With the city’s welfare rolls continuing to shrink and unemployment increasing, City Councilmember Bill de Blasio last week questioned if the city agency responsible for administrating public assistance was closing cases prematurely.
But in a public war of words, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) commissioner took de Blasio to task for not understanding the reasoning behind reducing the welfare rolls.
“We absolutely want to see families transitioning off of public assistance and into employment, but I fear that is not actually happening right now,” said de Blasio, chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee.
“Are we supposed to believe that each closed public assistance case is really a success story? Are people truly leaving welfare because they found a living wage job? I am deeply concerned that the city is moving to close cases too quickly, and essentially trading one form of government assistance for another,” he added.
De Blasio’s remarks came after New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) statistics found emergency food providers reported serving 28 percent more people than last year, and the city’s own data shows an additional 212,530 people receiving food stamps in November 2008 compared to one year earlier.
Additionally, the number of unemployed New Yorkers has also soared over the past year, growing from 422,046 in November 2007 to 567,303 in November 2008. The number of homeless families reached a 25-year high of 9,720 in November, with 1,343 homeless families entering the city’s shelter system during that month alone.
According to HRA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio, the number of Brooklyn welfare recipients has shrunk about 6,000 in the past year with 116,115 people receiving the full welfare package of cash assistance, food stamps and medical coverage in November 2007 as compared to 110,352 in November 2008.
At the same time, unemployment in Brooklyn has inched up in the past year from the mid-five percent range to the mid-six percent range, according to a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce spokesperson.
HRA Commissioner Robert Doar noted that in the past De Blasio praised the HRA and reaffirmed his support for both the authors and mission of welfare reform.
“I find his statements today contradictory and disappointing. The city’s success under Mayor Bloomberg in reducing the welfare caseload is a result of strong work-focused employment program that favors work over continued receipt of welfare,” said Doar.
“Using this approach, HRA has recorded over 75,000 job placements this year, nearly 10 percent above last year’s pace. Rather than remaining on the welfare rolls for an extended period, it is far better for our city’s families if parents who can work, do work, even if they continue to receive food stamps or other supports once they begin working.”
But NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg said the HRA numbers do not add up in that it would be hard to place 75,000 people in jobs while at the same time unemployment is going up.
“I strongly support the goal of enabling families to move from public assistance to living wage jobs. Yet over the past few years — and especially during the current economic downturn —families removed from the welfare rolls are unable to find substantial work opportunities and are instead being pushed deeper into poverty and increasingly forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens,” said Berg.
“That’s not real welfare reform — that’s a counterproductive policy of punishing poor people for being poor,” he added.