In Departure from Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls City Welfare System

By Samar Khurshid

The de Blasio administration is more than halfway through an ambitious overhaul of its welfare system that was initiated last year and is drawing strong reactions. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Steven Banks, who runs the city’s Human Resources Administration, did away with strict work requirements for people seeking public assistance and established a more conciliatory framework focused on workforce preparation.

In a controversial departure from the practices of their predecessors, they moved away from the  work-first model, created new metrics to gauge their progress, and decided to be less punitive. While Banks calls it a more humane approach, critics are sounding the alarm that the city is encouraging reliance on government cash.

Among many programs that the Human Resources Administration runs, including homelessness prevention and food stamps, the cash assistance welfare benefit is at the center of the reforms under de Blasio and Banks.

Left-leaning experts welcome the city’s new direction, which emphasizes enrollee training and education over immediate placement into often unpaid, unskilled jobs, creating, they say, long-term employability. However, critics from conservative think tanks and prior administrations believe the system is taking a step back to the bad old days when welfare enrollment swelled and, they say, the system encouraged dependence on government and perpetuated poverty.

Roughly 490,000 New Yorkers were on the welfare rolls over the course of 2015. Of HRA’s total budget of $9.8 billion, about $1.48 billion goes to these welfare recipients. This includes $650 million in city funding, nearly $266 million from the state and about $565 million in federal dollars. The average family of three receives about $826 per month under the system, while an individual receives roughly $485. A little more than 50,000 of those receiving cash assistance were required to participate in work activities and directly affected by the reforms.

Changes have raised key questions being debated by city officials, advocates, and analysts: Why focus on education and job training over work-first programs? Why are the welfare rolls increasing when the economy is experiencing unprecedented growth and food stamp enrollment has consistently fallen for years? What is the best way to move people off of public assistance?

Gotham Gazette spoke with Banks and two of his predecessors to delve into the mechanics of the welfare system and the changes Banks is making to it. Naturally, Banks defended his reforms, which his predecessors believe will burden the system, perpetuate unemployment, and do little to reduce poverty. “Some of the criticism has been that people would now be required to do nothing,” Banks said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Stress on ‘Human’
When Mayor Bill de Blasio came to power, he foresaw a shake-up in most ways the city does business, especially in its approach to aiding and empowering those that a booming economy had left behind. Formerly the chair of the City Council general welfare committee with oversight of the city’s social service agencies, de Blasio wanted to avoid what he saw as missteps of his predecessors and infuse those services with more empathy and efficacy in helping lift people out of poverty.

In February 2014, de Blasio appointed former Legal Aid Society chief attorney Steven Banks to run the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and reform New York City’s gargantuan welfare system. The task was something of a culmination for Banks, who had spent years suing the city for what Legal Aid saw as more humane, effective treatment of New York’s most vulnerable.

“We have to make our government work for New Yorkers who need a helping hand – not against them,” Banks said at his appointment. “I am humbled by the opportunity to do so at an agency with a broad scope and impact like HRA, and I look forward to quickly putting Mayor de Blasio’s vision into practice.”

HRA’s mandate is to administer two key ongoing benefits – Temporary Assistance in cash and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also commonly known as food stamps) – along with a slew of other services including adult protective services, domestic violence services, HIV/AIDS services and emergency food assistance.

Temporary assistance takes two forms – the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Safety Net Assistance, which is funded by the state and city. Those who are able, must participate in work activities to receive benefits – requirements at the center of Banks’ reforms, and the criticism of them. The monetary benefits are placed onto a Common Benefits Identification Card (CBIC) twice a month electronically for disbursement to clients.

In order for HRA to receive state and federal funds for these programs, Banks had just eight months from his appointment to submit to the state a biennial employment planto provide services to recipients of ongoing benefits. The plan would have to take into account state and federal laws on welfare work requirements and would have to be put into full effect within two years.

With the December 31, 2016 deadline looming, Banks believes the city is on track to meet its goal.

Later this month HRA will put out requests for proposals to re-bid all its employment services contracts. These services include employability determinations, development of employment plans, job skills training and education with the goal of restoring self-sufficiency.

One of the first measures that Banks implemented was creating an annual unduplicated count of cash assistance rolls which displayed a more accurate picture of enrollment in the welfare system. The previous method of relying on monthly enrollment data was often misleading, since it also includes recipients of emergency one-time assistance and does not account for the “churn” of people going on and off the rolls — roughly one in four welfare recipients would return to the system within twelve months, according to HRA estimates.

This new counting system has shown virtually flat welfare enrollment annually, but a greater number of people on the welfare rolls by month, provoking criticism, which the administration has rebuked.

Banks also reformed the process that led to churn (and suppressed monthly totals) by changing how sanctions or penalties are imposed on benefit recipients who fail to follow the rules of work programs. In keeping with a recent law passed by the state, he not only made benefits more accessible but also addressed the duplicative workload on HRA staff which helped the city avoid a $10 million penalty from the state for excessive hearings. Fair hearings are the process by which recipients can appeal a sanction.

But the most significant departure from the policies that defined previous administrations is the phasing out of the contentious Work Experience Program — which emphasized rapid placement of able-bodied welfare recipients into the workforce — and replacing it with a refocus on job training and education for those seeking help from the city. The new system allows recipients of temporary assistance up to 24-years-old to participate in full-time basic education (GED, vocational training, etc.) and be exempt from work activities. It also allows participation in a four-year college degree program, full-time for the first 12 months and then with 20 hours of work requirements thereafter. Under the old rules, recipients older than 19 could only study full-time for one year.

Back to the Future
The Work Experience Program is a decades-old policy expanded under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that required public assistance recipients to work 35 hours each week at city agencies and nonprofits. Many critics of the program say participants received little to show for it, working menial or unpaid jobs in return for HRA benefits.

The policy, along with tough sanction procedures for those violating program rules, brought the welfare rolls down from an all-time monthly high of 1.1 million in 1993 (the year Giuliani was elected) to about 460,000 by the end of 2001 (Giuliani’s final year in office). Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who continued the policy, enrollment dropped even further, to about 339,513 monthly by the end of his third term, in 2013.

Under Mayor de Blasio, this monthly number has risen slightly over the last two years — to 360,398 in December 2015. There is agreement on all sides that new HRA reforms led to this growth — but experts cite varying justifications and draw widely different implications from it.

“The idea was to basically step away from the idea of ‘work-fare’ and re-emphasize education and job training,” said Alex Armlovich, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “If welfare rolls aren’t declining then it’s not working.”

Armlovich authored a report, released Wednesday, which benchmarked these trends in the welfare system. The report points out that monthly enrollment in public assistance increased while the 12-month job retention rate for former welfare recipients dropped from 75 percent in 2013 to 64 percent in 2015. Armlovich is less than enthusiastic about HRA’s move away from work placement. He believes delayed entry to the workforce is a detrimental measure and that under Bloomberg, the city “had a better formula.”

HRA spokesperson David Neustadt, in response to the Manhattan Institute report, pointed out that after May 2014, the agency changed the way it counts job placements. HRA no longer counts people who apply for one-time emergency assistance and already have a job. They also don’t count people who are rejected for assistance and later get a job on their own. “Neither situation should have been claimed as a job placement when reported in 2013,” Neustadt said in an email.

He also rejected the notion of relying on monthly numbers, as Armlovich did in the report, and pointed to the largely unchanged annual unduplicated count.

“Generally when the average person thinks of someone receiving “welfare” it’s someone on continuing cash assistance, not someone who gets one time emergency help with rent or utility bills,” Neustadt said. “Combining them would not seem to promote the most useful discussion of the issue.”

Tom Hilliard, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, a more liberal think tank, believes that the agency’s new direction is long overdue after years of policies that didn’t take into account changes in the economy. He said it is entirely possible, as has been alleged in the past, that the former administration pushed down the public assistance rolls, although not necessarily as part of a clear and intentional policy to juice numbers.

“It would be reasonable to say that there’s a natural snapback — if you spent many years pushing down access to public assistance — when you stop doing that,” he said.

Hilliard’s opinion was echoed by Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The Giuliani administration put into effect work-first focused restrictive cash assistance programs,” she said. “Bloomberg basically continued the policy. The new de Blasio administration came in with a different perspective.”

Jason Turner was HRA Commissioner under Mayor Giuliani and was integral in designing the system. He is pessimistic about de Blasio’s reforms and expects the welfare caseloads to increase dramatically with little or no benefit to families. “The objective has changed from self-employment, self-reliance, or, rather, self-sufficiency and earned income, to income distribution without mutual obligation,” Turner said.

Current HRA Commissioner Banks has been quick to counter arguments that the city is easing requirements and allowing more New Yorkers to coast on the dole. The new measure of enrollment, the unduplicated annual count, has stayed relatively stable for the last seven years, he says, but critics are overly focused on the monthly count. In December 2008, the unduplicated number was 494,722 and in November 2015, it stood at 489,310, according to HRA.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Banks conceded that the monthly numbers would see fluctuations as the new plan is implemented, but the unduplicated count would be “essentially flat.”

“The reason why we focused on that is because the monthly number is susceptible to what happened in the past, which is, prior policies resulted in people being cut off,” Banks said.

Sanctioning Reforms
Part of the reason the temporary assistance system before Banks was a revolving door for 25 percent of clients was the sanction process for people who failed to comply with work activity rules. To receive cash assistance, clients had to commit a number of work hours each week and adhere to strict rules. Missing a single work appointment or failing to comply with a drug test without just cause, for instance, could lead to benefits being revoked for six months.

Sanctions were also often computer-generated, with little human involvement, and once imposed, prevented HRA clients from joining or participating in a training or education program, which was the basic requirement for receiving assistance. In 2015, according to estimates by the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, 21,474 cases were brought to a fair hearing after a sanction and only 242 were deemed valid.

These oft-critiqued sanctions have even been linked to homelessness — HRA found that about 23 percent of people applying for shelter during a six-month period in 2013 had a case closing or sanctions in the prior twelve months. Under Banks, the agency eased sanctions for minor transgressions — such as missing or being late to a work appointment — and made it easier for people to appeal an unfair penalty. Then, in December 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law revamping the sanction process.

“This is a sensible, much-needed measure that will help ensure people on public assistance are not unjustly penalized and forced to go hungry or live on the street,” Cuomo said in a statement when he signed the legislation. The new rules allow recipients to re-enter welfare work programs more quickly and also require their cases to be reviewed by HRA staff members.

“Now families will no longer have to face being stuck unnecessarily in sanctions that prevent them from participating in work and job training and put them at risk of going to a homeless shelter,” Mayor de Blasio said in response to the law.

There is some disagreement as to whether it was necessary to ease these sanctions. Angela Rachidi, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former HRA deputy commissioner for policy research. She defended the outgoing approach. “In terms of the sanction process, there were a lot of opportunities for people to comply with the work requirements,” she said, adding that the 25 percent return of clients to cash assistance was low by industry standards.

Banks was quick to point out that while the sanctions had been reformed, they had not been erased. “Work activity is a core part of our mission because our mission is to help people move out of poverty,” he told Gotham Gazette. “And so the sanction process does not forgive anybody who does not participate in work activity.” Far from an arbitrary determination, he said HRA was simply following state guidance.

As Banks insisted, replacing the WEP with education and training programs wouldn’t mean that people “would now be required to do nothing.”

“That’s not the reform and that’s not what’s been happening,” he said.

Critics of HRA’s redirection point not to the fact that it moves away from a policy that seemed to work — rather that it steps back into old territory they say was ineffective.

Under Mayor David Dinkins, when welfare enrollment skyrocketed, the administration’s approach was similar, stressing training and education. The failure of that program, as well as subsequent research by the MDRC, a think tank, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, led to the accepted wisdom in the Giuliani and Bloomberg years that work-first programs were more effective. Education and training, while made available, were not prioritized.

“What’s often not appreciated is that the strategy under Giuliani and Bloomberg had some serious research behind it,” said Center for an Urban Future’s Hilliard. “But that didn’t keep up with changes in the economy.”

Hilliard said changes in the labor force over the last generation have placed a “premium on education.”

“For adults with no more than a high school diploma, decent jobs are scarce. If you’re a high-school dropout, decent jobs are non-existent, for all intents and purposes,” he said.

Commissioner Banks cited these same reasons. City estimates show that 60 percent of welfare recipients who are required to participate in a work activity don’t have a high school degree.

“Since our mission is to help people move off the caseload and out of poverty, education and training is a really critical piece of it,” Banks said.

It’s also important to note that these programs don’t apply across the board. Out of the nearly 500,000 recurring clients on cash assistance, Banks estimates that only about 80,000 are required under federal and state regulations to undertake a work activity. The rest — children, seniors, people with disabilities — don’t need to work to qualify for assistance.

Of the 80,000, another 27,000, Banks said, are working and either underemployed or in minimum wage jobs that aren’t sufficient to support a family. That leaves just over 50,000 people who who are eligible for the new education and training regime — which inherited a $200 million budget for these programs. Banks said participation rates in these programs have been steadily increasing.

“I am concerned that many of the policies being put in place by the de Blasio administration will lead to less employment for New Yorkers on welfare,” said former HRA Commissioner Robert Doar, “and that will lead to more poverty which will be harmful to the struggling families we all want to help.” Doar ran the agency from February 2007 till December 2013. He is currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Doar had the same objective as Banks: lifting people out of poverty. But, he prefers an employment-focused approach. Experts agree that education and training are vital for employability but some would rather see increased workforce participation first.

“If the training is working, let’s see it in the numbers,” said the Manhattan Institute’s Armlovich. “This realignment is not working,” he said, pointing to the rise in monthly welfare enrollment. He agrees that, in theory, getting educational credentials would improve chances of employment but he called it an “indefinite process” which will be hard to judge.

Rachidi, of the American Enterprise Institute, also pointed to the fact that education and training were available to welfare recipients under the former administration and people did avail themselves of those services.

“Quick job placement works for a majority of people. Education and job training should be available to them, but shouldn’t be pushed upon people,” she said, taking the stance that getting people into the workforce gives them the best, quickest chance of staying in it and advancing.

Turner, the HRA commissioner under Giuliani, took a harder line on the quick move to employment, however. “A life on welfare is a life without a future and a life in poverty by definition,” Turner said, insisting that recipients should start working as soon as possible and that lax work requirements would perpetuate poverty.

While Commissioner Banks cites the lack of educational qualifications of welfare recipients as the rationale behind education programs, both Turner and Rachidi say the opposite: that the low level of education is why training programs are not effective.

For Banks, his paradigm is a rejection of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for a more individualized and nuanced one. “The argument that training and education programs don’t work is belied by the economics of those who get a credential as a result of participating in training programs,” he said. “The mission of HRA is to move people out of poverty and moving people from one box to another – off the caseload, on to the caseload, off the caseload, on to the caseload — isn’t ultimately a successful approach to moving people out of poverty.”

(Recent research seems to be less certain about how job training and education programs compare with labor force development.)

Divergent Trends
The blowback against the Banks/de Blasio reforms, often captured on the pages of the New York Post, calls new requirements too soft and cites the recent increase in monthly welfare enrollment.

Putting aside issues around whether the rolls were kept down by prior administrations, some have questioned why the rolls have increased when the economy has been good and at the same time enrollment in food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) has fallen. SNAP enrollment in New York City fell from 1.8 million in Dec. 2011 to 1.68 million in Dec. 2015.

“If welfare rolls don’t follow SNAP case rolls, then I’m unconvinced,” said Armlovich. “Because these trends are divergent, it makes me skeptical of the idea that it’s just skilled-biased technical change making it harder for people to enter the workforce.”

Rachidi sees it similarly, although she noted that SNAP case rolls have fallen nationally. “Historically when the economy gets better and employment goes up, the welfare caseload goes down,” she said. “We’re not seeing that in [New York City’s] monthly or annual numbers.”

SNAP benefits, which are administered by HRA, are a complicated metric by which the system can be measured since they are federally determined. Recent federal cutbacksin the program may have led to decreased enrollment across the country — an issue that was raised last month at a City Council hearing on hunger in the city. Under Banks, HRA has taken steps to increase SNAP participation, citing tens of thousands of eligible New Yorkers not enrolled. Like with any government program, participation is certainly not solely indicative of need.

Even judging enrollment based on the city’s economic performance is a tough prospect. After the onset of the Great Recession, welfare rolls did not spike dramatically, which can be attributed to other intervening factors such as unemployment insurance, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid, which act as a buffer against people accessing welfare.

But the basic measure, or at least the long-stated agency objective, from Jason Turner’s HRA through Robert Doar’s leadership to Commissioner Steven Banks, has been to reduce poverty by helping those able to work get by when their income doesn’t cover their expenses.

And if poverty is a measure of the efficacy of welfare systems, then there hasn’t been significant change in a very long time. The city poverty rate between 2005 and 2013 only changed marginally – increasing from 20.4 percent to 21.5 percent according to the Center for Economic Opportunity’s redefined poverty measure which accounts for the city’s housing costs and additional elements including income and payroll taxes and the value of in-kind nutritional and housing assistance. (The official federal estimates weren’t significantly different – increasing from 18.3 to 19.9 percent.) Even in 2014, poverty remained largely unchanged.

Converging Lanes
HRA reforms of cash assistance under Banks are only one aspect of the city’s new employment plan. The agency will soon release RFPs to re-bid existing employment contracts, for services to welfare recipients, which are aimed to be settled by the summer. At the same time, a number of ancillary measures have been put into motion, all of which dovetail with HRA efforts to fight homelessness.

Some of the changes include an additional $15.7 million to expand the city’s rental arrears program and a centralization of the rent processing system to help recipients avoid eviction. These payments are now paid electronically rather than in monthly physical checks which are susceptible to extensive delays. The agency has also introduced robocalls to remind people of work appointments and to follow up on missed appointments.

There has been increased investment in anti-eviction and housing court legal services. HRA is also implementing the recommendations of the mayor’s Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force, integrating city workforce development initiatives into the agency’s purview. Accordingly, the city will put into place a public assistance hiring requirement for human services contractors.

“HRA has always had a requirement but now HRA, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Department for the Aging, and the Department of Probation all will have requirements to hire a certain number of public assistance recipients from the HRA caseload depending on the value of their contracts,” Banks said.

HRA is also looking at establishing a first-hire consideration (not a requirement) for public assistance recipients in contracts other than human services. They have partnered with the Department of Small Business Services to open up access to HRA clients, starting with referrals when SBS has job calls.

HRA also works with Robin Hood Foundation grantees, which includes a small workforce development network.

An important initiative, started in January 2015, involved working with the City University of New York to help undergraduate students who receive cash assistance participate in a paid work study program that better matched their interests and field of study. These students could meet their work requirements without having to take part in an unpaid WEP position. By April 2015, when Banks testified before the state Senate, approximately 500 CUNY students had been moved from WEP slots into work study programs.

In the city’s January financial plan this year, additional funds were also transferred from DHS to HRA to run employment programs for clients in shelter.

There were also major ramifications through the agency from last year’s settlement, after ten years of litigation, of the Lovely H case regarding how people with disabilities are treated by HRA. The settlement requires, among other things, better screening methods to determine disability status of applicants, improved reasonable accommodation processes and better monitoring. HRA has also released an RFP for a comprehensive analysis of these needs.

“All of these changes are part of a very methodical process of implementing this two-year plan,” Banks said, “and that’s going to have, at the end, the ability to phase out WEP, to address individualized needs, and get clients on a career pathway as the mayor’s Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force concludes.”

Halfway There and Far From Home
To receive future funding, HRA’s new policies will have to be fully functional by the state’s Dec. 31 deadline – the state oversees New York social service districts, including the city, where Banks is the administrator. Banks is overseeing a major overhaul of a massive system, which takes time, and can include growing pains. There are also questions about when to measure efficacy.

American Enterprise Institute’s Rachidi and Manhattan Institute’s Armlovich think that the significant increase in the raw monthly enrollment as well as the marginal uptick in the unduplicated count provide cause for concern. For them, the verdict is out on whether Banks’ reforms have been or will be successful.

“We have to see that borne out in numbers before drawing conclusions that it’s working,” Armlovich said of the reforms. Rachidi believes the caseloads will tick up slowly over the next year or two. Jason Turner expects this to be a more dramatic increase.

For Center for an Urban Future’s Hilliard, it’s also too early to say, but he believes once the “nuts and bolts” such as new contracts are worked out, New York City’s welfare system will likely become a national model. Lower-Basch from CLASP agrees: “It’s a big system and does not make changes instantly,” she said.

Banks seems cautiously optimistic. He said monthly enrollment will continue to fluctuate and the annual numbers will remain flat. But he is confident that the reforms are on track and on time. Pushing back against his detractors, he said, “The parade of horribles that have been conjured up to argue against making reforms haven’t come to fruition.”