Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1127 Tue, 21 Jan 2020 17:15:54 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As HRA Announces Closure of Another Food Stamp Center, Research Finds Excessive Wait-Times https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8580-hra-closure-food-stamp-center-excessive-wait-times https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8580-hra-closure-food-stamp-center-excessive-wait-times mayorremark supportive

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


During a recent budget hearing at the City Council, Council Member Stephen Levin asked Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks about wait-times at Human Resources Administration centers. "Have we seen an increase in wait times?” asked Levin; “How are we monitoring wait-times in light of the Jazmine Headley incident and as we're talking about staffing levels at HRA Centers?”

Confident in tone and content, Commissioner Banks answered: "[I]n SNAP and food stamp centers the wait-time is about 20 minutes because 87% of the applications are done online and 93% of the interviews are done by phone, and there's a reduction of foot traffic by more than 40% in those locations.” He continued, “and in terms of the wait-times in the Job Centers...we're about twice as long in those offices as in the food stamp centers."

Our team has conducted a significant analysis of the underlying data the city uses to calculate and report its wait times. We believe that Commissioner Banks’ response is misleading.

The use of misleading data on this matter is a risk for all poor New York City residents, and takes particular importance given the closure of two SNAP (food stamp) centers last year, and the recently-announced closure of the St. Nicholas SNAP Center in Harlem, which is planned for the end of this month.

A Background to Waiting at HRA
Council Member Levin’s May 22 questions above were referring to an incident in December 2018, captured on a cell phone video that went viral, when police assaulted Jazmine Headley and her infant son at a Brooklyn Public Assistance center. Headley had already waited in the center (otherwise known as a Job Center) for four hours before the situation unnecessarily escalated to police violence.

While the media justifiably focused on the physical violence she experienced, Headley’s story also raised another, less-publicized issue that our clients at Urban Justice Center report to us daily: excessive wait-times at HRA that cause upset children, missed days of work or school, increased tension at centers, and unnecessary interruptions in their lives.  

New York City’s welfare and food stamp (SNAP) centers are notorious for using wait-times to prevent or delay benefits access. Under Mayor Koch in the 1980s, the city’s efforts to prevent benefits access were so significant that Community Action Legal Services issued a report entitled The In-Human Resources Administration’s Churning Campaign. Under Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s, those in need of food stamps could not even obtain an application until their second center visit. Under the Bloomberg administration, public assistance recipients continued to be systematically discouraged from accessing cash aid by HRA.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration is undoubtedly more receptive of benefits applicants than those that preceded it; however, our analysis of the city’s wait-time data shows that the client experience at HRA is still unreasonable and unacceptable.

In February of this year, in the wake of the violence experienced by Headley, the City Council held a hearing about the experiences of people at HRA centers. When Council members asked HRA officials why Headley’s attempt to complete a seemingly simple task had taken four hours at one of their centers, they explained that her situation that day was an exception. However, the findings we published in our recent Bureaucracy of Benefits report, based on surveys of over 130 HRA applicants and recipients, found that wait times averaged 3.13 hours at Public Assistance (Job) Centers and 2.78 hours at SNAP centers.

Under a local law passed at the end of 2017, HRA must post the “average” wait times at centers on its website. In January 2019, the reported citywide wait time averages were 50 minutes for Job Centers and 45 minutes for SNAP centers. These are the numbers HRA administrators seemingly refer to when publicly questioned about the centers’ wait times, and presumably provided the rationale for calling Headley’s four hour-long wait an “exception.”

In an effort to determine why the city’s publicized wait times are significantly less than what our surveys reflected and what we hear so often from people who go to the centers, we issued a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request for the breakdown of the center wait-times.

What We Found
Our review found that HRA manipulates the data to make it appear as though people are waiting significantly less time in centers and then putting forward numbers publicly that do not match the reality poor New Yorkers experience each day.

The picture painted by city officials in testimony and in the online data is that visits to HRA Centers are fairly simple and quick experiences. But they are not. Furthermore, there are patterns in the data that show disproportionately heavy delays in the Bronx – the poorest borough and where the city has the highest rates of complaints at Job and SNAP Centers (see Bureaucracy of Benefits report).

The data shows that HRA, which is the nation’s largest social service agency and which claims its role is the “effective and efficient administration of more than 12 major public benefits programs, which reflects this Administration's priority of addressing poverty and income inequality,” routinely makes New Yorkers wait several hours at its offices for any and all needs. Our analysis confirms that Headley’s experience with waiting was far more common than officials admitted and resonated closely with what our clients tell us everyday.

1. Ticket-stacking: HRA’s data is compiled by tracking the amount of time that it takes for an individual to be called for a “ticket,” which individuals are given when they go into a center (for the purpose of our analysis, “ticket” refers to the tracking system HRA uses to delineate the reasons for a person’s visit to the center). However, when an individual goes to the center, they frequently need more than one ticket to accomplish a particular task. Sometimes they get multiple tickets upon entering, and sometimes they will be given additional tickets successively, either because the first person they met with was not able to help them or because there are multiple steps to a particular task.

For example, in order to apply for a new Public Assistance case, an individual must fill out a lengthy application and then also complete an application interview. These are each individual tickets. HRA is averaging the data as if each of these is a singular experience for which an individual might visit a center, when in reality, applicants are doing both in one trip. The citywide average wait time in September 2018 for an application was 17 minutes, but the average wait time for an interview was 1 hour and 34 minutes. HRA is averaging these two numbers together in calculating overall wait-time averages, when in fact they should be combined to get a complete picture of the applicant’s wait time.

2. Unweighted data: HRA’s data seemingly does not account for ticket volume by center. For instance, in September 2018, HRA calculates the citywide average wait time for those presenting to resolve a Cash Assistance (CA) missed appointment at 45 minutes. When we calculated the data weighting the amount of time against the amount of tickets for missed CA appointments, we calculated an average wait time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, more than doubling the city’s reported figure.  

3. Averaging-in zeros: According to the data, not all centers give out every ticket type in any given month. It is unclear if this is because each center employs its own practices of assigning tickets, or if some centers simply do not see certain needs in a given month. Regardless, the fact that HRA includes the tickets without any data (and therefore zero-minute wait-times) in their overall averaging provides a highly skewed presentation of what is actually happening. For instance, HRA reported (in response to our FOIL request) that the citywide average wait time to see a supervisor was 30 minutes in September. However, five centers did not report any tickets given for waiting to see a supervisor. HRA is including zero-minute waits from these five centers, which skews the citywide average.

4. Exceptional waits for Bronx residents: Repeatedly, Bronx Centers had the highest wait times reported. In September 2018, the Citywide Average Wait time for a supervisor was 30 minutes. However, at Concourse Center in the Bronx, wait-time to speak with a supervisor was 1 hour and 16 minutes. Bronx Centers had the highest (or second highest) wait times for almost every issue area we reviewed, including childcare, cash assistance application interviews, cash assistance recertifications, cash assistance reopenings, cash assistance missed appointments, and cash assistance mandatory dispute resolutions, among other appointment types.

5. Excluding service times: The publicly posted wait-time data fails to capture the additional time that individuals spend in the Center actually completing the services they came for, or the “service-time data,” which can be hours.

For the application interview, the citywide service time average in September 2018 was 47 minutes. Combined with the average service time for the application itself (5 minutes) and the wait times for both the application and application interview, an individual who needed to apply for Public Assistance in September 2018 was spending, on average, over 2.5 hours at the center. If they requested to speak to a supervisor for any reason, the overall time would go up to over 3 hours and 20 minutes. In cases where someone is waiting for multiple appointments in one visit, it is likely they will spend the majority of their day at the Center.

The extensive wait-times for benefits is yet another example of how New York City punishes people for poverty. Available data shows that people of color are disproportionately forced to rely on benefits to survive, and that women are disproportionately the “heads of household” for a family’s benefits case. To make matters worse, almost none of the mandatory services for Public Assistance applicants or recipients can be done online or over the phone. That means that in order to receive Public Assistance benefits, one must be prepared to wait – for hours and repeatedly.

While Commissioner Banks says improvements are coming through technology – and we have already seen some of the city’s technological developments unfold for SNAP-only cases – we remain very concerned that there is a significant need for increasing staff at the centers rather than simply focusing on robotic solutions.

And we are very concerned about HRA’s closure of a third SNAP Center this coming month. Of note, that closure will push SNAP recipients assigned to the St. Nicholas Center in Central Harlem to the East End Center in East Harlem, which is already known by advocates to struggle with caseload requirements that lead to long waits and often very serious case errors.

The waiting imposed on poor New Yorkers is long-standing and punitive but is it not inevitable. Increasing staff at HRA centers, increasing the number of benefits centers in each borough, and making it easier for New Yorkers to resolve problems and complete needed actions over the phone and online would all help significantly. Halting the closure of SNAP centers is another immediate step that can be taken to prevent excessive waits and pervasive errors in people’s cases.

Different decisions about allocating resources can be made that would reduce the notoriously frustrating length of time poor people spend waiting for and interacting with the city’s benefits bureaucracy. The question is whether our city is willing to do so.  

***
by Kiana Davis, Isabel Hellman, Craig Hughes, Khadija Hussain & Helen Strom of the Urban Justice Center – Safety Net Project. On Twitter @SafetyNetUJC.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
As HRA Announces Closure of Another Food Stamp Center, Research Finds Excessive Wait-Times Wed, 12 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8209-the-government-shutdown-and-trump-s-war-on-the-safety-net https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8209-the-government-shutdown-and-trump-s-war-on-the-safety-net levin steve epap

City Council Member Stephen Levin, the author


We have now reached the longest government shutdown in history with no plans for reaching a deal anytime soon. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers’ jobs have been impacted and the shutdown has delayed mortgage applications, caused significant Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) staffing callouts, impacted basic healthcare access for Native Americans, and created waste pile-ups at national parks. Federal employees have even started looking for new jobs after being denied their paychecks last week with no sign of progress.

Worse still to come, the shutdown could put the nation’s safety net in peril. Forty-two million Americans rely on food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps); if the shutdown continues into February, we will see an increase in hunger nationwide as people lose benefits and are forced to turn to emergency assistance at food pantries.  Following pressure, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) committed to funding February SNAP benefits, however, if the shutdown continues, the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities estimates families could see their benefits cut by 40%. In New York City alone, almost 1.7 million residents depend on food stamps, and would be forced to worry if they’ll be able to provide enough food for their loved ones simply because of President Trump’s political game of chicken.

This government shutdown is callous and irresponsible; and we’ve already begun to see the impacts on nutrition benefits. According to Rewire News, over 2,500 grocery stores have stopped accepting SNAP because of paperwork filing issues caused by the federal government. States are also required to apply to issue February benefits by January 20, disrupting recipients’ normal monthly food aid schedule. One SNAP recipient in Brooklyn, Brenda Riley, with the Safety Net Activists said it best: "The president and other politicians who have created this shutdown should sacrifice their own salaries instead of hurting families who are already on soup lines."

Unfortunately, the president’s disregard for SNAP recipients is just the latest attack in a long line of attempts to dissolve the country’s safety net and harm low-income communities. Perhaps most concerning is the proposed executive order published late last month calling for new work restrictions on the SNAP program to cut off basic food assistance for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Under the current policy, single adults 18-through-49 are only granted SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years if they are not working more than 20 hours per week. However, longstanding bipartisan rules have allowed waivers to this restrictive policy, recognizing high rates of unemployment in communities and lack of job training access that make work requirements extremely burdensome. Trump’s proposed rule would significantly reduce allowances for job waivers, effectively cutting off the lowest income recipients who are unable to work more than 20 hours a week or who have a difficult time finding a job. This proposal undermines the very notion of a safety net, and unrealistically expects recipients to suddenly afford groceries, maintain stable housing and cover high health costs.

SNAP has been an incredibly successful program and made the difference for millions of families who don’t have to sacrifice groceries to be able to afford their monthly rent. In 2015, food assistance lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, including 2 million children and 366,000 seniors. Adding burdensome work requirements would only make it harder for already struggling New Yorkers to cover basic expenses, and would further contribute to the city’s income divide.

It’s also bad economic policy. In 2017 alone, SNAP helped generate over $5 billion in economic impact in New York City, as every dollar spent through SNAP adds $1.79 to its local economy. The fact is, the vast majority of Americans who receive SNAP already work, and for those who don’t, it is largely due to a disability or circumstance that prevents them from working. These new restrictions reinforce harmful stereotypes in order to discourage participation and public investment in the program more broadly.

The onslaught of attacks on the SNAP program require that we fight back. New York City has long committed to investing in food assistance programs -- such as through passing legislation to increase awareness and enrollment among eligible residents and by making healthy, local food accessible to all SNAP recipients through the City’s GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange Project. As a result of the Greenmarket partnership, over $1 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at city farmers markets in 2016 alone. But federal restrictions are rolling back public assistance at a time when the need is increasing. Rent continues to rise and New Yorkers are facing stagnant wages and supermarket closures, making it difficult to afford nutritious food.

The government shutdown and recent cuts to SNAP are also impacting our city’s emergency food assistance program — providers have shared they are seeing increased traffic as people are supplementing their SNAP benefits with food pantries and soup kitchens. With recipients’ monthly SNAP benefits running out sooner, many are turning to food pantries to make ends meet, where monthly resources are depleted quicker and providers are struggling to keep up with the demand. If the shutdown continues much longer, New York City will need an emergency assistance contingency plan.

The president’s ongoing attack on food assistance is nothing short of draconian. I encourage New Yorkers to call on the administration and Republican leadership to join House Democrats’ efforts to reopen the government and protect New Yorkers’ access to food aid. And when the Food and Drug Administration’s public comment period on work requirements opens, I will be submitting comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Congress has long maintained bipartisan support of the food stamps program and should not let up now — the 42 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits are counting on us.

***
Stephen Levin is a City Council Member from Brooklyn and chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. On Twitter @StephenLevin33.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net Wed, 16 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
At Hearing on Hunger, Council Presses De Blasio Administration on SNAP Participation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6086-at-hearing-on-hunger-council-presses-de-blasio-administration-on-snap-participation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6086-at-hearing-on-hunger-council-presses-de-blasio-administration-on-snap-participation lander menchaca hunger

CMs Lander, left, and Menchaca confer on Wednesday (photo via @NYCCouncil)


At an oversight hearing Wednesday about the city's efforts to fight hunger, members of the City Council general welfare committee questioned a panel of de Blasio administration officials about key city programs. Council members asked about participation in the Supplement and Nutritional Assistance Program (also known as “SNAP” or “food stamps”), Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP) efforts, and other components of anti-hunger services.

About 1.4 million New Yorkers - 16.5 percent of the population - are food insecure, according to data from the 2015 NYC Food Metrics Report. And as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an advocacy group, has found, 48 percent of food insecure New Yorkers between the ages of 15 and 65 were employed (2012-2014). Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Participation in SNAP for eligible New Yorkers has decreased under Mayor Bill de Blasio, as it did under his predecessor. Though approximately 1.7 million New Yorkers received SNAP assistance as of this past November, Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg estimates that around 500,000 people in the city are eligible but not enrolled.

“It seems that the reduction in benefits by the federal government is probably one of the largest reasons for why there has been a decrease in SNAP participation,” Human Resources Administration Chief Program Officer Lisa Fitzpatrick said at the Council hearing Wednesday.

Representatives from HRA, the city agency that handles the benefits, testified that the city is only aware of the SNAP participation rate among eligible senior citizens. It was calculated by using information from the Benefits Data Trust and Medicaid rolls. That number - 50 percent as of 2014 - may have increased because of a senior citizens outreach program launched by the de Blasio administration to get more eligible seniors signed up for food stamps.

Why HRA does not collect similar data about the larger population and food stamp participation was a question raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a member of the committee, asked administration reps how good the city can make its understanding of the “universe” of eligible New Yorkers not receiving SNAP.

“The strategy has been less about ‘Can we get an actual concrete number?’” Barbara Turk, the food policy director in the mayor’s office, said. Turk proceeded to explain ways in which SNAP eligible people are engaged and encouraged to apply, such as during interviews from city workers on related subjects.

Though much relevant data is released in the city’s annual Food Metrics Report, the number of New Yorkers eligible for SNAP that aren’t receiving it is not.

“The question isn’t ‘Are we working hard?’” Lander asked. “The question is do we have the tool for evaluating how that’s going?”

“And I understand why it’s complicated,” Lander continued, “but I’ll be honest, it sounds like for a range of sensible reasons, you really don’t.”

Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the committee, expressed similar concern when the topic came up later in the hearing.

Levin asked if the percentage of senior citizens not receiving SNAP benefits entitled to them changed because of the senior citizen outreach program launched by the de Blasio administration and nonprofit partners in September 2014. Turk said that “it’s a number that moves around a lot” and did not give a concrete answer.

“We want to make sure that it’s working and data should be reflecting the efforts and so we should be able to see the impacts and the trend numbers,” Levin said, mentioning, by contrast, that the city has observed a rise in high school graduation. “I think a good way to know how this program is working is whether or not that number is going up to 52 percent, or 53 percent or 55 percent.”

HRA emergency food assistance, SNAP enrollment outreach to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments, and other topics related to city policy on hunger were also discussed at the hearing. After the panel of de Blasio administration representatives, advocates from the Coalition Against Hunger, the Citizens’ Committee for Children, and other organizations testified. Advocates added depth to the severity of the problem being outlined at the hearing and largely said that they were supportive of HRA Commissoiner Steve Banks' leadership.

It is possible that the SNAP participation rate could soon increase thanks to a change in state policy: one of the proposals included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State budget book, released on Wednesday, would raise the state’s Gross Income Test for SNAP eligibility from 130 percent to 150 percent of the poverty line. This would make the benefits available to 750,000 households that previously could not get them, according to the budget book estimate.

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

]]>
At Hearing on Hunger, Council Presses De Blasio Administration on SNAP Participation Thu, 14 Jan 2016 03:36:21 +0000
Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6082-council-to-assess-hunger-problem-city-efforts-to-reduce-it https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6082-council-to-assess-hunger-problem-city-efforts-to-reduce-it de blasio food thanksgiving

Mayor de Blasio serving food (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


The City Council’s Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on hunger in New York City on Wednesday morning at City Hall.

Council Member Stephen Levin, the chair of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette he and his colleagues want to get a broad assessment of hunger in the city, as well as specifics related to de Blasio administration efforts to mitigate the problem, which is the result, in large part, of high poverty rates.

At the hearing, Levin added, the committee would review increasing and decreasing barriers to the federally funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP or “food stamps”), SNAP enrollment, the status of food pantries, state hunger programs, and other components.

“We want to hear what initiatives this administration is taking,” Levin said. “We’re eager to hear what recommendations they’re able to put forward and hear...what they’re working on.”

Under Commissioner Steven Banks, Mayor de Blasio’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has increased SNAP access, eased work requirements for agency clients, and enacted several other reforms. De Blasio also expanded the “breakfast after the bell” program for all public elementary schools, which advocates praised while recommending universal free school lunch.

Still, hunger remains a harsh reality for many New Yorkers.

As of last November, HRA was providing nutritional assistance to 1,686,941 New Yorkers, 45,406 fewer than a year before. In addition to the food stamps, one in five New Yorkers are assisted by the Food Bank of New York City, the major hunger relief organization that receives funding from the city, which reported in a recent survey of its agencies “that they had run out of food, or particular types of food, needed to make adequate meals or pantry bags” last September.

Continuing a decline that began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, SNAP participation in the city has gone down under de Blasio. According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg, a main cause of the decline is federal divestment of half a billion dollars in New York City SNAP funds.

“The amount of the benefits decreased and the caseloads decreased,” said Berg, who estimates that about 500,000 New Yorkers are eligible for nutritional assistance but don't receive it. “And so, there’s no question that lower benefit levels do also reduce participation.”

Lisa Levy, Coalition Against Hunger’s director of policy, advocacy and organizing, will testify at Wednesday’s hearing on behalf of the organization, Berg said.

Because SNAP is federally funded, the City Council is limited in actions it can take on nutritional assistance policy. “We have been investing more resources in food pantries through the Food Bank of New York City,” Council Member Ritchie Torres, a member of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette. “But as with many issues, we are hamstrung by a Congress in Washington that is disinvesting, ever more deeply, in the city.”

Though New York City’s employment has recovered from the recession, Berg insists that this has not translated to reduced hunger. “The lines of pantries and kitchens are still as long as ever,” he said.

According to research from Coalition Against Hunger, many food insecure New Yorkers do indeed work. The group found that between 2012-2014, 48 percent of food insecure New Yorkers between the ages of 15 and 65 worked. While significant minimum wage raises being pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others would likely reduce that number if enacted, there could be an unintended consequence of the wage hike for New Yorkers receiving nutritional assistance.

Berg, while praising the wage hikes, does worry that, “In some cases, particularly with single people, the amount of SNAP benefits they lose could exceed the value of the wage increase,” said Berg, who has advocated for raising the income level needed to receive food stamps to expand eligibility.

Council Member Levin indicated that he would look into the wage hike issue. “It’s hard to kind of predict, and I think you’d have to kind of drill down on the individual case and really that individual and that family’s situation,” he said. “But certainly, it’s something that we should be asking about.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been updated.

]]>
Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It Mon, 11 Jan 2016 22:22:40 +0000