You wouldn't know it from coverage of the mayoral campaign, but the outcome will make a difference to New York City residents who depend on social services, particularly public assistance, job training and placement services, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and senior services.
While advocates for the poor view Michael Bloomberg as in many ways a welcome relief from Rudolph Giuliani, the current mayor has repeatedly vetoed anti-poverty measures passed by the City Council, and used the courts to thwart other such measures. He fought implementation of a law to create transitional jobs for welfare recipients moving into full-time work, and a law to provide more opportunities for welfare recipients to get education and training.
He also took legal advocates to court to prevent them from stationing staff in waiting rooms at welfare job centers, where they were available to clients needing help with city bureaucracy. Now an individual client may bring an advocate to a job center, but advocates cannot enter centers on their own and wait for clients to ask for help. The next mayor will have the power to change this rule and allow clients free access to legal help.
In August 2005, Legal Aid sued the city for failing to make necessary accommodations for welfare recipients with disabilities in its new WeCARE program, which seeks to enable them to work. Legal Aid also opposes the centralization of WeCARE services in three locations, increasing travel time for welfare applicants and recipients who have disabilities.
Although he has a school of public health named after him, Bloomberg has balked at expanding food aid that can help provide a healthy diet. Single, childless welfare recipients without disabilities can get food stamps for only three months if they do not participate in work or training activities. However, because New York City has high unemployment levels, the three-month limit could be waived, if the city requested it. The Bloomberg administration has refused to do so, in contrast to officials in most areas of the state that qualify for the exemption.
As Council Speaker, Gifford Miller led the Democrats in passing three bills to make it easier for people to apply for food stamps. The mayor vetoed them, and the Council overrode the vetoes. It is not clear how the Bloomberg administration will react to the override, now that it has announced it will use a newly awarded federal grant to develop an online application system to be used at welfare offices, food pantries, and soup kitchens. One of the vetoed bills calls for an online application system, and another requires applications to be made available at food pantries and soup kitchens.
The four leading Democratic candidates are all current or former City Council members, and have voted to add funding to the city's budget for food pantries and soup kitchens. Bloomberg, like preceding mayors, has cut these funds from the budget each year, requiring the council to bargain for their inclusion.
Anthony Weiner has expressed opposition to the city's requirement that food stamp applicants be fingerprinted. This was a Giuliani innovation continued by the Bloomberg administration.
The Earned Income Tax Credit
After public assistance checks, the single largest benefit for impoverished New Yorkers is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which can be worth up to $6,000 for an eligible household. Bloomberg's administration has effectively publicized this benefit and helped people fill out the forms for it, increasing the number of households receiving checks.
During Gifford Miller's tenure as Speaker, the Council established a city addition to the federal tax credit. Miller has made this credit a centerpiece of his campaign, pledging to double it, and also seek a new tax credit for low and middle-income renters.
The welfare reform law of 1996 expired in 2002; Congress and President George W. Bush have been trying to pass a more stringent version to replace it ever since. Currently, only 40 percent of the city's welfare recipients fulfill federal work requirements; most versions of a new welfare law will mandate that 70 percent of recipients work, and that parents of young children double their work hours from 20 to 40 a week.
Bloomberg and the four major Democratic mayoral candidates all oppose increasing work requirements. The city would have to pay more for child care, and to find or create jobs for people with major barriers to work, such as disabilities, lack of skills and experience, homelessness, and prison records.
Job Creation, Placement and Training
A report by the Community Service Society found that in 2003, only about half of the working-age African-American men in New York City had jobs. Several of the Democratic mayoral candidates have been inspired by that fact to address job issues beyond the welfare population.
Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx borough president, has attributed long-term unemployment among men and women of color to three factors: Lack of support for small businesses, lack of jobs in communities of color, and the failure of the school system to graduate students with the skills needed to work and/or go to college. He has criticized Bloomberg for concentrating on average test scores, at the expense of the students having the hardest time in school. Average test scores rise when these students drop out.
Ferrer's campaign has released a detailed plan to graduate 50,000 more students from high school in the next four years, and raise the city's graduation rates to the national average in eight years. Social services play a major role in the plan, which would give 100,000 more children after-school program services; offer mentoring and counseling to teenagers; provide more social workers, psychologists, and counselors for students and their families; and use family literacy programs to help children learn better while improving their parents' job prospects.
C. Virginia Fields, currently Manhattan borough president, has pledged to appoint a Deputy Mayor for Full Employment if she is elected mayor. She would work to develop more apprenticeship programs, and link the Department of Education to the City University of New York to "create new seamless paths of career training beginning in high school." She also proposes addressing unemployment through social services, such as "helping families at risk, expanding drug treatment options, better job training in jails."
Like Ferrer, she would focus school improvements on struggling students, and reducing the dropout rate.
Gifford Miller can point to an $18 million employment program he shepherded through the City Council, which is scheduled to start in September 2005. Reflecting the same priorities as those of Ferrer and Fields, the "Long Term Structural Unemployment Initiative" has three aspects: job training for ex-prisoners, school programs to prevent dropouts, and offering training and capital to entrepreneurs, particularly small ones, in communities of color.
Under Miller, the City Council passed a bill, signed into law by Bloomberg, mandating that city contractors employing a total of about 50,000 workers pay a living wage and provide health care coverage.
When Thomas Ognibene, the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor, addressed unemployment issues in the mayoral debate on poverty , he confined his recommendations to tactics already being tried by the One-Stop Career Centers set up by the city's Department of Small Business Services under Bloomberg. These were targeting training to industries needing workers, and encouraging unions to open their apprentice and job training program to more people.
Bloomberg has made progress in helping survivors of domestic violence. The city recently opened its first Family Justice Center, where legal services, benefits counseling, and specialized counseling for victims of domestic violence are all offered in the same place. The Police Department's Domestic Violence Response Teams focus on the two precincts with the highest incidences of domestic violence. Bloomberg signed a law that entitles survivors to emergency housing, with or without documentation of abuse.
Services for Senior Citizens
The Fields campaign offers seniors an "Aging in Place" program, to be funded if she is elected mayor. The program would expand the availability of services needed for seniors to live independently in their homes, such as social work and mental heath services, nutrition counseling, and medical and nursing care.
Anthony Weiner focused on faith-based services for the elderly at an appearance at New York University in late July 2005 . He stated that "the charitable sector has learned to do much better than we in government have done," even though he believes religious institutions are hampered by red tape when setting up these programs. Weiner promised, if elected, he would appoint a non-profit "czar" to shepherd them through the process of getting regulatory waivers, locating real estate, and doing outreach to potential clients.
Under Miller's leadership, the City Council made the popular Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption available to nearly 1,000 more elderly renters next year, by raising the income level under which they qualify for the exemption. As its name suggests, this program exempts low-income seniors from rent increases; the increases are paid to the landlord from city funds.
Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, has been in charge of the Social Services topic page since November, 2001.Â