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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Fighting Poverty and a Decade of Welfare Reform


When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this year that he was making the fight against poverty a priority, he started by talking about the success of the city's welfare reforms over the past decade. Then he conceded a failure.

"Even though we have become a national leader in promoting welfare-to-work, our great city remains home to the nation's poorest congressional district," he said in his State of the City speechthis January.

Indeed, New York is in the strange position of being the national model for welfare reform -- which conservatives describe as the most effective anti-poverty program in decades -- but also the only large city in the country where the number of people facing poverty is increasing. The city's welfare rolls recently hit a 40-year low mark, but one out of five residents of New York City now live below the federal poverty level. Some argue that as many as one thirdof New Yorkers should be counted as poor once the high cost of living is factored in.

While poverty touches almost every policy issue in New York, many look to the city's policies on social services to gauge the city's performance in serving its poorest residents. Because Rudolph Giuliani's policies were so distinctive, Bloomberg's will inevitably be seen in comparison.

Since taking office in 2002, Bloomberg has said that he will not tamper with Giuliani's aggressive practices to reduce the size of the welfare rolls.

But as mayor, Bloomberg has also taken steps that seem to fly in the face of the legacy that he claims to uphold. He has said he wants to make it easier for welfare recipients to access education and job training, and his administration has boasted of the increased number of New Yorkers who receive food stamps -- things unlikely to have been heard from City Hall during the Giuliani years.

After being criticized for ignoring poverty-related issues in his first term, Bloomberg is making them a higher priority in his second. Earlier this year, the mayor formed a task forceon poverty, based on a similar task force he established around chronic homelessness. Over the summer, the public-private commission is planning to examine strategies on how to address the myriad of issues that affect those in poverty, and confront them in a comprehensive way.

PUBLIC BENEFITS AND THE GIULIANI LEGACY

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began aggressively reforming welfare in New York City soon after taking office. His policies were already well underway by 1996, when Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act and ended "welfare as we know it."

The federal law's major effect was to put a five-year cap on welfare benefits, and to require welfare recipients to spend a certain amount of hours per week either working or engaged in activities defined as acceptable job training practices. State and local governments had some freedom to experiment, however, and throughout the 1990s New York City put its own restrictions on those applying for public assistance. They were consistently tougher than the standards set at the national and state levels.

The city required welfare recipients to participate in a simulated 35- hour workweek. Three days were spent working, often in unpaid Work Experience Program jobs, and the two remaining days were spent in job placement or job training activities. A defining characteristic of Giuliani's administration was its belief that the culture of welfare, not necessarily a lack of training or skills, was the main obstacle facing those on welfare and steady employment. Job training and education, therefore, were seen as ineffective.

"The administration was very committed to a policy of work first, which inherently meant discouraging education and training," said Don Friedman of the Community Service Society, a critic of Giuliani's policies.

The other major characteristic of the Giuliani years was called "diversion" - an administrative policy of making welfare less "user-friendly". Both supporters and critics of this practice said it discouraged people from seeking welfare benefits; advocates of education programs complained that people were also kept from those programs even when state law gave them the right to take them. The Giuliani administration regularly ended up in court over this practice and several times was forced to stop keeping people from accessing benefits and using education as a credit towards work requirements.

On both the national and local level, the welfare rolls plummeted in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, between 1996 and 2000, the number of single mothers - those most affected by changes in welfare law - holding jobs increased from 66 percent to 76 percent nationwide, and the national and local poverty rates dropped. When Giuliani left office, the number of people on welfare had fallen constantly for six years, from 1.1 million to well under 500,000.

Starting in 2000, though, the proportion of employed single mothers began droppingoff significantly, and more people slipped into poverty. Both trends continue to the present day.

Those who opposed welfare reform believed that much of the gain made in the late 1990s had been due to the robust economy (a point contestedby those who supported the changed policies). They called for changes in welfare policy reflecting the increased difficulty of finding work in the slowing economy. The Giuliani administration and other proponents of aggressive welfare reform rejected such arguments.

BLOOMBERG AND PUBLIC BENEFITS

Michael Bloomberg was a relative unknown when he first came to office, and supporters of welfare reformworried that he would agree with such arguments and change course on welfare. Maror Bloomberg has largely followed Giuliani's lead, keeping the basic framework of his predecessor's strategy in place. He has also made more of a show of providing assistance to those in need of social services and being more active in helping people move off the welfare rolls.

"It's brilliant the way he has convinced Giuliani conservatives that he hasn't changed the policy, and the way he has convinced liberals he has," Joel Berger of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger told the New York Observer late last year.

If nothing else, Bloomberg has shifted the tone on welfare. This is a change that shouldn't be overlooked, say those who felt locked out of policy debates during the Giuliani administration.

Access to Education and Training

At times, Bloomberg has seemed to take a hard line towards allowing welfare recipients to use training or education to count as work requirements, echoing Giuliani's belief that actual work experience would prove more effective in allowing people to secure permanent jobs. In 2003, the City Council passed a billthat would have allowed GED and English language classes to count towards welfare work requirements. Bloomberg vetoed it, accusing the council of "reviving a dated, discredited policy that we long ago learned was a failure." The law eventually ended up in court, where Bloomberg prevailed.

At other times, however, Bloomberg has shown an interest in increasing access to education. Shortly after his fight with the council, the mayor settled a major lawsuit loosening work requirements to allow more education. He also played a strong role in lobbying Albany to further loosen such restrictions.

Some say that these changes have had little effect on the ground, though, because the city continues to make it difficult for welfare recipients to fulfill their work requirements through legally allowable education or training. The number of people being sanctionedfor not complying with work requirements remains roughly the same as it was during the Giuliani administration.

"They close your case for any reason whatsoever," said Roxanna Henry, a welfare recipient who takes classes at Hunter College through the Welfare Rights Initiativeas part of her work requirement. She says she is called in every three weeks and told - incorrectly - that she is not in compliance with the city's work requirements. "I keep going to these hearings and winning," she said.

Welfare Recipients With Disabilities

Many people who were on welfare in the past, when forced to find work, found it relatively easy to do so, argues the Bloomberg administration. Today, however, the welfare population has a higher proportion of people facing mental or physical disabilities than it has in the past.

Adjusting to this shift, the city has created a program called WeCARE, which the city says has assessed over 90,000 welfare recipients in order to help them confront "physical and mental health barriers" to employment.

The Bloomberg administration also urged Washington to take such barriers into account during the recent debate over the renewal of the national welfare reform law, lobbying against proposals which would have required states to make sure that a greater percentage of their welfare recipients were working. Arguing that over half of the city's welfare recipients now faced "substantial barriers to employment," the city's Human Resources Administration said that it could not meet the higher levels of work participation. Conservative supporters of welfare reform, who do not feel that there has been a significant change in the makeup of the welfare population, objected. "It's hard to decide which is more troubling: the Bloomberg administration's arguments or the evidence it cites for them," wrote the Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald.

The rulesthat were eventually passed this February were not as strict as those first proposed, though they were stricter than the city had hoped for. Currently about 37 percent of those on the New York welfare rolls participate in something that the federal government accepts as a work activity. If New York State cannot meet the new requirement - 50 percent of welfare recipients participating in some form of work activity - then it stands to lose $217 million, the lion's share of which would have been used in the city, according to the Human Resources Administration.

SUCCESS?

Proponents of welfare reform look at the number of people on public assistance as the primary gauge of success. By this measure, the Giuliani administration was wildly successful, and the Bloomberg administration has continued that success. This April the city announced that there were 402,000 people on welfare, a 40-year low.

The New York Post called on Bloomberg to " take a bow," calling the national welfare reform "one of the most successful pieces of social legislation ever enacted on a national level." The Post and others sharing this view focused largely on welfare reform's success in changing a culture of dependency. They have also pointed out that the dire predictions that opponents of welfare reform have made over the past ten years - huge increases in child poverty, for instance - never materialized. The poverty rate in New York City now is actually lower than it was before welfare reform was instituted. Critics of welfare reform acknowledge that their more dire predictions did not come true. They do point out, however, that New York City has seen its poverty rate rise during each year of the Bloomberg administration. Between 2003 and 2004, the last year for which there is data, the city was the only large city in the country where poverty got worse.

The rise in poverty is not necessarily being blamed on welfare policies - experts cite a weak job market, poor public education system and other factors as well. But when poverty is rising, some argue, welfare and other social net programs become that much more important.

"If the poverty rate is going up and the welfare rates are going down then something is wrong," said Maureen Lane of the Welfare Rights Initiative.

What Happens To Those Who Leave?

A more appropriate way to gauge whether welfare reform is working, some say, is to look at the fortunes of those who leave the rolls. Currently, the city has only a cloudy picture of what happens to such people.

The Bloomberg administration says that it has focused its efforts on job placement and retention through its Back to Work initiative. It has contracts with companies who place recipients in jobs, and has restructured these contracts so that they are paid not only for placing people in jobs, but also if people stay in these positions. Of welfare recipients who find jobs, 88 percent held the positions after three months and 75 after six months.

But the numbers of welfare recipients who have found work has dropped off sharply in the last several years. In 2005, the city helped approximately 85,000 former welfare recipients find work, according to the Human Resources Administration, as opposed to 101,000 in 2002. The city's Human Resources Administration says that this is at least in part to the fall in the overall rolls. It is not clear how many people leave the rolls and fail to find work, it adds, because the city only tracks those who it actually places in jobs.

Studies looking at specific job placement programs have shown disappointing results. Community Voices Heard, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, examined the performance of the city's Employment Services and Placement Program, which works with about 4,100 people a month to place them in jobs. Only eight percentfound work within six months, it determined.

The group recommends that the city's Back to Work initiative provide the companies that place welfare recipients with resources to train welfare recipients, as well as hire an outside consultant to analyze how well the city's job placement programs are working.

There is also a question of what types of jobs people are finding, and whether these jobs will move people out of poverty.

The city says that the most typical placements include food service, at an average wage of $7.30 an hour and clerical positions at an average wage of $9.26 an hour, but has no systemic numbers. In general, those who work in low-income jobs - whether they are coming off welfare or not - are having a tough time in recent years. According to Poverty in New York 2004, the most recent of a series of annual surveys done by the Community Service Society, the annual earnings for low wage workers fell by 6.5 percent over the past four years.

The problems of the working poor, say advocates, are the ones that must really be addressed if low-income New Yorkers are going to be able to lead stable, independent lives.

"This is not a matter of welfare," said David Jones, the president of the organization and a member of the mayor's task force. "This is a matter of low wage workers not making enough to make ends meet."  

Childstat


The death of seven-year old Nixzmary Brown in January, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, caused the city to re-examine the way it provides children's services, particularly how it responds to abuse and neglect cases. One of the reforms it is putting in place is Childstat, which allows the Administration for Children's Services to monitor its response to child abuse in much the same way that the police department uses Compstat to track its performance in fighting crime.

On June 7, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with Jan Flory, deputy commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, who was hired in February and has been working on the new program.

CHILDSTAT

Gotham Gazette: Thank you for being with us, Ms. Flory. Can you explain to us what Childstat is and how it works?

Jan Flory: We are taking many steps to strengthen all aspects of child protection in New York City.

ChildStat is a management and accountability tool modeled on Compstat, the New York City Police Department's acclaimed crime fighting program. ChildStat is intended to help Children's Services to strengthen our ability to protect and serve children who are being monitored by the Agency.

During morning-long sessions each week, ACS senior staff will scrutinize statistics from each of the agency's 14 field offices, which are overseen by borough directors. Each site will be reviewed once every 10 weeks, and the ones that are especially problematic will be evaluated more frequently.

The borough directors and deputy directors will answer questions about caseloads, indicated cases that are closed with services, repeated cases of maltreatment, staff levels, etc. ChildStat will also review a sampling of open and closed cases to examine the quality of case practice.

Gotham Gazette: Is it up and running?

Jan Flory: We are doing trial runs this month with each borough beginning tomorrow in Staten Island. The actual ChildStat will begin at the end of the month.

Gotham Gazette: So at the end of June it will be fully operational?

Jan Flory: We will officially begin the process at that time. We are beginning with only a few data indicators which we can access through our systems. As we move forward, we will be adding data indicators every few months.

Gotham Gazette: What do you hope the immediate effect will be? Or will it take a while?

Jan Flory: First, we will all become familiar with both system-wide and unit-specific data which will be used to examine our practice and target needed changes -- probably on more than one level.

Gotham Gazette: How long will it take you to come up with the "needed changes"?

Jan Flory: The full implementation will take some time, much as the experience with the New York Police Department and other cities around the country.

Gotham Gazette: So can you give us a concrete example of what you might learn, and then change?

Jan Flory: It will be dependent on the issues identified. Some changes may be immediate, others may require more systemic changes-such as improvements to our automated systems, training and skill building in child protection practice. For instance, if we learn that some boroughs or zones within a borough have widely different outcomes with cases, the questions are then why, and putting into place targeted interventions.

Gotham Gazette: The New York Post has written that the big thing that makes Compstat effective is that "precinct commanders feel huge pressure if their numbers don't measure up. They can -- and have -- lost their jobs." Do you plan to be so aggressive about holding people personally accountable?

Jan Flory: I believe that we will be looking at accountability on a number of levels -- first is our system and how it supports or does not support excellence in both investigations and critical decisions.

The second level is that sets of data and/or individual case reviews may point out unacceptable work which will be addressed.

Gotham Gazette: We know that other police departments have used things like Compstat. Do other cities have Childstats?

Jan Flory: I am not certain about other child welfare systems using a childstat system. The city of Baltimore has "statted" all city agencies, but child welfare there is a state administered system. We believe this may be a first in our field.

OTHER REFORMS IN CHILD WELFARE

Joe Lamport: After Nixzmary's death, the mayor announced a plan to hire a lot of new case workers and retired detectives at ACS. What's the status of that effort?

Jan Flory: We have hired close to the 525 new workers by the end of June. We will hire 400 new staff in the new fiscal year. New workers have been going through the new worker core training since late last year. Classes go into the field after 4 weeks of training and then receive on the site training over a period of 3 months, progressively receiving new cases.

Gotham Gazette: At the same time, the number of calls you're getting about child abuse has gone up. What does this indicate?

Jan Flory: We believe that it shows a heightened awareness by the community and professionals about the need to alert the child welfare system to children who may be at risk of abuse or neglect.

Gotham Gazette: Do you expect it to stay this way, or is it a surge because of the Nixzmary Brown case?

Jan Flory: It is likely , as every year, that reports may level off during the summer, when school is not in session. We believe that the actual number of reports will continue at a higher level than prior to January.

Concerned_New_Yorker: In addition to Childstat, are there other accountability measurements in place to ensure that children in New York are protected?

Jan Flory: Yes. We do have regular quality assurance reviews of cases done quarterly which show by supervisory unit and borough levels our performance on specific indicators. We are monitoring caseload levels and resources to meet those demands on a weekly basis.

Gotham Gazette: You have set a goal of having 12 cases per caseworker. When do you think you will meet this goal?

Jan Flory: We realistically expect to be there, with new workers able to carry full caseloads, by the end of the year. This depends on the levels of new cases coming in and our projections about those numbers.

 

Keeping Welfare Recipients Out of College


As recently as seven years ago, a college education provided one of the fastest and surest routes out of poverty. Welfare recipients, such as the thousands who attended City University of New York and worked long and hard to graduate from college, were virtually assured of getting off welfare. But no more. Not in this country. Not at this time. Not in the current "era of meanness." And, with Congress set to consider welfare regulation this year, the situation could get far worse before it gets better. In its 1996 so-called reforms, the federal government removed welfare as a safety net and required most welfare recipients to go to work. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 permitted those on welfare to enroll for a maximum of one year of vocational education. States were given flexibility though on how to interpret and enforce this regulation, and some allowed welfare recipients to attend higher education by defining college as a work-related activity. In 1999, Washington gave the states more leeway to permit people to attend college while receiving welfare benefits.

For the most part, New York City has not taken advantage of such flexibility. The administration of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave welfare recipients work assignments away from their schools and homes, making it difficult for them to continue their education. Three years ago, the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College convinced state legislators that this policy was punitive, and the legislators agreed to allow college students on welfare to enroll in work study on campus to fulfill their work requirement.

The results of that change are not yet known. But before the 1996 welfare reform law, a peak of 28,000 welfare recipients attended CUNY. After the 1996 law with its stringent work requirements, only 5,000 attended.

At a conference this fall held by Metropolitan College of New York, Medgar Evers College, the National Urban League, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the College Board, several people spoke eloquently about why we should care whether welfare recipients can attend college. A former CUNY student who had to leave college after three years because welfare required her to work wanted to know why our city, state and federal government could not do better.

College educated people earn more money than those who have not gone to college. "Half of women in the U.S. with a high school education who work earn less than $15,000 a year, but half of college-educated women earn at least $31,000 a year," said Bill Spriggs of the National Urban League who spoke at the conference.

Women cannot work their way out of poverty, but they can educate themselves out of poverty. By denying people the chance to attend college, said Spriggs, "We are ignoring a whole group of women who are capable of college education, the best way out of welfare."

In a study conducted with the New York City Human Resources Administration, Aurora Jackson of the University of Pittsburgh found that welfare recipients who continue their education after high school are more likely to be employed, tend to be less depressed and have better parenting skills and children with fewer behavioral problems than welfare recipients with a high school diploma or less.

Edmund Gordon, a retired Yale psychology professor who has spent a lifetime documenting racism in education observed that too many people lack a sense of membership in our society, too many people are excluded. Our society, he said, must be in "the human development business." One way to accomplish that would be enabling more people to attend college.

Maine has made progress on this front. It has two programs for welfare recipients: a work program and an education one. According to Judy Williams of the Maine Bureau of Family Independence, the education program allows students to attend college for two years for an associate's degree or four years for a bachelor's degree. The students are eligible for financial aid, childcare and transportation. They work 10 to 15 hours a week in internships and training programs. These welfare recipients have a 95 percent graduation rate and a less than 6 percent likelihood of returning to welfare.

In New York, the Welfare to Careers Project operated by Medgar Evers, Pace University and Metropolitan College of New York provides a free education, career counseling, childcare and job readiness skills to former welfare recipients and helps them find work. Almost two thirds of those who start the program complete it. We need to follow the lesson of our own history. After World War II, when it became obvious that an entire generation had missed higher education and the country needed an educated workforce, the government paid every veteran to attend four years of college through the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill also provided housing and health benefits. It was an entitlement program without stigma.

What is our federal government doing now? Last year, after the technological revolution made it clear that the country needed an highly educated workforce, both houses of Congress passed bills to make it even more difficult for anyone on welfare to obtain a higher education degree while collecting welfare. These bills, which sought to restrict access to higher education and to extend work requirements to at least 30 hours a week from the current 20, did not pass before Congress adjourned. But now the new, even more conservative Congress could enact these and even more draconian rules when it takes up the revisions to 1996 welfare act.

Things in New York are a bit more promising. Thanks to our new mayor, the city is being less punitive in its attitude toward welfare recipients. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has indicated that work alone is inadequate to take people out of poverty and that he wants education as part of the package for welfare recipients.

So far, Bloomberg has not backed this up with any specific policy initiative. The General Welfare Committee led by Councilmember Bill deBlasio has passed legislation that allows welfare recipients who qualify to attend college as part of their work requirement. The full council will consider the bill soon. But regardless of what New York City and New York State do, the new conservative Congress can make attending college even more difficult. We have not seen the end of the "era of meanness."

Lynne Weikart is associate professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and former executive director of the City Project, an independent advocacy organization that monitors the New York City budget.

Albany Matters In Social Services


New York State's constitution requires it to support its neediest residents. New York State also puts one of the largest financial burdens in the nation upon its local governments, who must match the state's own spending on many types of social services. These constraints limit the extent of debate between state and city governments. No matter how conservative a governor may be, or how much he owes to upstate voters, Article 17 of the state constitution prevents him from entirely cutting off support to even the least politically appealing impoverished residents. No matter how liberal a New York City mayor may be, any impulse to increase aid to the city's poor is tempered by competing needs in the city's budget.

Still, who is in office does make a difference. The winner of this fall's gubernatorial race will set the rules for the next round of welfare reform. By September 30, the federal government is expected to make several broad changes to the current law when it is re-authorized. New choices will be presented to the states.

According to "Lost In The Balance: How State Policies Affect The Fiscal Health Of Cities," New York State aid to its suburbs has increased faster than aid to its cities, and New York City received less state aid in 1997 than in 1995. The authors of this report, Howard Chernick and Andrew Reschovsky, suggest that this change may "reflect the shift in political power in New York State in 1994, with a Republican governor replacing a three-term Democratic governor. Since the core electoral strength of Republican candidates for governor in New York comes from the suburban and upstate areas, it would not be surprising if these areas were rewarded with additional state aid."

There are many ways that the state government in effect controls the city's social service policies.

DECISIONS ABOUT DISTRIBUTING FUNDS

During the five years since welfare reform began, the state has received a total of over $12 billion in federal funds for public assistance, of which nearly 30 percent has been diverted to other uses. For example, $380 million will be spent this year alone to support the Tuition Assistance Program, a program that is clearly of no benefit to current welfare recipients, most of whom are unable to attend college. That is because they were forced to drop out in order to fulfill work requirements. The state's welfare reform program does not recognize earning a college degree as a valid way for welfare recipients to prepare for employment.

ELIGIBILITY FOR PUBLIC ASSISTANCE

New York State determines the rules by which the city can deem someone eligible for public assistance. In some ways, the state is relatively generous, given the options allowed by federal law. When a New York family is sanctioned because a parent does not meet the work requirement, the children are still eligible for family assistance and Medicaid. Survivors of domestic violence can receive exemptions from work requirements and other rules on a case-by-case basis.

However, some of New York State's rules for eligibility are less lenient than is allowed by federal law, and than is practiced by other states. New residents of New York must wait a year after they have moved here to receive full benefits; until then, they can receive only the amount available in their former state, or half of the New York benefit level, whichever is higher.

Another restrictive choice made by New York State was to test welfare applicants and beneficiaries for alcohol and drug abuse, and ban them from both family assistance and Medicaid if they will not take a test or accept treatment. Despite this emphasis on treatment, clients who agree to be treated must often settle for a place on a waiting list instead, because the supply of treatment slots in the city is too small.

In the food stamp program, most immigrants cannot receive federal benefits. However, states can choose to buy food stamps with their own funds for use by immigrants. California, with the nation's largest immigrant population, chose to spend over $6 million a month on behalf of all needy legal immigrants in that state -- approximately 100,000 people -- who were not eligible for federal food stamps. New York State, with the second largest immigrant population, has a much smaller program serving about 600 immigrants, who are primarily elderly or survivors of domestic violence, for a cost of about $75,000 in state funds.

OVERSEEING THE CITY'S ADMINISTRATION OF PUBLIC BENEFITS

Under the administration of Governor George Pataki, Albany sometimes failed to keep former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's less law-abiding tendencies in check. When the city's welfare offices disqualified families from receiving cash assistance, for several years city employees violated the federal requirement to inform clients that they could still receive food stamps and Medicaid. The state overlooked this violation and allowed the number of people on food stamps and Medicaid to drop nearly as much as the welfare rolls until advocates intervened, drawing federal attention to the problem. The state agency charged with responsibility for overseeing the city's Medicaid operations was named as a defendant in the lawsuit against the city, which resulted in a court decision finding the city had caused "irreparable harm" to some of the plaintiffs.

MENTAL HEALTH AND DRUG ABUSE TREATMENT

In addition to its indirect influence on local services, a few social service functions important to specific populations are largely controlled by the state. Two of these are residential care for people with mental illness and drug abuse treatment.

The state controls the rate at which it discharges people from state mental hospitals. Theoretically, this process allows patients to move back into "the community" with the assistance of outpatient treatment and supportive services, resulting in lower costs to the government and a better quality of life for patients. Decades after it was clear that many discharged patients were not returning to a supportive community, but ending up homeless in New York City, the state is reauthorizing the Community Mental Health Reinvestment Act, which applies savings from downsized state psychiatric facilities to community-based mental health programs. However, there never seem to be enough community-based services to meet the needs of the city's mentally ill homeless population.

During the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970's, the city eliminated all local spending on drug treatment. Since then, the state has directly contracted with local providers for substance abuse treatment supported by federal and state funds. The city's role in the drug treatment system is limited to coordinating and monitoring contracted services.

It grows increasingly obvious that substance abuse treatment is necessary to achieve many local goals, such as reducing homelessness, helping welfare recipients move to work, reducing crime and prison recidivism, and caring for people with a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. To the extent that Albany controls the nature and supply of substance abuse treatment in the city, local officials have limited ability to coordinate it with other services for people with related, multiple needs.

CONGRESSIONAL SUPERWAIVER=GUBERNATORIAL CONTROL

As if New York's governor doesn't wield enough power already, the welfare reform reauthorization bill passed in May 2002 by the House of Representatives allows "superwaivers," proposed by President George Bush last February, giving governors, the president, and cabinet heads the power to bypass their respective legislatures in making major changes to programs affecting low-income people. The superwaiver idea was not included in the U.S. Senate version of the reauthorization bill, passed in June, but is likely to be raised as an issue during the negotiations required to reconcile the House and Senate bills.

Under the House bill, a state governor could request and receive a waiver from the federal agency overseeing a given program, permitting that state to fundamentally change its version of that program for five years. No public input or legislative approval would be required. Programs subject to superwaiver changes would include food stamps, homelessness programs, public housing, child care, job training, and adult education. If any version of superwaivers becomes law, New York State will no longer be ruled by "three men in a room," the usual description of the decision-making process in which the governor, the Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate, and the Democratic Assembly speaker settle their differences before bringing bills to a vote. Instead, Albany will be a one-man gubernatorial show at which New York City's low-income population will be a captive audience.

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.

AIDS At 20: Frontline STD Clinics


Martin Algaze knows that, twenty years after acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first identified, many New Yorkers have relaxed about it. "We know there's been a 'complacency effect' setting in over the last few years among all the populations at risk for AIDS," says Algaze, who works for Gay Men's Health Crisis, the oldest AIDS service and advocacy group. "They think AIDS is over."

The result is another in a long line of tragedies. "It appears that more people are having unsafe sex," Algaze says.

One reason health workers know this is that the syphilis rate in New York City has more than doubled in the first quarter of this year. The numbers seem too puny to be alarming. Dr. Susan Blank, assistant commissioner of the health department's Sexually Transmitted Disease Control Program says there were 57 cases of infectious Syphilis in the first three months of this year, up from 26 during the last three months of 2000. But the health department fears that this upswing may foreshadow another rise in HIV infections, particularly among men having sex with men.

The connection between sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS transmission is not generally known to the public. But specialists in the field have known since the early 1990's that syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis increase a person's vulnerability to AIDS by two to five times. These STDs also make a person with HIV much more infectious to their sexual partner(s).

Thus the alarm about the spike in the syphilis rate, and the effort by the Department of Health to get the word out about how prompt diagnosis and treatment of STDs are important facets of AIDS prevention. Says Blank, "Every time we can cure a case of syphilis, we're preventing HIV."

That underscores the importance of New York City's ten STD clinics.

The free and confidential clinics in the five boroughs provide confidential diagnosis and treatment on a walk-in basis. Upon arriving at the clinic, patients are asked to fill out a form (and identified by a number, not a name), stating their reasons for coming to the clinic. A clinician does an examination. (All are board-certified doctors and physician assistants who specialize in diagnosing and treating STDs). If necessary, specimens are taken, and tested at the on-site laboratory. If it is indicated by the tests that a patient has an STD, he will be given medication before he leaves the clinic. HIV counseling and testing are also offered at the clinics.

The free clinics are an invaluable service for those who are uninsured and unable to afford a doctor's care. Minors, says the Department of Health, do not need parental consent for examination and treatment. And unlike AIDS, syphilis is curable.

The complacency towards AIDS is a result of a regiment of drug treatment called HAART, which stands for Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy, which has been mostly a blessing, Algaze admits. "That these drugs are working is very good news. Many of these people were preparing to die. Now many of them are even going back to work." Still, he warns, HAART isn't an unmixed blessing. The drugs don't work for everybody. Some people suffer side effects so bad they can't take the drugs.

And they are very expensive-"they can cost as much as $15,000 to $20,000 yearly." The co-payment, even with insurance, can be as much as $100 a month, for just one class of drugs. Algaze added that "the most affordable way for people to take these drugs is via mail-in programs through your insurance company," as this can be much cheaper than getting them from a pharmacy.

Another thing to keep in mind: the HAART drugs, as far as clinicians know, have to be taken for life. There are no long-term studies on lifelong effects yet. They are not a cure. There is still no vaccine for uninfected people. And the new-case rate for AIDS in the U.S. is a steady 40,000 per year. In the past 20 years, AIDS has killed 75,000 New Yorkers,or about one fifth of all the Americans who have succumbed to it.

More Resources on AIDS:

  • For information about getting help with STDs and treatment, see the Health Department's web site. Anyone wanting more information on syphilis can call the city's STD HOTLINE at 212-427-5120, Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., or ask their doctor.
  • GMHC - Oldest and largest voluntary AIDS crisis organization. Information about AIDS, services and treatment, and extensive list of links to other on-line AIDS resources. GMHC Hotline: 1-800-AIDS-NYC.
  • The Body - Doctors' answers to questions from people living with HIV, chat and bulletin boards on AIDS-related topics, 30,000-document library that is updated daily.
  • Critical Path AIDS Project - Critical Path provides easy access to the full range of potentially life-extending or life-saving AIDS prevention, treatment, and referral information.
  • Michael Callen-Audre Lorde Community - Provides information about the services they offer to the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, plus volunteer and job opportunities.
  • POZ Magazine - Monthly magazine that reports on the impact AIDS has on life, politics, culture, and society, plus the Spanish POZ magazine, POZ en Espanol, and MAMM, a magazine for anyone whose life has been affected by breast and reproductive cancers.
  • Centers for Disease Control - CDC's Divisions of HIV/AIDS Prevention-with recent headlines, FAQs about AIDS, and links.
  • God's Love We Deliver - Provides highly nutritious meals, free of charge, for all people living with AIDS. Features nutrition information and information on how to become a client.
  • National Minority AIDS Council - This website supports NMAC's mission of developing leadership within communities of color for the fight against AIDS.
  • New York City Department of Health- Provides HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention, and counseling information and surveillance data for the city.
  • Healthopedia - AIDS resource
  • Allrefer.com - AIDS resource

Foster Children Still at Risk?


Public Advocate Mark Green, a Democratic candidate for mayor, released a report this month concluding that "foster care remains a dangerous or losing proposition for too many children" in New York City. At a press conference held to announce the findings, Green stood beside Cecil Reed, a man whose son died while in foster care. Green said that the number of verified reports of maltreatment of children in foster care doubled from 1996 to 2000, even while the number of children in foster care fell by 24 percent. He added that one in 40 children throughout New York City is reportedly abused, compared to one in 20 children in foster care.

Immediately, officials at the Administration for Children's Services dismissed Green's study as a political ploy, a hastily assembled document lacking independent research. "We do not find it very helpful for real reform," said Jack Deacy, spokesman for the agency.

Green's report and press conference, and the reaction by the city, present a case study in the difficulty politicians have during the election season calling the public's attention to government performance. During campaigns, it may be hard for public servants running for office to resist making a play for headlines by overstating damaging information that comes their way. At the same time, when candidates are the bearers of bad news, city officials may find it tempting to accuse the candidates of political grandstanding, and thus avoid addressing troubling facts.

Examination of the Green document shows that it lacks original research and focuses almost exclusively on a set of negative findings in recent evaluations of the Administration for Children1s Services. These qualities, at first glance, make the report appear less substantial than it actually is. A close reading, however, reveals that the authors worked diligently to divulge the contents of a New York State study that state authorities have been shielding from public view since December 2000. It is not the fault of the authors of the report that the findings of the state's own study are, on the whole, damning.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services examined case records of 401 children who were in foster care in New York City during 1999. The review was ordered in the settlement agreement of the Marisol et al. v Giuliani federal class action lawsuit. The Public Advocates office had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request in order to see the document. Journalists are also prohibited from seeing the document without a Freedom of Information Act request. Public information officials at the Office of Children and Family Services did not respond to requests for an explanation as to why they are making it difficult for the public to gain access to the document.

State auditors found evidence that the Administration for Children's Services has made great strides in some areas, especially in providing counseling services to foster children, and domestic violence services and housing assistance to parents. However, the reviewers also found many areas in which the performance of the system either did not improve or actually worsened. Comparisons are possible because the state did a case record review of New York City foster children in 1997.

In 71 percent of cases where the goal for a foster child was reunification with his or her parents, caseworkers failed to arrange a minimum of two visits a month between children and parents, as state law requires. (Visits when they do occur typically last an hour and a half in accordance with standard casework practices.) The failure rate was up from 57 percent in 1997.

Sixty percent of foster children were moved from placement to placement at least once, up from 54 percent in 1997. Agency officials failed to notify parents that their children had been moved in a third of cases. Only a quarter of children with siblings in separate placements were able to visit with brothers and sisters as state law requires, down from 38 percent in 1997.

The state mandates a twice-yearly conference between agency caseworkers, supervisors and parents. By statute, the conference is supposed to serve as a forum for parents to learn what the agency requires them to do to win their children back and a place for parents to make plans to meet those requirements. Following the conference, the plans are codified in a document called the Uniform Case Record. Failure to comply with the Uniform Case Record is one of the most common transgressions cited in city petitions blocking reunification of parents and children. State auditors found that in 70 percent of the records they reviewed, conferences took place without parents present. In 62 percent of those cases, parents had not been invited to attend. An additional 10 percent of parents had been invited but had been unable to make it because caseworkers scheduled them when parents could not attend. Following conferences that took place in the absence of parents, only seven percent of parents were given a copy of the resulting Uniform Case Record. Fifty-six percent were not informed in any way of the results of the conference.

While it is true that Green did not mention the positive trends found by the Office of Children and Family Services, it is also true that the Office did not find nearly as many positive as negatives trends. Still, Green should have included the positive findings because they would have added credibility to his report - and because they were spectacular. Seventy-one percent of parents who needed parenting skills classes were given referrals to those classes in 2000, up from 38 percent of parents in 1997. Sixty-seven percent of parents who needed housing assistance got it, up from 25 percent in 1997. Eighty percent of parents needing psychiatric treatment were referred to psychiatrists, up from 37 percent in 1997. A stunning 76 percent of parents needing domestic violence services got them, up from 13 percent in 1997. Nothing stands in the way of the city itself from trumpeting the positive findings in the New York State audit. On the other hand, there was a real obstacle - a governmental gag order - stopping advocates and the public from seeing the negative findings and calling the city to account.

It is entirely understandable that officials at the Administration for Children's Services felt assaulted by Green's report, particularly since Green unveiled it in front of reporters at a news conference calculated to highlight the risks to children's safety in foster care. That many more reports of child maltreatment in foster care are being substantiated today hardly proves that the risks to child safety in foster care are increasing. It may just as easily indicate that child protective investigators are taking the abuse of children in the city1s foster homes more seriously than ever.

Still, the agency's sense of injury should not have given it license to avoid explaining the genuinely negative findings made public by Mark Green. The Administration for Children1s Services has much to be proud of, but even its officials must know that foster care remains, as Green said, a dangerous and losing proposition for many children.

Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio. 

Welfare Running Out. Also, news of the poor, the old, the disabled


(Mar '01) Welfare Running Out / Shelters Full

About 71,400 New York families receiving welfare benefits will reach the five-year limit by the end of the year, reports the New York Times ("State's Poorest Facing Loss of US Aid"). Twenty-eight percent of them are working poor who put in an average of 30 hours a week at a job but still do not earn enough to lift their families out of poverty. Fifteen percent are disabled. The majority, about 59,000, live in New York City.

At the same time, homeless shelters have been filled to their highest capacity since the 1980's this winter, with the largest increases coming from women and children. Since the fall, 500 families eligible for domestic violence refuge were unable to be placed and were sent instead to the general Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx ("Hurting for Space, City's Domestic Violence Shelters Fall Short," New York Daily News).

The city responded to the shortage, and a court deadline about to expire, by promising to create 517 new units before next winter, including 100 new units available immediately ("City Agrees to Add Rooms for Homeless," New York Times).

No Lawyers in Family Court

Lawyers representing the poor in family and criminal court have been complaining for years about the low rates they receive from the state for their work. They have not had a fee raise in fifteen years, and New York State's rates for assigned counsel are lower than those in all states but one. In protest, many lawyers have stopped accepting new cases and, for the last month, there have been no lawyers to appoint in Family Court. The extent of the disaster can be seen in this report from Manhattan Family Court Judge, Judy Adams, in an op-ed in the Times ("A Daily Disaster for Children"): "A wheelchair-bound 13-year old girl with cerebral palsy sat at Laight Street (the processing office where children await foster home placements) for seven days and nights. Her indigent grandmother from whose home she has been removed, had no assigned attorney, so a hearing that might have sped the case up was delayed. (Because she was disabled, she needed a specialized placement.) The grandmother was unable to reach a caseworker to arrange a visit, so these two, who had never been separated since the girl's birth, had no contact with each other." After ignoring the issue for too long, Pataki and state legislators have promised increases for the the lawyers, but the money may not come through until next year.

New Prescription Fees

A new policy by the City's Health and Hospital's Corporation to exact a fee on prescription drugs sold at hospital pharmacies has been recently introduced and advocates for the poor are concerned that this will discourage poor patients from getting needed prescription drugs. According to a story in the New York Times ("City Hospitals Imposing Fees At Pharmacies"), the Health and Hospital's Corporation created the fee policy out of desperation for some income, and the policy does state that "no patient is to leave empty handed because of inability to pay." It also would not apply to emergency room or hospital stays or for those in prenatal or AIDS programs. Several patients have already reported being turned away, however, when they didn't have the $40 or $50 for their medications (the fee is $10 for each prescription). "It is too much money for me," one woman told the Times, when she was unable to pick up prescriptions for asthma and diabetes.

IRS After the Poor

Tax returns of the working poor make up almost half of all IRS audits, forty-four percent, while the audit rate for those earning $100,000 or more has dropped from about nine percent to one percent ("Auditing the Poor," New York Times.)

State Employees With Disabilities Can't Sue

States that discriminate against disabled employees of the state cannot be sued for damages under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision ("Justices Give the States Immunity From Suits by Disabled Workers," New York Times).

After months of deliberations, the court found that private lawsuits against the state under the 1990 federal disabilities law violates state immunity from prosecution without consent, as promised in the 11th Amendment of the constitution. The fact that equal protection against discrimination is also promised by the 14th Amendment was overruled in that disability discrimination, much like aging discrimination, seems to be low status in the high court's opinion, the kind of discrimination that some some even consider rational. In his ruling, Chief Justice William Reinquist said, "It is entirely rational and therefore constitutional for a state employer to conserve scarce financial resources by hiring employees who are able to use existing facilities" that do not require accommodation as stipulated under the ADA.

The ruling does not affect suits filed by employees in most businesses, only state employees, although the justification that conserving financial resources has a higher value than protecting against discrimination could conceivably be used again to further erode the law.

On the horizon, the court will be deciding whether to hear another claim of state immunity, this time challenging ADA provisions that require government agencies to make services accessible to people with disabilities, such as curb slits at crosswalks and accessible buses. According to Linda Greenhouse in the Times, "under the analysis the court applied [in this recent ruling], there is every reason to suppose that the justices will find the states immune from suit under this section as well as the employment section."

A recent Times editorial on the ruling ("The Court Usurps Congressional Power") chided the court for "expand[ing] it's own power at the expense of Congress's rightful constitutional authority to decide which new laws society requires."

One of the original drafters of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Chai R. Feldbaum, a Professor at Georgetown Law School, told the Times that "people with disabilities will be second-class citizens if the trend in the courts continues. I don't think this means the ADA as a law is in danger with regard to most employers and businesses," she said. "What it does portend poorly for is the rights of disabled people with regard to the states - in education, voting rights, mental health and other areas." ("Ruling on Disability Rights Called a Blow by Advocates").

Meanwhile, a lengthy review ("Getting States' Rights Right") of a new book on the doctrine of states' rights is in the March Atlantic Monthly, making a case that both conservatives and progressives have sought refuge in states' rights depending on the issues, which have ranged from using it to defend slavery and segregation to seeking protection from corporate exploitation.

Aging in Place-Without Proper Care?

Assisted Living, the housing alternative for elderly adults who no longer wish to live completely on their own, is a fast-growing industry. In New York State, 100 assisted living centers have appeared in the last ten years. Based on a widely appealing philosophy, "aging in place," the centers also apparently benefit from a relaxation of state regulations that govern adult homes, according to an article in The New York Times("Experiment in Assisted Living Exposes Confusion on Rules").

Alzheimer's patients that are normally moved into nursing homes when they required 24-hour care are being allowed to stay on in assisted living centers and one state regulator who objected has been barred from any further investigations of centers or adult homes run by Alterra, the company whose practices the regulator highlighted.

Cynthia Rudder, Director of the Nursing Home Community Coalition of New York State, told the Times she was not aware of the relaxed regulation "experiment" being sanctioned by the state. "We are in favor of aging in place," she said, but she found this situation to be "a betrayal of the public trust, as far as I'm concerned."

In 1999, Governor Pataki introduced a proposal to regulate the assisted living industry but it was not well received and soon died. Families are often against regulations that would force aging parents out of assisted living and into nursing homes. And politicians, too, appreciate keeping the elderly in facilities they themselves pay for as opposed to relying on nursing homes that the taxpayer pays for.

Charges of neglect in assisted living centers, however, have been surfacing, with reports of festoring bedsores, burns from hot water bottles, delays in calling an ambulance when a resident broke her leg, and letting one Alzheimer patient just wander off. Also of interest is just how the industry manages to remain above the law.

Local Scouts Want to Reform Anti-Gay Policy

The city council will give local New York City chapters of the Boy Scouts of America four months to appeal to the national office to change their policy of banning gays in the scouts. If they are not successful, as local chapters in Rhode Island and California have not been in earlier attempts, the council will go ahead with a ban on allowing government agencies to sponsor scout activities, such as the Explorer's program, operated by the police and correction departments in the city.

"We denounce the national policy; we do not think it is right," said Deryck A. Palmer, a lawyer and member of the New York City board of the Boy Scouts told the council committee, according to a story in the New York Times ("Local Scouting Board, Calling Gay Ban 'Stupid,' Urges End to National Policy").

"We would like to be an agent of change," Palmer said.

Contrary to the national policy, scouts and scout leaders are not ousted in New York City because of sexual orientation. However, council members argued that programs should not be sponsored by the city as long as the national organization discriminates.

 

Election Special-The Missing Social Service Issues


(Oct-Nov '00) A few dozen people gathered on the steps of City Hall recently to speak out against the current welfare policy that discourages and denies education and vocational training for those on welfare.

According to Bich Ha Pham from the Hunger Action Network of New York State, one of the organizers of the event, only two percent of people currently enrolled in Workfare are also in educational or training programs, a policy which can only result in continued poverty and low paying jobs. Unfortunately, you won't find this issue, Access to Education and Training for welfare recipients, on the list of issues the candidates are showcasing.

Other missing issues, according to the Hunger Action Network, include:

  • Food stamp reauthorization, which would restore food stamp benefits to many people that were excluded four years ago, particularly legal immigrants
  • An increase in New York State's welfare grant. "It hasn't increased in ten years," said Pham, "and is well below the poverty line." A single mother with two children receives six dollars a day (not counting rent) for food, clothing, transportation, etc.
  • An increase in the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, the major funding source for food pantries and soup kitchens in the city and state, where long lines are the norm and people have been increasingly turned away for lack of food.

The Hunger Action Network is presently surveying all local and national candidates on these missing issues and will post the results on their site.

HOMELESSNESS

Homeless people do have the right to vote and over 2,000 homeless voters were registered in New York City over the summer. It is legal to vote in New York even if your address is a shelter or a street corner. Nevertheless, the issues relevant to the homeless- affordable housing and mental health programs- are largely neglected.

"Neither Senate candidate has a comprehensive plan for affordable housing," said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.

"Hillary Clinton did say last year that she was in favor of doubling the number of new Section 8 housing vouchers annually," noted Markee. There were 60,000 vouchers last year, so that would mean 120,000 vouchers. "But if you look at her current list of issues, housing is not one of them."

"Lazio is trying to portray himself as a champion of housing," said Markee, "but look at the budget cutbacks under the Republican-controlled Congress that he was part of. There was zero new Section 8 assistance at a time when there has been a rising need across the country. This led to the freezing of Section 8 housing in New York City. Homeless people are being forced to live in shelters even after they have been approved for Section 8 housing because there is no housing available."

Rick Lazio does include affordable senior citizen housing among the issues on his web site and takes credit for restoring funding for emergency homeless shelters when it was threatened in Congress.

A press release on Al Gore's site, states that he supports an additional 25,000 housing vouchers for people making the transition from welfare to work.

George Bush does not have housing listed as an issue, but he does have home ownership, which includes support for tax credits for single family housing.

Bidding for the State Assembly and State Senate, a few candidates voiced support for affordable housing in profiles for the Citizens Union's Voter Directory for the Primary. Carl Heastie of the 83rd Assembly District in the Bronx advocates state and city assistance for new low income and affordable housing. Adele Cohen in Brooklyn's 46th Assembly District took credit for fighting higher rents and income requirements for public housing. And Liz Krueger in Manhattan's State Senate race includes building more Section 8 housing in her platform.

The mental health side of homelessness turns out to be a housing issue as well: "We'd like to see the federal government fund the development of more supportive housing for the mentally ill," said Markee. "In the past there have been federal housing subsidies and tax credits, but the subsidies have dried up and the tax credits are harder to get."

While mental health is not included in Clinton's list of issues, she has reportedly said, without specifying any numbers, that she would favor more supportive housing for the mentally ill.

In a comparison of the candidates in the mental health area compiled by the National Association of Social Workers, Clinton fared best due to her support for the Patients' Bill of Rights which would allow for mental health care coverage for all, regardless of income level, and for her support of additional mental health research. Lazio is chided for not voting to pass the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act, which required health plans to provide parity for mental health and medical benefits. Gore was noted for his vow to work to eliminate discrimination and assure fairness for people with mental illnesses through mental health consumer protections and the patients' bill of rights. Bush's plan is to create a national commission to recommend reforms of the mental health service delivery system.

SENIOR CITIZENS

While it may appear that senior citizen issues get addressed more than adequately, with so much discussion about Medicare, Social Security and Prescription Drugs, there are neglected issues for seniors as well.

Affordable home care: According to Bobbie Sackman, Director of Public Policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services, huge numbers of New Yorkers, mainly women, are now caregivers for their elderly parents. The financial strain of caregiving can be enormous, as documented by a MetLife Study.

"Over their lifetimes," the report states, "the caregivers studied lost $566,500 in wages, $67,000 in retirement contributions and $25,500 in social security benefits. Twenty-nine percent said they had passed on promotions, training opportunities and new assignments; 25 percent passed on transfers or relocation; 22 percent said they could not acquire new job skills. In addition, caregiving cost the respondents an average of $19,500 in food, transportation, assistance with rents and mortgages and the cost to retain home care professionals."

Bobbie Sackman recommends candidate support for adequate and affordable home care measures, as well as working with private industry to make it more friendly to this issue, like the old day-care issue, with flex time and working out of the home as accepted options.

The caregiver issue, although not highlighted, has actually gotten some bleeps on the election speech circuit. In her primary acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton indicated support for a tax credit for long term care for a disabled loved one or for aging parents in the home.

Gore too has lent his support to long-term care for an aging or disabled relative.

Ralph Nader spoke out in favor of the Medicaid Community Attendant Services and Supports Act, a proposed bill that would take funds away from nursing homes and make them available for in-home care.

Automatic eligibility for food stamps: Thousands of elderly in New York State are experiencing hunger and malnutrition. One way to help would be increasing the number of elderly receiving food stamps. New York State has just requested a waiver from the US Department of Agriculture which administers the food stamp program to allow elderly New Yorkers who are living alone to automatically become eligible for food stamps should they start receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a benefit for people living below the poverty level. They wouldn't have to apply separately for food stamps but would be able to get the benefits directly through their Medicaid card.

"Over 125,000 elderly and disabled are currently receiving SSI and living alone," said Sackman. "I'd want to know from the Senate candidates, just how would you walk this waiver through?" So far, the issue is not walking or talking.

Don't change formula: The Older Americans Act, enacted in 1965 with Medicaid and Medicare, is the major federal funding source for Meals on Wheels, Senior Centers, Frail Elderly Transportation, and a gamut of services. "This funding has eroded over the years," explained Sackman. "Ten years ago, the federal government provided 70 percent of the money for these services and the city 20 percent. Today they provide 23 percent and 70 percent comes from the city. (Less than 10 percent comes from the state, which does a miserable job, says Sackman.) To the city's credit, the mayors have put the money in, but the federal side has really eroded." However, the situation may get even worse. The Older Americans Act is up for reauthorization, but Congress wants to change the formula for how much each state gets. With the new distribution, New York, considered a rich state because of its tax resources, would get considerably less than we do now, which is already insufficient.

Lazio has spoken out indirectly on this issue, focusing on the fact that New York sends more to the federal government than it gets back in benefits, but his solution is a tax cut to rectify the situation, not a fight to keep the formula from changing.

IMMIGRANTS

The New York Immigration Coalition sent out three letters to Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio asking them where they stand on issues of importance to immigrants. They also started a postcard campaign, sending out 500 postcards a week from member groups to the candidates' offices. "So far we have had no response," said Veronica Thronson of the Immigration Coalition. "Lazio's office did call saying they received all the letters and they would call back -- but they have not."

While it is true that only naturalized citizens can vote - people who are here legally but are not citizens cannot - the New York Immigration Coalition has a voter registration campaign and at recent naturalization ceremonies they have registered 115,000 new citizen voters in New York. "They may surprise the candidates," said Thronson.

Several important immigrant issues are on the table at the moment, including two bills in the House that would reinstate some of the safety net that was removed four years ago with welfare reform bill. The Hunger Relief Act would restore food stamps to low-income legal immigrant families. The Legal Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act would restore access to basic health care for pregnant women and children who are here legally.

There is also the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act that would: a) Allow persons who are on the verge of gaining their immigration status to remain in the U.S. to complete the process. This procedure used to be possible but was allowed to expire in November of 1997; b) Correct unequal treatment among different groups of Central American and Caribbean refugees, granting them the same generosity as was granted Cubans and Nicaraguans by the 1997 Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act; c) Update the "registry date" from 1972 to January 1, 1986, which would benefit hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were eligible for the "amnesty" program of that year, but have since been in legal limbo.

Bush has proposed reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to help change its character and to make America more welcoming to new immigrants but without specific references to any current legislation.

Gore has come out in favor of the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act.

Hunger In New York


The food pantry opens early in the morning at the church, because they don't want a line to form.

"Would you want to stand outside an emergency food program in your own neighborhood?" asks Doreen Wohl. "Out on the street for everyone to see you lining up for food? No, it's an indignity."

As executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, which is in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street, Wohl attempts to eliminate the indignities. That's why the pantry is set up like a grocery store. The people coming in are not given prepared bags of food but rather shopping carts and cards with points, based on family size. They walk through the place and choose the protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and dairy products they prefer.

People from 88 households picked out food on this particular morning, and another 88 showed up in the afternoon before the doors closed at 3 p.m. "It was a very busy day," said Wohl, who has seen the number of people coming to her pantry rise from 16,652 in 1993 to 47,000 this year.

"Hunger is rising," said Kim Gilliland of the Hunger Action Network of New York State. "More people are turning to emergency food programs, but the food is thinning and portions are being reduced. People are being turned away by the hundreds daily." Over 74,000 people were not able to get food at the 1300 pantries and soup kitchens in the city in just one month last year, 59 percent of them children.

According to "Hunger is No Accident", a recently released report produced by the New York City Welfare Reform and Human Rights Documentation Project, the current demand for emergency food can be traced to practices that amount to human rights violations in relation to the Food Stamp Program by the city, state and federal government.

The city violations, the report charges, include restricted access to the program and wrongful denial of benefits. The city discriminates against people with limited English, the hearing impaired, teenagers, and women who attempt to apply without their husbands. Applicants are also subjected to degrading treatment meant to discourage participation. State violations include insufficient monitoring of the city's practices. Also, since the state began cutting the welfare rolls, it has used the money it has saved for tax cuts rather than to alleviate hunger and other problems of the former welfare recipients. The federal government, which inaugurated the food stamp program in 1964 to help "low-income households alleviate hunger and malnutrition," is faulted for providing meager benefits and insufficient outreach.

NO FOOD STAMPS FOR HALF WHO ARE ELIGIBLE

Nineteen percent of all children in New York City went to bed hungry last year as demands for emergency food continued to rise. Statewide, close to two million people live below the poverty level, according to Food for Survival.

While many of these households are eligible to receive food stamps, they often do not, for a variety of reasons outlined in the report. Many simply do not know they are eligible for food stamps. The participation rate among eligible individuals is only 52 percent in New York City

But the authorities often actively discourage those eligible from applying, the report charges, or fail to inform potential applicants. Eligible families who were rejected for welfare benefits, for example, were not told they could apply for food stamps separately at a "food stamp-only" office.

VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

"Hunger is no Accident" is packed with facts and figures about hunger in our city and the system that frequently prolongs it. Over 200 public assistance applicants were surveyed about their experiences. The report, written by Cybelle Fox, a policy analyst at the Urban Justice Center - Human Rights Project, is the first effort of the Welfare Reform and Human Rights Documentation Project, a coalition group of six anti-poverty organizations.

The report details how many practices violate not only U.S. law, but also various international codes including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

FOOD, FOOD EVERYWHERE, BUT NOT A BITE TO EAT

At the pantry run by West Side Campaign Against Hunger, over twelve percent of the people coming for emergency food are working, but their earnings, low-paying or part-time, are insufficient. Ironically, many of them toil in the food industry: dishwashers, grocery clerks, cashiers, people working on trucks or in bodegas. Other professions include home health aides, beauty parlors assistants and unskilled laborers in construction. The pantry will soon be staying open on Monday nights until 6:30 to be able to serve more of the working poor.

Forty-eight percent of those receiving food at the West side pantry are presently getting food stamps, but it is still not enough to feed themselves or their families. In New York City, participants in the Food Stamp Program receive 88 cents per meal per person, less than half the average meal cost of $1.76. "Probably everyone who comes to the pantry is eligible for food stamps or should be" said Doreen Wohl. "But fifty-two percent are not getting them."

For Related Information:

In The News: Substance Abuse Treatment for the Developmentally Disabled


It is estimated that fifteen percent of those with developmental disabilities are addicted to drugs or alcohol - the same as the percentage in the rest of the population. In New York City, this translates to about 2,000 people, though the numbers may be much higher. According to a study released in 1999 by the National Association on Alcohol, Drugs & Disability, the incidence of substance abuse is growing among those with disabilities at two to four times the usual rate.

But getting help is a lot harder for someone with a developmental disability for several reasons. While an abundance of treatment programs exist for substance abuse, very few address the unique needs of those with cognitive difficulties. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, there has been a lag in modifying treatment to accommodate this population. In terms of social service provision for the developmentally disabled, there is scant screening for substance abuse, and frequently, a lack of awareness about the problem. Moreover, there are disincentives in terms of funding system requirements.

Deborah Lombardi is the Coordinator of Sobriety Services, the only day treatment program of its kind that serves people with developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems. According to Ms. Lombardi, drinking affects someone with a developmental disability profoundly. In the substance abuse field the Jelenick scale is commonly used to demonstrate the downward spiral of alcoholism. "Our people get there much quicker," Ms. Lombardi explained. "The results are devastating."

Sobriety Services, a 10 year-old program at Union Square in Manhattan, is part of the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC). Through individualized therapy, medical and psychiatric counseling, and a guided 12-step program approach, AHRC's Sobriety Services works with 100 developmentally disabled men and women, both adolescents and adults, in their outpatient alcoholism clinic.

Modifications from mainstream substance abuse treatment includes smaller groups; special materials that explain the literature (including the 12 steps) in pictures and concrete language; alternative avenues of expression, such as art; and a supportive community that includes others with similar disabilities.

Donna Mae is forty years old, from Brooklyn, with a 13-year old daughter. As a child, Donna Mae ate plaster containing lead paint. As a result, she is cognitively impaired, cannot read or write, and has difficulty measuring time. She starting smoking marijuana in her mid-20's and then her sister introduced her to crack. Her sister was able to stop, but Donna Mae was not.

Last December, Donna Mae went into her fourth detox. This time when she got out, she followed it up with the Sobriety Services program and recently celebrated 90 days drug free. "I'm proud of myself for getting my 90 days," she confided. "I never did it in my life. My daughter is proud of me. I just feel good."

Carl is 37 years old, from the Bronx, and recently counted his 253rd day off alcohol and drugs. "This place is keeping me out of jail and on the right track," he volunteered. "Everybody here, we're like friends. Without this place, I'd still be out there using."

Carl, mildly mentally retarded, was suicidal and living on the streets before he got sober. He had tried other programs, but without success. "Here it's different," he said. "It's like my family. " Carl goes to regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings on the outside, but says he feels safest at the meetings held at Sobriety Services. "I feel more secure here."

Lynda Sounds Off:

Unfortunately, AHRC's Sobriety Services stands alone in NYC and they can only serve 100 people, It is also a day program, not a residential treatment program.

"There are only 12 beds in the whole state set aside for residential treatment of people with developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems," said Ms. Lombardi. "The state needs to recognize this unserved population. We need residential inpatient halfway houses where people can live and be in treatment."

Lombardi suggests a collaborative effort between AHRC's Sobriety Services and existing residential treatment programs. "I'd love to collaborate with a residential treatment facility that would be willing to accept training from us for this specialized group and devote resources to service this population."

A collaborative effort with an existing program makes sense economically as well; completely replicating existing treatment facilities would be very costly.

Funding sources, however, often discourage such collaboration by their distinct focus, such as mental retardation or substance abuse, not allowing for cross-over services or not understanding the need for modifications when dealing with a dual diagnosis. A task force is needed, made up of people working on all sides of the issues, to better integrate these distinct service systems. Without some form of collaborative action, people like Donna Mae and Carl just won't get the help they need.

 

Private Child Welfare Agenices


A panel appointed by Federal District Court judge Robert J. Ward to advise the Administration for Children's Services issued a report in October recommending that the City tighten its supervision of private child welfare agencies. Judge Ward established the panel as part of a 1998 settlement of Marisol v. Guiliani, a class action suit that sought a major overhaul of the City's foster care system. Foster care for most of the 37,000 children in the system is provided by 60 private agencies under contract to the City. The Marisol panel contends in its new report that private agencies do not clearly understand what the City expects of them. "What happens to kids in care depends, to a large extent, on how well the City selects, oversees and supports these agencies," said Douglas W. Nelson, head of the panel and president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is based in Baltimore. While praising the current management team at Administration for Children's Services, Nelson said City oversight needs improvement . "Right now, the tools used to asses private agencies do not sufficiently reinforce quality practice, family involvement, neighborhood-based services or permanence - all things ACS sincerely and correctly want to promote."

Farber Sounds Off:

Until this decade, the City renewed its contracts with foster care agencies without regard to agency performance. It has taken several significant steps towards holding the 60 foster care providers accountable, but has fumbled its attempts to make its new accountability system meaningful. The City rates contract agencies on how often they file case records on time, for instance, but not on whether they work effectively with the parents of foster children. The Marisol panel is right on target when it urges the Administration for Children's Services to judge the performance of those practices it values most.

Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio. 



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