shelf above it. "Some of them sit down here and before I can open my mouth, they start to cry."


The responsibility for people with disabilities who live in poverty is split among the federal, state and city governments, who pass it around like a hot potato. For those who can meet the stringent requirements, Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income payments are slightly higher and more secure than welfare; the city and state are eager to shift their caseload into these entirely federally-funded programs. However, it can take years for applications to be processed; not all disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act meet the Social Security definition of disability. That definition requires that applicants prove they are completely incapable of working because of a disability that either is considered fatal, or has lasted (or is expected to last) for at least a year.

States always knew that many public assistance recipients had disabilities, but it took welfare reform to motivate them to hire private agencies to help people apply for Social Security. New York is particularly eager to reclassify families in its caseload before they reach their five-year lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, so that the federal government will pick up the tab.


Non-disabled welfare recipients were the first to be channeled back into the workforce by welfare reform, leaving a higher concentration of recipients with disabilities on the rolls. Yet in November 2002, the city classified only 30 percent of its public assistance caseload as ill, disabled, or caring for a family member. This figure is much lower than the Census Bureau's 46 percent of single-parent households found to have a member with a disability.

The discrepancy suggests that the city may be either not identifying the disabilities of those on its welfare rolls, or failing to provide public assistance to eligible people with disabilities. Many common physical illnesses, like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, become disabilities for people with severe cases, yet few welfare recipients or caseworkers know that such cases are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For the past twenty years, New York City has hired HS Systems, Inc. to examine welfare applicants and recipients and determine their level of disability. This contractor plays a leading role in the complaint filed last April by Brooklyn Legal Services, MFY Legal Services, the Urban Justice Center, and the Welfare Law Center. The complaint describes people whose psychiatric symptoms were treated by HS Systems staff as deliberate violations of program requirements, causing recipients to have their benefits cut off because of their disabilities. In an article in the Village Voice, ill and disabled applicants were discovered waiting outside HS Systems offices in the snow during the winter of 2000. Since then, HS Systems has followed a court order to open additional sites and provide more room for waiting indoors.


Any welfare recipient with or without disabilities may be harmed when poorly trained, overworked, and unmotivated city employees give incorrect or incomplete information, record the wrong facts in case files, or make arbitrary decisions. The damage is compounded for those who have physical disabilities that make it hard to travel to and from multiple appointments, or mental or learning disabilities that turn complex requirements into insoluble riddles. Wilson of Bronx Independent Living Services recalls a consumer who knew he had to mail a form to Social Security, and did so on time. "What he didn't understand was that he needed to fill it out and put a stamp on the envelope."

When someone tells the Human Resources Administration that he or she has a psychiatric disability, according to the April complaint, the agency does not adequately assess the disability, does not accommodate the disability when assigning a work activity, and may sanction them for behavior caused by their disabilities.

One of Wilson's cases involved a mother with schizophrenia who was summoned to HS Systems for an assessment. Her husband went with her and refused to leave her alone with the doctors, because she was acutely ill and he feared she would act inappropriately if she were alone. "He didn't understand that that was exactly what she was supposed to do," Wilson said. The doctors would not examine the woman with her husband in the room. The family was sanctioned, losing Medicaid and food stamps as well as welfare. They turned to Bronx Independent Living Services when the mother was running out of medication, she could not see a doctor without Medicaid, there was no food in their home, and the rent was due. Wilson arranged to get their case re-opened the next day, but if they had not already been her consumers, they might not have found help before the wife required hospitalization, or they lost their home.

For people with AIDS/HIV infection, the city has a special division, the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, whose caseworkers coordinate emergency housing and other public benefits for this population. The division was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2000, when understaffing made clients wait too long for services. Thanks to the success of new treatments in prolonging life, the HIV/AIDS Services Administration's caseload continues to rise: in the two years leading up to November 2002, the number of HIV-positive clients rose by over ten percent. City law limits the average number of clients served by caseworkers or supervisors to 34, meaning that the division was required to hire nearly 100 new caseworkers to serve the 3,300 additional clients. Current government budget gaps jeopardize the division's ability to maintain an adequate staff-to-client ratio.


The city's public assistance recipients with disabilities may be getting less than their fair share of other services besides income support. Welfare-to-work programs provide employment-related services designed to help recipients move from public assistance to work. Employment-related services are rarely made available to people with disabilities Vocational training and job placement are as useful to people with disabilities as to anyone else who is unemployed and has little work history. For high school dropouts with sensory or learning disabilities, high school equivalency "GED" classes accommodating their disabilities can be the key to lifetime employment.

The federal Office for Civil Rights is still investigating the April 2002 complaint against the Human Resources Administration, according to Cary LaCheen of the Welfare Law Center. Meanwhile, there will be more cases such as M.F.B. whose claustrophobia prevents him from using elevators. He missed one appointment at HS Systems because a security guard would not let him use the stairs. He only made it to a second appointment because a different guard helped him sneak into the stairway. HS Systems found M.F.B. to be employable with limitations. One of the jobs they indicated he could perform was that of elevator operator.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

Public Housing

To Fiorello LaGuardia, housing the poor was a personal crusade. The diminutive mayor blamed the damp squalor of the tenements where his first wife grew up for the tuberculosis that eventually took her life and that of their child. And for the rest of his life, LaGuardia dedicated himself to razing New York's dank slums and replacing them with modern, sanitary housing. By 1941, under his guidance, New York had already erected 13 public housing projects with 17,000 apartments, more than any other city in the country.

Fast-forward to late 2002. Another "fusion" mayor, Democrat-turned-Republican Michael Bloomberg, unveils the city's most sweeping housing initiative in more than 20 years. Like LaGuardia, Bloomberg hopes to replenish the city's housing stock at a time when New York is struggling through an economic downturn. For Bloomberg, however, towering housing projects are not part of the mix. Instead, reflecting current thinking on low-income housing and the political realities of his era, Bloomberg proposes a combination of government and private initiatives aimed at creating or rehabilitating 65,000 units for people of various income levels. The objective, according to Bloomberg, is "to jump-start and complement private sector investment."

Even though the city may never build large public housing projects again, the existing developments contain 9 percent of the rental housing in the city and are home to more than 400,000 people. And while nationally such projects have fallen into disrepute, in New York, tens of thousands of people clamor to move in. Can these projects continue to survive in an era when federal support for housing is dwindling and cities are increasingly turning to private and community-based housing programs?


The notion that the problems of the poor could be eased by improving their environment has a long history in New York. Starting in the 1850s, charity-minded New Yorkers began setting up "model tenements" in slums such as Five Points -- with only mixed success. In 1891, Jacob Riis's powerful "How the Other Half Lives" spurred further efforts to end the squalor plaguing some New Yorkers.

In the LaGuardia years, New York decided to get into the housing business itself. The city's first housing project was, appropriately named the First Houses on East 3rd Street near Avenue A, built by the New York City Public Housing Authority and opened in 1936. A year later, the city dedicated the first federally subsidized housing in the United States, the Harlem River Houses, at 153rd Street and the Harlem River.

The post-war era brought about a huge boom in public housing construction. Title I of the federal Housing Act of 1949, which sought to provide "a decent home in a suitable living environment for every American family," sent torrents of housing money into New York and other cities. This money created public housing - projects built largely with federal money and managed by a housing authority, such as the New York City Housing Authority, Cities remade scores of neighborhoods, razing slum districts and building landscaped, high-rise developments. Robert Moses, the planner who reshaped so much of New York City, funneled billions of those federal dollars into New York, giving him another tool to rebuild the city in his image.

But the heyday of the housing project in the United States lasted just a few decades. By the mid 1960s, policymakers were becoming disenchanted with housing projects. Stacking low-income families in isolated, expensive-to-maintain apartment buildings no longer seemed like reform. Planners began to understand that the neighborhoods they were bulldozing in the name of slum clearance, although crowded, were vital and vibrant. In Chicago, authorities conceded that the projects they created were as bad, or worse, than the slums they replaced.

Other ideas, such as creating mixed-income developments, rehabilitating older buildings, and encouraging community-run redevelopment programs began to take center stage. Programs such as Section 8, which provides rent subsidies in the form of vouchers to qualified low-income families, supplanted the great public housing construction initiatives of the 1940s and '50s.

New York was always the greatest exponent of public housing and it remains one of the last holdouts. Unlike other cities across the country, which emptied their worst projects in the 1980s and '90s and demolished them, New York never gave up on its public housing. Today, the city's Housing Authority, though undoubtedly troubled, enjoys a reputation as the nation's most successful public housing agency, carrying on despite drastic reductions in federal support and widespread disdain for the traditional housing project.

"It's ironic," says Joseph Weisbord, director of Housing First!, an alliance of organizations that promotes investment in housing. "Now that we've learned the lessons of how to do public housing, we've pulled the plug on the federal resources."


The Housing Authority runs 345 developments containing 2,702 apartment buildings that house 174,195 families or 418,810 residents, more than the entire populations of Atlanta or Miami. New York's public housing stock dwarfs that of its nearest rivals, San Juan and Chicago. Queensbridge Houses is New York's biggest development. It alone contains 3,101 apartments. Among the city's developments, 42 are exclusively for senior citizens.

"New York's Housing Authority is so extraordinary in size and scale and scope that it really stands alone," says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA), an association representing 55 of the nation's largest housing agencies. "They have a policy of not demolishing units but of trying to preserve units. I think clearly it's viewed as a high-performing agency that is innovative in a lot of ways and different in a lot of ways."

There are a number of reasons projects have retained a place in New York's housing mix. For one thing, Zaterman notes, New Yorkers are used to living in apartments: "High-rise living doesn't have the stigma it does in Chicago or Baltimore or other cities where if you were living in a high-rise you were clearly low-income."

Moreover, the Housing Authority for a long time has carefully screened prospective tenants. In addition, the city's tight housing market has made rent vouchers less attractive than in other cities, where there are more vacant private apartments available at a decent price.

In housing projects, residents pay no more than 30 percent of their family income as rent. Because of the combination of low costs -- the average housing project rent is $302 a month - relatively attractive apartments, and the city's chronic housing shortage, there is a long waiting list for public housing. As of last July, 144,988 applicants awaited apartments in city housing projects and another 148,748 were on the list for the Section 8 voucher program, which subsidizes rents in privately owned buildings. To be placed on the waiting list, applicants must earn less than 80 percent of the area's median income. They must also submit to an interview.

New York's housing projects never fell into the disrepair that plagued other cities. Residents of some developments, along with Housing Authority employees, might not agree (a publication called NYCHA Spotlight, run by a former Housing Authority employee, regularly exposes problems at the agency), but the city's projects enjoy a reputation for being among the best-maintained in the country. Even in the face of declining federal support, the authority has continued to invest in public housing, winning praise from analysts and advocates for doing what it can to keep the buildings in good shape.


But while many people seek to get into the projects, some of those already there say conditions are far from perfect. Many projects present a forbidding face to the rest of the city, leaving residents cut off from surrounding communities. Some projects are in remote neighborhoods such as Coney Island and Far Rockaway, leaving their residents far from jobs and educational opportunities. Throughout the public housing system, maintenance and safety continue to be concerns.

"Best housing authority -- I think that depends how you define it," says Ethel Velez, who has lived in the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem for more than 50 years.

"Personally, I do think that the Housing Authority tries its best to manage these buildings the best they can, but we have problems just like everyone across the country with maintenance, management and standards of materials," says Velez, the director of the Public Housing Residents Alliance. "The good about these buildings is they are built very well and in spite of the vandalism that goes on in these buildings the housing authority does try to maintain them. But it's like trying to patch a hole with bubble gum instead of cement."

Velez says that over the years she has seen her project suffer ups and downs depending on budget considerations and the crime rate in the city as a whole. The advent of social and support programs for residents has helped improve conditions, she says, and tenants have made efforts to build a sense of community and make their buildings safer. Still, Velez says, project residents also have to battle perceptions that crime is rampant: "Folks who live in public housing are labeled."

And indeed, across the country, housing projects remain more dangerous than other neighborhoods. A federal government study issued last year reported that project residents are more than twice as likely to be shot as Americans in general.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, crime rates in public housing in New York developments rose more sharply than in the city as a whole. Since then, though, crimes rates in public housing have been falling even faster than in the city as a whole. A Housing Authority report last year said that while serious crime in the city fell 5.6 percent from 1999 to 2000, it dropped 6.2 percent in the projects. In 2001, major crime was down 11.2 percent in New York's public housing.

Still, the city recognizes that projects remain potential sources of crime. Last year, the Housing Authority finished installing closed-circuit monitors at 15 developments. The Bloomberg administration's new Operation Impact is flooding high-crime areas of the city, among them housing projects, with 1,400 rookie officers in a bid to keep a lid on violent offenses. Police officials have said that shootings and robberies are increasing at certain projects in the Bronx and Brooklyn even as homicides continue to decline.

The crime rate in public housing may be linked to who lives there. Beginning in the 1980s, the Housing Authority began admitting the very poor and homeless, a change that some critics link to a deterioration of the buildings and increase in crime. New York had previously favored working families.

In the '90s, the Housing Authority instituted what it calls the Working Families Preference, under which it set aside half its vacancies for low-income but employed residents. Federal legislation in 1998 that gave housing authorities greater flexibility in setting admissions standards bolstered the city's position. The Working Families Preference is credited with boosting the number of working families to close to 35 percent of all housing authority tenants.

But minority groups sued, saying the policy was slowing the desegregation of the city's housing. In January 2002, a federal appeals court agreed, ruling that New York City cannot give working families preference in housing projects where more than 30 percent of residents are white. Fourteen of the city's housing projects are affected by the ruling.


Despite its large presence in the city, public housing in New York faces an uncertain future. A February 1999 report by then-State Comptroller H. Carl McCall noted that while New York manages its properties better than most other cities, it only has money to fix the most dire problems. The Housing Authority, McCall said, faces a repair and maintenance "time bomb" unless it gets more capital funding. He estimated that the Housing Authority would need to spend $43,000 per unit to make repairs and upgrades to all of its apartments.

A second report issued by McCall in July of that year said that buildings visited by his staff a decade earlier had deteriorated markedly and were in need of serious repairs. Victor Bach, a senior housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York, says that not much has changed since then. If anything, the problem has grown. "NYCHA is almost entirely funded by Washington, and the federal commitment to public housing and to subsidy programs keeps shrinking," he says. "As it stands now, the [Housing Authority's] capital budget is insufficient to meet backlogs and the operating budget is under pressure as well."

The shortage of capital funds mirrors the situation across the United States. Between 1993 and 2002, the housing authorities council contends, the federal government underfunded the capital needs of housing authorities by a total of $16.7 billion.

In fiscal 2001 and 2002, the Housing Authority received more than $1.2 billion a year from Washington under various grant programs. The amount of money for operations rose in '02 while capital funding fell 4.4 percent.

Just last month, public housing agencies were dealt an additional blow when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it faced a budget shortfall and would cut funding for public housing and Section 8 up to 30 percent. The department has since backed off and said the cuts would be smaller, but local agencies are bracing for more belt-tightening in the wake of the budget presented to Congress early this month.


Some insist that public housing only exacerbates New York's housing shortage and saddles taxpayers with the costs of maintaining a vast and expensive infrastructure. In other cities, such as time Charlotte, North Carolina, public housing authorities have set limits on how long tenants can remain, transforming government-run housing into a temporary benefit, like welfare. Elsewhere, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has focused on programs aimed at turning Section 8 recipients into homeowners through programs that allow low-income people to use their vouchers to pay mortgages instead of rent. In New York, tenants tend to remain in public housing for a long time. The average length of stay in New York public housing is 17.7 years versus 7.7 years nationally, according to the federal government.

Many housing authorities have begun to seek other forms of financing, Zaterman says. The 1998 Quality Housing Act, for example, allows housing authorities to develop "mixed-finance" housing in partnership with the private sector. The HOPE Program (Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere), begun under the first Bush administration, was designed to sell off public housing to its residents.

The Bloomberg plan announced in December calls for affordable housing, even for units for homeless and poor families. However unlike in the 1940s and '50s, this housing would not be built entirely with federal funds, and the Housing Authority would run little of it. Instead city money would go to private developers - both for profit and non-profit - who would build and then either manage the homes or sell them to the residents. There could be large apartment houses in some places, smaller scale developments in others.

While the private sector will play a big role in the plan - much as it did in the Koch housing plan -- widespread privatization of existing housing projects is unlikely, in New York, where public housing retains strong political support.

But new roles for the Housing Authority are a possibility. Bloomberg discussed having the Housing Authority work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to develop affordable housing on the large tracts of relatively inexpensive vacant land that the NYCHA owns. Weisbrod calls the proposal "a watershed" because the housing authority has long denied that it had any property on which to build.

Despite the national trend away from government-run projects, New York is likely to continue to rely on public housing and Washington will continue to support it in some form, experts say. "I may be naive but I don't think Washington is going to completely walk away from public housing," Bach says. "I don't think it will disappear -- that would be politically difficult to accomplish. But it may get slowly starved."


City Takes New Approaches to Solving Homeless Problem

This winter has been especially cold and snowy, highlighting the plight of New York’s homeless population. Almost 38,500 people are currently in the city’s shelter system, including well over 16,500 children. These numbers mark an all-time high.

Recently, the Bloomberg administration has taken several steps to address the problem. It has increased the budget for homeless services, created a new way for homeless advocates to air their concerns about city policies without going to court and ordered a survey of street homeless, which is scheduled for later this month.

The Funds

At a time when the city is facing a $3 billion deficit and most agencies have had to slash their budgets, the Department of Homeless Services is getting more money for its mission. This fiscal year, the agency will spend $632 million according to figures released by the city comptroller . Next year, the agency’s budget is set to rise to $667 million.

The new funds will go toward preventive services, rent subsidies and other measures, said Jim Anderson, spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services. Much of the money will come in the form of federal housing vouchers that can help homeless families pay rent.

The Panel

The administration has also made remarkable progress on a problem that has plagued the Department of Homeless Services for two decades: litigation.

Advocates for the homeless have regularly gone to court to protest city policies. The Legal Aid Society has battled for homeless families’ rights, while the Coalition for the Homeless has spearheaded the effort to protect homeless single adults. The court cases established every New Yorker’s right to shelter in the early 1980s, and numerous other rights since then. But the litigation has created persistent problems for the Department of Homeless Services.

"The lawsuits brought almost two decades ago . . . deserve recognition for their role in helping to create today’s strong shelter services system," reported the department’s strategic plan , released in June 2002.

"However, the litigation that helped to generate the current system now pervades system operations. The department, constantly facing litigation or court intervention has become reticent about discussing the challenges it faces."

Some advocates disagree. "There’s an exaggerated and cartoonish view of this litigation that there is an enormous amount of meddling by the court in [the Department of Homeless Services,]" said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. "We feel that historically the court has acted appropriately to address issues for homeless families and individuals."

Still, Mayor Bloomberg hoped to change the pattern, once remarking, "Every single thing we do, we seem to wind up in court. We’re trying to find a way out of that conundrum."

Several months ago, the administration proposed that families that engaged in "gross misconduct" or refused placement in permanent housing be ejected from the shelter system. The policy would have divided families – placing children into temporary foster care and sending adults out to fend for themselves. Advocates challenged the proposal, arguing it would violate people’s right to shelter. The issue seemed destined for court, but the night before the scheduled court date, a surprise settlement was announced.

The two sides agreed that families who reject suitable permanent housing can be discharged from the shelter system. However, the family would still be able to move into an appropriate apartment selected by the city.

The agreement went beyond that to address the larger issue of ongoing litigation. The parties agreed to the formation of an independent panel that will review city policies for homeless families and mediate disputes between the advocates and the city. Both sides agreed to withdraw pending court motions, withhold new motions and allow the panel to attempt to resolve the issues over the next two years.

The three individuals on the panel were already quietly working to solve the conflict. They are John Feerick, professor of law and former dean of the Fordham School of Law; Daniel Kronenfeld, senior fellow for the Fund for the City of New York; and Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children.

"Today’s agreement is the dawn of a new era for those working to serve New York City’s homeless families," said Bloomberg. "The introduction of standards of client responsibility, a new commitment to avoid litigation, and a strong and thoughtful panel to advise [the Department of Homeless Services] will dramatically improve the delivery of services to those in need."

The new agreement only applies to homeless families and not to homeless individuals. The city has proposed a similar eviction policy for them, which the Coalition for the Homeless has appealed, but the group is heartened by the recent agreement.

"We’re hopeful that this settlement sets the tone for a similar resolution," said Markee of the coalition.

Linda Gibbs, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services said of the settlement, "We look to this as a new beginning, one where we can move forward together to end family homelessness as we know it."

The Survey

In an effort to improve service to homeless single adults, the agency will conduct an overnight survey on the streets of Manhattan in late February.

Up to 1,000 volunteers will canvass sections of the borough and ask the people they encounter whether they are homeless. The data is intended to enable Department of Homeless Services to estimate the true number of homeless.

"No one has an accurate sense of how many individuals remain unsheltered or continue to choose the streets," said Anderson of the Department of Homeless Services. "What we want to do is establish an accurate estimate."

Some homeless advocates doubt the value of the endeavor.

"These sorts of surveys and street counts have proven to be enormously flawed in the past," said Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "The 1990 Census attempted to enumerate people on the streets, and an independent study by academics found that they missed as many as 40 percent of the people they meant to count. Our feeling is the time and resources would be much better spent improving the system and finding out what homeless people need and want."

But Anderson argues that the survey will enable the agency to do just that. "We stand to gain so much through this effort in terms of better understanding who is out there, where they are and how we can better meet their needs," he said.

Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.

Day Care In New York

On a recent Thursday morning, Ichenaphae Mason signed in at the Bronx office of the Agency for Child Development hoping to enroll her daughter in day care.

This was Mason's second trip to the waiting room, one of only five offices throughout the city where parents can apply for much sought-after spots in city-subsidized day care programs. Mason, who maintains both a full-time job and a full college course load, first applied nine months ago hoping to enroll her daughter into a center in her neighborhood. Now the city wanted the 23-year-old single mother to demonstrate she was still eligible even though her daughter had yet to spend a single day in day care.

"My mom has been taking care of her," said Mason. "But she has multiple sclerosis and she can't do it for much longer."

Mason is one of 47,000 eligible working parents waiting to get into the city's day care system. The number of child care openings has not increased since 1998, and children's advocates estimate that an additional 100,000 New Yorkers are eligible and in need of affordable day care.

The situation will likely get worse.

First, the city has a $6.4 billion deficit. Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget proposal called for cutting 2,500 day care slots.

"There is no argument not to do more for children," the mayor said at his budget presentation. "But we just don't have the money."

The City Council fought to restore the cuts this year, but they are likely to be part of the negotiations again next summer.

Second, the number of people in need of subsidized day care is increasing. Unemployment is on the rise at the same time thousands of New Yorkers are trying to move from welfare-to-work. And navigating the system is a complicated process that discourages many parents.

Third, a strike by day care workers - who have been without a contract for two years - also threatens to undo the city's already strained system. A contingency plan is in place in case of a strike, but some worry it won't be adequate.

"Maybe the city thinks it's not as important as police or sanitation workers walking off the job, but I guarantee you that child care is central to the city's economy and the city's economic recovery," said Gail Nayowith of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. "These families have to go to work every day."

Is the city doing enough to provide day care for New Yorkers?


In Home Care
- Care by a relative or nanny

Workplace Child Care
- A few programs, mainly in hospitals or public agencies

Home-Based Child Care
Informal Child Care
- Not registered provider
- Up to 3 children

Family Child Care
- A registered provider in the home
- Up to 6 children

Group Family Child Care
- A licensed provider
- Up to 12 children with 2 adults

Part-Day Centers
Includes Nursery School, Head Start, Universal Pre-K, Early Childhood Centers
- Certified teachers required
- Set in community centers, churches, and housing developments
- Typically ages 2 1/2 to 5 years old

Full-Day Centers
- Certified teachers required
- Set in community centers, churches, housing developments
- Typically ages 2 1/2 to 5 years old

Public Schools
- Certified Teachers
- 4-year-olds in Universal Pre-K
- 5-year-olds in Kindergarten

Religious Institutions
- Parochial schools, churches
- Many programs are based in, but are not operated by, religious institutions

Childcare In NYC

There are approximately 550,000 children under the age of five in New York City.

Some people stay home with their children or turn to relatives or neighbors for child care. A few workplaces provide day care for their employees, but many New Yorkers turn to private centers, which can be a costly option.

The average cost of day care for a four-year-old in New York State is $9,000 a year, which, as the Children's Defense Fund points out, is more than college tuition at a public university.

Most New Yorkers have to find less expensive options.

For those who qualify, the city currently provides some kind of day care funding or program for about 1 in 5 of the city's children. The city contracts with 344 private, non-profit centers around the city. Most centers typically open their doors as early as 7:30 a.m. and can close as late as 7:00 p.m. The city also provides funding to regulated family care providers, licensed individuals who take care of children in their homes.

Families can qualify for city-subsidized child care if they earn less than 225 percent of the federal poverty level, which translates into an annual income of $26,000 for a family of two or $40,000 for a family of four. However, most families receiving child care subsidies from the city earned $18,000 a year or less, according to a report by Child Care, Inc.

Families pay a portion of the fee based on sliding scale. Those that make less than the poverty level (for example $15,967 for a family of four) are exempt from all fees and are given priority on waiting lists. Others still pay between $50 to $215 a week.

Growing Demand

The need for affordable child care in the city is growing, experts say.

Beginning in December, the first wave of families who met the five-year cut-off for public assistance last year will now be ineligible for child care services as well. The 1996 law that transformed the nation's welfare policy came up for renewal in Congress last September. However reauthorization was postponed because lawmakers could not agree on work requirements. Funding was also an issue.

New York City faces its own challenges that are unique from the rest of the nation.

Between the recession and the 9/11 terrorist attack, the city has lost about 128,000 jobs, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Over 100,000 New Yorkers have already run out of their unemployment benefits and applications for public assistance have gone up.

The city had planned on creating new day care slots with federal and state money. In 1998, the Independent Budget Office estimated that increases in aid would help the city create nearly 19,000 new day care openings over five years.


If a New Yorker is on public assistance, the place to start is the city's Human Resources Administration.

The Human Resources Administration provides care (mostly in the form of vouchers to informal, unregulated care-givers, such as babysitters, friends or family members, who are paid directly by the city) for public assistance recipients and those transitioning off of welfare.

Once a recipient has found a job, he or she is eligible for continued child care services for up to a year. After that year, they are referred to the Administration for Children's Services

The Administration for Children's Services provides care for low-income working families.

Depending on the age of the child, the family's need, and other factors such as abuse or neglect, the family will either be given a voucher to pay for a child care provider of their choice, or be referred to a Head Start, Universal Pre-Kindergarten, or day care program near their work or in their neighborhood.

Head Start, the federally-funded program which began in the 1960's under President Lyndon B. Johnson, blends community outreach with early childhood education. These programs have certified teachers and typically serve children ages 2 1/2 to 5 years old.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten is run by the Department of Education and prepares four-year-olds for elementary school. It is open to all children regardless of family income. Both programs typically run for half a day. Although, some centers have recently begun to combine Head Start with other programs to provide a full day of care.

However, while the state and federal budgets devoted more money, New York City cut back on its share of spending.

Washington's and Albany's contributions increased from $260 million in 2001 to $400 million in 2003, while the city has cut its share from $234 million to $163 million.

Some officials like State Senator Liz Krueger argue that supplanting city funds with federal Child Care and Development Block Grant funds violates state and federal law and the city's share of spending on day care should be restored.

"While I understand that New York City faces a severe financial crisis, the city must still follow state law, which is designed to ensure that child care programs are adequately supported," wrote Krueger in an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg in June.

The net result of all of this, explains Gail Nayowith of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, is that overall spending has remained the same and few, if any, new slots have been added.

The Good News About Day Care

There is some good news. New Yorkers who do manage to enroll their children into one of the city's programs tend to be happy with the care their children receive.

"It's good quality care and many people get a subsidy and have access to it," said Candice Anderson of the Citizens' Committee for Children.

Janean Patterson, who recently got her daughter and son into Hudson Guild, a city-funded program in Chelsea, agrees.

"Once it does work out, then you are fine," said Patterson who was on the city's waiting list for two weeks. The center even helped arrange a speech therapist for her son when he began stuttering. "Everybody is really nice," said Patterson. "If you need help, they are there."

Also in recent years, the city has worked to better coordinate services between the Human Resources Administration and the Administration for Children's Services.

The introduction of new programs, such as Universal Pre-Kindergarten through the Department of Education, along with the flexibility to combine funding from different sources, has also helped make it easier to place children between the ages of three and five.

Navigating The System

The bad news is that city's day care system is a complicated.

Families must apply for child care benefits from up to three different city agencies depending on their financial situation, what kind of assistance they need, and the age of their child.

Barbara Brandon-Croft, a cartoonist and freelance researcher and her husband, Monty, a jazz musician, recently experienced a typical day in the child care registration process in New York.

The couple, who makes approximately $30,000 a year, waited in the Agency for Child Development's Queens office from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., to enroll their son, only to be told they were missing a piece of paperwork and had to come back the next day. The agency also said it would be easier to qualify if Monty filed for unemployment, which the couple did not want to do.

"We fit the criteria," said Barbara Brandon-Croft. "But whatever our situation was, it didn't work for them."

They came back the next day, filed out more paper work, and lost another day of work. In the end, their son was accepted, but to a day care center that did not meet their needs. The couple decided to find other options.

The system is even more complicated for families transitioning from welfare to work.

Under federal requirements, families on public assistance are guaranteed child care for up to a year once they have found a job. But a study by the Community Service Society found that seven out of ten families did not know they were eligible or were denied care. Many of the families who applied for benefits never received a response from the Human Resources Administration. More than half of these families said that they had jeopardized their jobs while seeking services, and some even lost their jobs.

"One wonders sometimes whether the system is intentionally complicated," said Nancy Rankin of the Community Service Society. "The administrative systems can - and do - pose barriers even when [the placements are] guaranteed and the funding is there."

Workers Demands

The city's day care workers - part of a union that also include cooks, custodians, and pre-school teachers - have been without a contract for nearly two years. The average worker makes less than $28,000 a year, according to the Day Care Council of New York.

Child care teachers, who are required to meet New York State Teachers certification standards, make on average $5,000 to $7,000 less than other New York City school teachers. Day care workers also argue that they work longer hours and year around.

And the day care industry often loses its best employees to the school system.

"Our teachers are not babysitters. They are early childhood educators," said Lisa McCreary, a day care book keeper, who says that her center loses five to six teachers to the Department of Education every year. "We should not have to beg to earn a decent salary."

The city has said it cannot afford raises for day care workers.

"While we recognize the services offered by these child care agencies are essential, the city's fiscal situation limits what we can do," said MacLean Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children's Services.

Last week Mayor Bloomberg signed the "living wage" bill, which requires companies contracting with the city to pay their workers a minimum of $ 8.10 per hour with health benefits and $ 9.60 without health benefits. However, because most day care workers earn more than that, union officials say the law's effects won't be felt for several years.

Meanwhile the union is preparing to strike, but say it is still too soon to say if and when workers would walk off the job. If they do, as many as 50,000 children and their families could be affected.

A strike would be just as devastating for workers, argues Ragland George, Executive Director of District Council 1707.

"We don't want to go on strike," said George. "We are dragging our feet and taking our time because we know that the communities and the parents and the children are going to be devastated, but if the city does not come forward and negotiate fairly with us, we will go on strike."

The city says it has already begun to put a contingency plan in place. "We've asked the centers to remain open and provide services to as many children as can be served safely," said Guthrie.

The city has also asked providers to give priority to children-at-risk and families who receive care mandated by the state, such as families transitioning from welfare to work, and many parents have already received notices asking if they can make alternative arrangements.

"Half of the city workers who already received their contracts, we take care of their children." said Jeanette Hudson who teaches at a child care center in Far Rockaway. "If we're not there to care for their children, how are they going to go to work?"

Additional Resources:


Making Parents Partners

WANTED: Parents for PS 123 Parent Association -- Flexible schedule needed because time and location for meetings to be announced one hour before meeting time. All meetings held in the middle of the day during working hours. No child care provided and no pay. You must speak English; no translations available. The district provides no funds to support the activities of this group. All major decisions impacting your child will be made by the professionals in the building but we still encourage your participation.

Welcome to parent involvement in the New York City public school system.

If you are a parent of a child in the New York City public school system, you know the drill all too well. And you know that it has gone on for decades, despite two significant governance reforms and countless other meetings and speeches and coalitions that were supposed to bring schools and communities together.

The good news is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein appear to understand the importance of parental involvement in education. The mayor, in last week´s education address, identified parent involvement as the third leg of his stool for improving public education in the city. Chancellor Klein gave the responsibility for parent involvement to his deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. This high-level acknowledgment of the role that parents and communities play in student achievement is unprecedented.

The challenge is that bringing about real change will require a significant shift in thinking. Educational professionals have never learned how to consider parents as their full partners in education.

How do you change the expectation of parents and communities that their involvement will continue to be peripheral?

You hold people accountable for it.

* * *

In the late 1960s, low-income and black and brown communities and the school system were at odds. Community activists were not, as revisionist history has sometimes portrayed, fighting for decentralization or a seat on a community school board. Instead, they wanted control of their own schools. They felt that only they, not administrators or teachers, could hold their children to the highest standards. The debate raised the question: What should the relationship be between schools and communities?

The 1969 legislation that created community school boards was the result of a political compromise brokered to appease the community. The Decentralization Law offered them a voice in policy making. But instead of figuring out how parents and communities could and should collaborate, the legislature created a structure.

Unfortunately, this would not be the last time.

Fast forward to 1996. The disconnect that existed in the 1960s between schools and communities had not changed. Community school boards, the vehicle that had been created ostensibly to bring communities and schools together, were viewed as the culprit. So the state created a new round of legislation that stripped community school boards of most of their powers and created School Leadership Teams to give parents a voice at the local school level. The impact on the capacity of our schools to view parents as full partners: none.

No mere change in structure will repair the problem that parents feel that schools are not open to them. Parent believe schools do not consider them legitimate partners in the education of their children or view them as entitled to information about how their schools run and how their children are being educated. A principal who did not have time for parents would not last long at a public school in Scarsdale, guaranteed.

Some editorial pages, and even former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, pointed the finger at parents. This is predictable -- and sometimes correct. But always be wary when people with political power blame those who do not have any. Of course there are parents who have not done their part to support the education of children. But is that as relevant as the fact that schools, inherently public institutions, have isolated themselves from the very people they work for?

* * *

To many, parent involvement conjures up the image of bake sales. That´s fine, but not what we are talking about. The goal is not to engage schools in meaningful relationships with parents because it is the nice thing to do, but because it is absolutely critical to any movement to improve schools.

If you are a principal in a low-performing school and you do not reach out to or welcome parents, can you still be effective? Maybe, but the odds do not favor it. The same goes for teachers. Why? Because if you know anything about education, you recognize that there is a direct relationship between parent involvement and student success. You would know automatically that your classroom or school building cannot be transformed by educators acting alone.

As we have learned, legislation does not automatically improve schools. Leaders, teachers, parents and students improve schools. Just look at the schools that succeed in our city and you will see that it is possible for schools to work, even against the odds. In every one of the successful schools, a strong relationship to parents and community constituents allowed them to change and thrive.

Students with involved parents do better in school. They show up, they do their homework, they have higher expectations for their own achievement. Schools with involved communities have a culture of success that cannot be created by administrative fiat. A strong partnership attracts other partners and soon we have created cycles of success.

How can we replicate this? By growing it, from the roots up. Relationships, among schools and parents and communities, are essential to nurture the process. But such relationships can only happen if the educational professionals in each building understand the importance of opening their doors, receive training in how to do it most effectively, and are held accountable for the results.

It is for that reason that "From Governance to Accountability: Building relationships that make schools work," a paper written by the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy for the Drum Major Institute, concluded that it is time to hold school staff accountable. We proposed a Compstat-like tracking mechanism and a series of new performance standards to evaluate teachers, principals and even the chancellor himself on efforts to engage their most important partners. The expectation of evaluation becomes the incentive. Each time the system looks at student attendance, test scores, and teacher-student ratios in order to assess its own progress, it must also measure its relationship, responsiveness, and openness to parents and communities.

We shared the results of our report with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Chancellor Klein in November and were gratified to hear that it made an impact. The mayor, in his address last Wednesday announced, "The entire school system, from principals up to the chancellor, will be held accountable for effectiveness in engaging parents and responding to their concerns. Parent engagement also will be a significant factor in principal performance reviews. This will ensure that it is viewed as a core responsibility, not as an ‘add-on´ or optional activity."

This is the right first step in undoing the distrust between schools and communities. For far too many years, this mutual suspicion was bandaged with legislation, structures and councils -- with everything but the hard work of opening schools up to the people most important to the lives of children: their parents.

Fernando Ferrer, former mayoral candidate and Bronx borough president, is president of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, where Andrea Batista Schlesinger, who assisted in this essay, is executive director.

See also:

When Prisoners Come Home

Prisoner rehabilitation is a politically unpopular cause; New York State spent only six percent of its corrections budget on it in 2000. However, the other 94 percent of the corrections budget grows harder to justify as governments run out of areas in which to economize. Releasing prisoners is one way to cut costs; to avoid revolving-door re-arrests, some of this savings must go to what are called "transitional services" or "aftercare."

New York City has a particularly large stake in the success of former inmates returning to the community. Of the 26,000 prisoners released from New York State prisons in 2001, two-thirds were from New York City. The average state parolee is 35 years old, has a substance abuse problem, no high school diploma or GED, was inside for three or four years, and will be back in prison within three years.

In addition to the 350-odd former state prisoners returning to the city in an average week, another 108,000 inmates passed through New York City's own jails in 2002, with the average stay lasting about six weeks. Over two-thirds of these were detainees awaiting trial, meaning that they may have never pled guilty or been convicted of a crime. However, in six weeks, an inmate can be evicted from an apartment; have his or her children placed in foster care; and lose Medicaid, food stamps, and public assistance benefits.

Newly released prisoners rarely have jobs lined up, and many are discharged to homeless shelters. Most have no Medicaid or health insurance, a grave disadvantage for those with serious mental illness or HIV infection. Without help from family members or community organizations, ex-inmates have a strong incentive to commit crimes to survive, and an increased chance of ending up in city hospitals and psychiatric wards.

Factors In Successful Rehabilitation

The harsh sentencing laws of the 1980's were inspired, in part, by a belief that rehabilitation did not work, a conclusion drawn from evaluations of efforts in the 1970's. Since then, as the nation's incarceration rate quadrupled, researchers had ample opportunity to try a variety of rehabilitative strategies, some of which showed promise.

In 1998, the Vera Institute of Justice repeatedly interviewed 49 ex-offenders during their first month of freedom, in New York City. From this small, but in-depth, slice of the life of former inmates, Vera found evidence in favor of several principles on which current transitional programs are based. " Ex-offenders who received support from family members were more likely to be successful " Most ex-offenders who found jobs during the first month after their release were either helped by family or friends, or were re-hired by a former employer. " Ex-offenders who stayed in homeless shelters were seven times as likely as others to abscond from parole. " The main barrier to enrolling in drug treatment programs was not having a Medicaid card.

Rehabilitation has gained respectability among conservatives in light of the welfare-to-work trend. Supporters of welfare reform believe that job training and placement, combined with supportive social services, can move large numbers of welfare recipients into steady employment. Prisoners and long-term welfare recipients have some of the same barriers to employment: inadequate education and little work experience. This suggests that ex-offenders could also change their lives through a combination of job services and social services. And across the political spectrum, it is agreed that fathers, even ex-prisoners, should be encouraged to do more for their children, at least financially.

Counterproductive Budget Cuts

After decades of growth, the population in New York State prisons began to fall in 2000. During the two years ending December 2001, the number of state prisoners fell by over five percent, with an additional four percent drop expected by the end of 2003. Meanwhile, key rehabilitation services once available to prisoners have been reduced. By 1997, fewer than one in five substance abusers about to be released nationwide had received substance abuse treatment while in prison. From 1997 to 2000, the number of New York State inmates enrolled in employment programs fell from 4,952 to 4,616. And in 1995, the state cut off access to higher education for inmates. As of October 2001, 9,300 state inmates were on waiting lists for vocational programs, and 11,300 were on waiting lists for substance abuse treatment.

"There's general acceptance by nearly everyone that treatment does work," says Bob Brennan of Phoenix House. His agency serves both clients who voluntarily enter substance abuse treatment, and "mandated" clients, who must stay in treatment as a condition of parole. "Research shows that if two people enter treatment, and one is voluntary and the other is mandated by the court, the mandated person is likely to be more successful," a fact which Brennan attributes to the incentive provided by the threat of prison.

Ex-offenders need one to three years of transitional services to successfully re-direct their lives away from crime, according to testimony before the state legislature by Rudy Cypser, Chairman of CURE-NY. He recommended a three-stage model of drug treatment, beginning in prison, continuing in community-based residential treatment, and ending with outpatient aftercare. Other required services were life skills and parenting training, anger management, basic education, and job training and placement. According to Ann McLaughlin of the Osborne Association, a major need is "just to have someone they can call if they have a problem, to see how best to deal with it."

Red Tape And Disorder

Bureaucratic rigidity and bungling are a major source of problems for ex-inmates. Somewhere between arrest and release, most prisoners surrender their identification cards and papers, which then disappear. Inmates who had Medicaid or public assistance before their arrest are likely to be disenrolled during incarceration. Without identification documents, they cannot apply for food stamps, Medicaid, public assistance, Social Security payments, and most jobs. Landlords want to see a security deposit and references from an employer and previous landlord before an apartment is rented.

New York State opted out of one of the more damaging provisions of federal welfare reform: a lifetime ban on benefits for most ex-offenders. However, most inmates are on parole after their release, and may be required to find a job, rather than accept public assistance. Finding and keeping a job, or even qualifying for welfare, can conflict with such parole mandates as keeping curfews, avoiding certain neighborhoods or people, meeting with parole officers, and going to substance abuse treatment or 12-step meetings.

Many prisons do not prepare inmates for life after release. The Visiting Committee of the Correctional Association of New York, which inspected 25 state prisons from 1998 through 2001, found some facilities with vacant job slots for transition planners, and others with this role filled by untrained inmates without job-hunting resources. The quality of discharge services varied widely, indicating a lack of systemwide standards and accountability.

Families Fall Apart

Ties with family members are hard to maintain during incarceration. Most state prisoners are held more than 100 miles away from their homes. Visitors must follow confusing and occasionally humiliating rules. Most fathers never see their children during incarceration, and less than half are able to keep in touch on a weekly basis. Prisoners can only make collect phone calls, at exorbitant rates. When they are transferred between facilities, mail is easily lost.

After release, parents must have housing before their children will be returned from foster care. Some children never return: after six months without contact between a parent and child, the state can charge the parent with "abandonment," and begin terminating parental rights. A parent whose rights are terminated cannot legally see his or her child again.

Ex-prisoners from families living in housing run by the city's Housing Authority may not be able to go home at all. A whole family can be evicted from public housing if one household member is accused or convicted of drug use or a violent crime. Other parolees can't return to families in local suburbs because, as condition of their parole, they cannot travel outside the five boroughs.

Studies have found that 15 to 27 percent of prisoners expect to go to homeless shelters upon release, a fact that prompted the Department of Homeless Services to begin working with the state's parole system to identify parolees among the shelter population. According to its Strategic Plan of June 2002, the department is actively seeking ways to place ex-offenders in permanent housing instead.

Programs That Work

With an average caseload of 87, parole officers focus more on keeping track of parolees than on helping them rebuild their lives. Social services are provided by other agencies, such as the state Office of Mental Health, whose LINK team works with up to 100 mentally ill prisoners a year, helping them apply for public benefits, housing, and treatment before release, and providing guidance immediately after their release. The state's Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services operates a referral service for the 500 parolees who need treatment each month. The state's Department of Corrections recently launched Project Greenlight at Queensborough Correctional Facility. Greenlight offers skills training, job readiness, family reintegration, and drug treatment before release, and brings in community organizations to explain their aftercare services.

The New York City Education and Training Coalition lists 47 member agencies on its website that serve ex-offenders. Dozens more offer employment-related services among their other programs. Employers can claim a federal tax credit of up to $2,400 during an ex-offender's first year at work, or hire inmates under a bonding program that insures against theft. Despite these efforts, as of 1998, 60 percent of former New York State prisoners were unemployed. South Forty Employment and Training Services, now part of the Osborne Association, offers "Guidelines for Managing a Successful Vocational and Job Placement Program for Ex-Prisoners" on its website. Based on the program's thirty years of experience working with ex-offenders, they recommend beginning services before prisoners are released, aggressively recruiting employers and building long-term relationships with them, and continually upgrading job developers' skills.

The Queens Plaza Connection

In November 2002, the Fortune Society softened the impact of at least one policy of the criminal justice system. Rikers Island discharges many inmates by dropping them off at Queens Plaza between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., with a Metrocard and $1.50. Now the Fortune Society has opened a 24-hour drop-in center there. Already, nearly one out of every five ex-offenders dropped off at Queens Plaza is using the drop-in center. Some set up appointments before their release; others accept the invitation from staff members, who meet each arriving bus. A few choose just to have coffee and rest in a place where they are welcome, but most work with the 14-person staff to find health services, housing, shelter, and job services. Like other agencies serving ex-offenders, the Fortune Society is concerned about potential budget cuts at the city, state and federal levels of government.

"More people are being released and there are fewer supports for them," says Jamie Dorton of the Fortune Society. She doesn't foresee making up for lost public funding with private donations, as these have lessened with the economic downturn. "We don't want to think about it, but most people eventually come back from prison." The harder it is for them to find their way back into community life, the easier it will be for them to return to prison.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

New York City's Elderly


Ninety-year-old Connie Cohen walks 11 blocks from her home to the Stanley Issacs Neighborhood Center on East 93rd Street several times a week. She eats lunch, gets a medical check-up, and talks with her fellow senior citizens -- about flu shots, physical ailments, the recently departed ... and political power.

"When older Americans go to the polls on November 5," 85-year-old Helen Farhi reads aloud from an article in the American Association of Retired Persons newsletter, "their votes could decide not only the elections' outcome, but the future of Social Security and Medicare - including prescription drug coverage."

She looks up at the dozen other women in the center's Tuesday Morning Discussion Group. "See, I always say that it is very important for us to vote," Farhi says. "We have to register, we have to know what is going on, and we have to vote."

Older New Yorkers represent the fastest growing age group in the city. The number of city residents over 85 years old increased by 19 percent in the last 10 years. They are also increasingly women who live alone and depend heavily on government and privately funded services.

And the elderly vote -- more than any other age group. In non-presidential election years like this one, younger voters tend not to show up at the polls, making older voters even more powerful.

Is New York City prepared for its aging population? Are elected officials focusing on ways to meet the challenge of providing the basics of housing, food, and medical care?


There are over 1.3 million people in New York City over the age of 60, the eligibility age for federal programs. Not only is the number of older New Yorkers growing, but who they are is changing as well.

New York City's elderly are increasingly:

  • living longer
  • poor
  • women
  • people of color and immigrants
  • living alone
  • in need of services in their own homes

"The median income for a single senior citizen in the city is $10,450 a year," said Bobbie Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers and Services, an organization that represents 265 senior service organizations. "They do not fit the stereotype of the person who has a vacation house in Florida and plays golf everyday."

The increasing number of older New Yorkers is just the beginning of the coming trend. In the next few years, the first wave of the baby-boom generation, the largest segment of the population born after World War II, will reach 60.

The New York State Office for the Aging has launched an initiative entitled "Project 2015: The Future Aging of New York" to look at how the state must prepare to meet the housing, health care, and transportation needs when a quarter of the state's population reaches retirement age.


When people think of elderly and senior programs they often name national programs like Medicare and Social Security. But New York City actually bears a considerable portion of the responsibility for providing and funding programs that assist older residents.

Unlike most states, New York requires local counties to pay a quarter of Medicaid costs. And over the last two decades, federal funding for the city's Department for the Aging has been reduced from 70 percent to 30 percent of the agency's budget.

The city is responsible for dozens of services, including assistance with housing, meals, health care, and significant funding for the city's 336 contracted senior citizen centers.

"Our biggest concern is how to find funding to provide services [meals, medical care, and social activities], especially during a budget crisis like the city is going through now," said Wanda Wooten, the executive director of the Issacs Center.

Last year during the city's budget process, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed closing seven senior citizen centers and eliminating delivery of weekend meals in order to help close the city's deficit. In May, several thousand senior citizens protested in front of City Hall. At the end of the budget process in June, none of the senior citizen centers were closed and no meals were eliminated.

This year, the city faces another $5 billion deficit. Bloomberg is once again looking for places to cut.

Because the federal and state governments mandate that certain funds go to specific programs, the city can only cut from about $15 billion of its $40 billion annual budget. Much of the money in the Department for the Aging budget falls within that category that can be reduced.

"The mayor recognizes that older New Yorkers are a tremendous resource to the city and he's sensitive to aging issues, so we are discussing everything, looking at all alternatives," said Department for the Aging Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago. "The mayor says that by law, we have to balance the budget, but we will try to do it in a way that does not compromise the well-being of our elderly."


Housing is a serious issue for New York as a whole, but with an elderly poverty rate twice the national average, it is especially critical for older residents.

Much of the affordable housing in the city was originally designed with young, working-class couples in mind. But because of the difficulty of finding housing, many seniors still live in the same apartments they moved into decades ago and either live alone - which creates challenges for people in caring for themselves - or with their children and grandchildren - which presents a different set of challenges for family members.

In recent years, the trend is to provide services to the places where people already live.

"[We are] committed to assisting frail seniors in maintaining the highest possible quality of life by remaining in their own homes and resisting institutionalization for as long as possible," said Commissioner Mendez-Santiago. "Nursing home care should be a last resort."

The result is what aging experts call naturally occurring retirement communities, or "NORCS": an apartment building, housing complex, or neighborhood not originally built for seniors, but where many have aged in place.

There are more than 28 such apartment complexes in New York City. Co-op City in the Bronx, which has over 8,000 residents over the age of 65, is considered the largest naturally occurring retirement community in the nation.

In 1994, the State Legislature began funding senior programs and services in these housing complexes. In 1999, the City Council began allocating money for the programs as well. And as New York grows older, the city will have to figure out how to replicate these programs in many more apartment buildings.

"The overwhelming majority of seniors who will require some sort of health and social services over the next 20 to 25 years are already living in precisely the same places they will be when those needs for service develop," said Fredda Vladeck, of the United Hospital Funds Aging In Place Initiative, which helps provide funding and assistance for such programs.

However, providing services to apartment complexes is costly.

Co-op City, which employs 40 staff, including two nurses and four social workers to work with residents, is always on the verge of going broke. But faced with the alternatives of expensive assisted living or going to a nursing home, most people say they prefer to stay in their homes.

Last year, the Department for the Aging helped provide some 12.5 million meals; 3.6 million were delivered to people in their homes.

These efforts, however, are only reaching a portion of the city's hungry, according to a recent report by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. There are currently 505 homebound senior citizens on the waiting list for Citymeals On Wheels, a program that delivers meals to 17,000 homebound elderly every year.

The study also questions why New York City is not making better use of federal money for food stamps. In recent years, San Francisco and Houston have increased their food stamp distribution by ten percent, while New York has decreased its program by two percent.

"The city must work harder to ensure that no New Yorker goes hungry," said Gotbaum, "especially when we have a tool at our disposal that costs the city nothing."

Like most low-income medical coverage, most prescription drugs programs come from the federal and state government.

The Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage, known as EPIC, is the New York State sponsored prescription plan for senior citizens who are 65 or older and who live on less than $35,000 a year if they are single, or $50,000 a year if married. Over 290,000 seniors are enrolled in the program.

However, many seniors do not qualify for coverage and must spend hundreds of dollars a month on presecription drugs.

Elected officials offer plenty of ideas for how to address this issue.

This year in Congress, there is a push to have a new prescription drug benefit program signed into law. Candidates for office in the State Legislature are talking about the so called, "pharmaceutical justice bill," which would prohibit the sale of drugs in New York at a higher price than in countries like Switzerland and Canada. And in the City Council, there is legislation that would require city hospitals to purchase prescription drugs only from companies that agree to provide at least a 25 percent discount to low-income seniors and Medicare recipients.

However, because of opposition from drug companies, as well as the sheer size and expense of the undertaking, it is unlikely that these proposals will become law anytime soon.

Another local problem is that the cost of prescriptions varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even from store to store.

A recent survey of the city's pharmacies found, for example, that four different drug stores on the Upper East Side charged four different prices - ranging from $50 to $98 - for the same osteoporosis medicine.

"It is imperative that senior consumers are educated on their options, that businesses disclose prices clearly and fairly, and that we seek ways to help these seniors," said Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra, who commissioned the study.


Seniors vote in larger numbers than any other group.

"People over 65 is the highest voting group and the only group that has increased its turnout since the 1960s," said Curtis Gans, who studies voting trends at the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "They're the last generation imbued with a sense of social civic duty."

The fact that older people vote also means they are targeted with deceptive ads, legislation that has no chance of passing, and empty political promises. The challenge for voters is to figure out which candidates have solid ideas and the power to make them reality.

Even local politics plays a big role in what services the city can provide. Each year during the budget process, the 51 members of the New York City Council fight for small grants to use in their home district.

"We are increasingly dependent on special funds from politicians - what is sometimes called pork," said Wooten. "Those discretionary funds are really our bread and butter."

Like any special interest group, seniors are sometimes criticized for voting only with their issues in mind. And politicians are sometimes accused of pandering to older voters at the expense of other issues.

"You can't fault seniors for voting," said Sackman. "And I find that when many politicians see the poverty rates among the elderly they are shocked. They often don't think of poverty as an elderly issue."


The next wave of older New Yorkers will likely live and age differently than current and past generations.

Experts expect that in the future New Yorkers will work longer, be healthier longer, and have to depend more on personal retirement savings than in the past. They are also more likely to be single, childless, or single parents -- which raises questions of how they will be cared for later in life.

And it is unclear if the next generation will use services at senior citizen centers - that people like Helen Farhi and Connie Cohen say is their "home away from home" - 20 years from now.

"Whether baby-boomers will go to senior centers is one of the big questions that no one knows the answer to yet," said Wooten. "They are independent. They are consumers. They are used to having things a certain way."

To learn more about senior citizen issues in New York City, join Gotham Gazette's live chat, Thursday, Oct 17 at 12:00 p.m. Donna Tessitore, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Senior Assistance and Benefits from the city's Department for the Aging, and Gretchen Dykstra, Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs will take your questions.



Dead Broke Dads

Since the days of the New Deal, the United States has provided financial support to the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income children and their mothers. This leaves out working-age people without children who are unable to support themselves, a group which has been considered the "undeserving poor" since medieval times. In New York City, the drop in single adults receiving public assistance has been as sharp as that for families. However, adult heads of families are eligible for job training and educational services, and for continued financial assistance when they reach the five-year time limit on federal benefits. Adults without children who left what is now called the "Safety Net" program had no such resources to fall back on.

Recently, politicians and social service providers have begun to rehabilitate the image of a large chunk of the adult population that does not live in a household with children. Many low-income men are "non-custodial fathers," meaning that they have children living apart from them, usually with the children's mothers. These fathers, who might be willing to support their children if they could afford to do so, are sometimes called "dead broke dads" to distinguish them from "deadbeat dads," who earn enough to pay child support, but don't.

By targeting all non-custodial fathers for child support payments, regardless of their financial resources, government agencies have discouraged low-income men from keeping in contact with their children. Fathers have an incentive to live "off the books," where they cannot be traced by welfare officials. This lifestyle may also prevent them from keeping in touch with their children.

Why Aren't Able-Bodied Men Earning A Living?

The labor market is not color-blind. In New York City, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is consistently double the rate for white workers, with Latinos falling somewhere in between. This does not include men who are in prison or jail, who made up 20 percent of jobless African-American men nationwide in 1996; they made up only five percent of jobless white men. Once they leave prison, ex-inmates are hampered in job-hunting by their criminal records.

According to the United States Department of Labor, for every hundred African-American women over the age of 20, there are 63 African-American men who are employed. Among white Americans of the same age group, there are 84 employed men to each hundred women. A 1995 study of employers' attitudes toward African-American male job applicants, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, found that employers believed they were lacking in "soft skills." This set of skills, which includes motivation and the ability to interact well with customers and co-workers, was considered nearly as important as the "hard skills" often learned through higher education, which fewer African-American men are pursuing.

Employers' attitudes may account for the fact that high school dropouts have a better chance of finding work in New York City if they are white. Two out of five young New York City men lacking a high school diploma were either unemployed or underemployed between 1996 and 1999; if they were African-American, the rate was four out of five. Things can only be worse now; since 1995, at least 140,000 new people have been added each year to those already looking for work in New York City. The new job-hunters are a mix of adults leaving public assistance, immigrants, and young people leaving high school. From 1996 to 1999, both unemployment and underemployment were more common in New York City than in the nation as a whole or the state of New York. This was true for all young adults with no education beyond high school.

What Can Be Done To Increase Earnings Of Non-Custodial Fathers?

There are many programs trying to help men be better fathers--the National Fatherhood Initiative has found a tenfold increase since 1994. The first wave of fatherhood programs was disappointing. A 1997 evaluation of one of those programs, Parents Fair Share, showed that efforts to help low-income fathers find better jobs were hampered by the participants' health problems, addictions, shortage of job skills, and hostile reception by their children's mothers.

A study of unmarried couples in New York City suggests that timing might be a factor in the success of such programs. Fathers may be most motivated to participate in income-raising activities at the time their children are born. In couples in which a teenager had recently become a mother, the unmarried father was usually eager to be a part of its life: to live with the child and its mother, and to help financially support the child. However, these fathers were unlikely to succeed as breadwinners. Most earned less than $20,000 a year, and had no education beyond high school. This was true even though two-thirds of them were over the age of 25.

In 2000, the Fathers at Work Initiative was launched in cities across the nation with federal and private foundation support. The Center for Employment Opportunities, a Manhattan-based organization established by the Vera Institute of Justice, is funded under this program to help New York City fathers gain skills that can lead to better jobs, to improve relationships with their children; and to help them navigate the child support system, if necessary. The agency's Responsible Fatherhood program serves nonviolent felony offenders who are on parole or probation; about 80 percent of participating fathers do not live with their children.

The Center for Employment Opportunities entered the fatherhood arena as a result of its experience as an employer of low-income men. The agency received child support enforcement orders from officials who did not realize that many of the employees who owed support had been in prison or jail, unable to earn money.

Fatherhood services offered by the center range from cooking classes provided by God's Love We Deliver, to legal advocacy regarding child support arrears. "If we teach them how to take care of themselves, they can be better fathers," an agency spokesperson explained. A participant works in the agency's transitional jobs program, generally in maintenance and repair work crews, until he finds a non-subsidized job with one of the employers whose trust has been earned by the organization during its 20-year history.

Another veteran at helping the hard-to-employ find and keep jobs is STRIVE, based in East Harlem. Their fatherhood program is independent of their employment program: clients are free to enroll in either program or in both. The majority of men in their fatherhood program are initially drawn to STRIVE by a desire to increase their income. Once they are in the employment program, participants are encouraged to take responsibility for all aspects of their lives. According to agency spokesperson Gregory Amos, the STRIVE employment program "gets them to realize that they have a shared responsibility for the financial and emotional support" of their children.

Men enrolled in STRIVE's fatherhood program are not required to be there to be eligible for employment services. Some are motivated by large back payments owed for child support, which could cause them to be sent back to jail, but most join the fatherhood program simply because they want to play a larger role in their children's lives. Similarly, in the Center for Employment Opportunities' father support groups, staff found that, "When we ask, 'What keeps you straight?' the answer is their kids."

The Shortfall Of The Minimum Wage

Five hundred years ago, the English Parliament passed a law outlawing execution of vagabonds, and the less drastic punishment of burning through their right ears. Instead, they were to be kept in prison. Laws governing the treatment of the poor have progressed a long way since then, but at least one traditional principle is still followed by American policy makers. Public assistance is kept at a level below the minimum wage, and even below the poverty line.

The average monthly cash grant to a New York City adult who lives alone is $331, for an annual income of less than $4,000, when the poverty line for a single adult is $9,039. Working a thirty-five hour week at minimum wage will bring in $9,373 a year, slightly above the poverty line, but not enough to keep a parent paying child support out of poverty. Until all men and women--with and without children--can earn a living wage, stinting on public assistance will continue to hurt children, the one group of low-income people that everyone wants to help.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

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