Photo by Charles Weever Cushman

New York City’s new welfare commissioner expects welfare rolls to grow under his watch. But not to worry: it won’t be real growth, but “growth” in scare quotes, as he testified this week to the New York City Council. “Policy reforms to address inappropriate denials, case closings, and sanctions may lead to monthly caseload—quote—‘growth’,” Human Resources Administration commissioner Steve Banks told the council, visually signaling with his fingers the ironic quotation marks around “growth” that appeared in his written remarks as well. Growth is not growth when it’s “growth,” apparently.

Banks has wasted no time in undercutting welfare reform since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him to lead HRA in February. Such a fast start is exactly what one would have expected, given Banks’s previous career at the Legal Aid Society, where he was one of the premier litigants against the city’s welfare-reform efforts. Banks has eliminated the requirement that able-bodied childless adults at least look for work in exchange for their food stamp benefits. He and de Blasio have backed a state law, opposed by the Bloomberg administration, that would allow attendance at a four-year college to count as work for the federal welfare requirements. He has ended the city’s revolutionary initiative to enforce the congressional mandate that immigrants not become “public charges.” Immigrants routinely collect welfare payments in violation of that mandate. The Bloomberg HRA had begun recouping this money from the immigrants’ sponsors, but de Blasio is not just ending that effort, he is giving back the money already collected. And now, as Banks informed the council, he intends to gut the city’s enforcement of other welfare rules as well.

Banks believes that too many welfare applicants and recipients are sanctioned for noncompliance with work and eligibility requirements. The city’s readiness to penalize welfare recipients who refuse to work—or even to honor appointments—has kept the rolls artificially low during the recession, when they should have been rising, Banks said. To correct that flaw, the new commissioner will now allow recipients and applicants five absences from jobs or other obligations when they or family members have an emergency or medical need. But the city already gives recipients excused absences for illnesses. This new rule will quickly devolve into a No Sanctions, Period policy. The chance that the HRA will rigorously track the number of no-shows is close to zero, especially given Banks’s clear message to his staff that “punitive” policies must end.

As a further corrective to allegedly “harsh” enforcement, food stamp applicants will now need only to “self-attest” to their housing expenses, rather than prove them—an invitation to exaggeration if not outright fraud. But Banks’s most important change regarding sanctions and eligibility is tonal: HRA employees, hearing the message from their chief that rule enforcement “harms” clients, will undoubtedly overcompensate by ignoring violations across the board.

The denial of cash assistance increases homelessness, Banks told the council. A little under 10 percent of recipients whom HRA sanctioned in 2012 and the first half of 2013 subsequently applied for free shelter, Banks’s researchers found. This is not a particularly high number, contrary to the commissioner’s spin. But Banks is betting that by making welfare easier to obtain, homelessness will go down. It is social dysfunction, however—whether family instability or drugs and mental illness—that overwhelmingly drives the demand for homeless housing. The same problems that lead to noncompliance with welfare rules often lead to the claimed need for shelter. Since Banks sees homelessness as an economic phenomenon, however, he should petition de Blasio to jettison the city’s perverse rent regulations, which limit the supply of housing and drive up its cost. Reducing accountability for the entire welfare population in hopes of preventing some small portion of that population from seeking free housing is empirically unjustified overkill.

The front row of the council chamber’s audience was occupied by a delegation from Community Voices Heard, a welfare-rights organization whose philosophy was summed up by the blue T-shirts its members wore: “Improving welfare . . . Building power!” They were showing their support for a bill in Albany to eliminate WEP, the city’s workfare program. They needn’t have bothered to come. Banks and the mayor already support the goal of the law, Banks said. He is looking to replace WEP jobs with subsidized jobs at a fully competitive wage. But the city could afford at most 3,000 such positions. That may not matter once the city starts emphasizing “education and training” rather than work as the condition for welfare receipt, since the city will no longer need to place welfare recipients in work programs. Banks thinks that the superiority of such education and training will over time “address” the so-called “‘growth’” in the rolls caused by the decimation of welfare sanctions, by leading to more stable employment. Not likely.

The most repeated finding in welfare research is that training and education—including at four-year colleges—do next to nothing to move welfare recipients into employment. The best way to get a job is to start working, as New York showed through welfare reform. Labor-force participation rates increased in the city over the last two decades. And it was that dramatic rise in work rates that prevented the poverty rate from going up. Banks told the council that the city’s existing work procedures were flawed because 25 percent of recipients who leave the welfare rolls for work reapply for public assistance after a year. That number is actually extremely low, given ordinary turnover in entry-level jobs. If Banks thinks he can do better, let him try, but not by reducing the number of people placed in jobs in the first place.

Banks did not inform the council of a campaign under development at HRA to encourage more people to apply for cash assistance. That campaign may not be needed. Word of mouth about the new regime at HRA will likely bring in a host of new takers. Banks emphasized that his welfare changes are part of de Blasio’s war on income inequality—but increasing the welfare rolls is the surest way to increase poverty, not eliminate it, as New York’s many decades as the welfare capital of the nation should have demonstrated.


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