Depending on your politics, the term “safety net” might suggest a government that righteously protects its neediest, or a nanny state that coddles the undeserving. But for many poor New Yorkers, it’s a misnomer—more of a tightrope than a net. Because instead of breaking your fall into poverty, the bureaucracy of the city’s welfare system shoves you further over the edge.
A new study by the legal advocacy group Urban Justice Center (full disclosure: where the author once interned and volunteered), based on surveys of clients, argues that New York City’s primary public assistance agency, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), has become utterly dysfunctional under the last two conservative administrations. It’s not just a matter of incompetence but rather a so-called “culture of deterrence”: a bureaucratic process that indirectly aims to make welfare so unpleasant even eligible people stop applying (which conveniently serves the agendas of politicians who emphasize “personal responsibility” over public assistance).
To obtain basic benefits like food stamps or cash assistance, New Yorkers must wade into a labyrinth of paperwork, indefinite waits in stuffy offices, and brusque caseworkers. It’s no wonder people are put off by the process, given the relatively paltry reward they stand to gain (New York’s full welfare grant is roughly half the official poverty line for a family of three). Just consider the opportunity cost of spending an hour waiting for a caseworker who never shows instead of job hunting or taking your kid to the doctor.
According to a survey of 130 clients at twenty-five HRA hubs, known as Job Centers, the frustration begins the minute they set foot in the office. Basic accommodations are lacking, like special provisions for domestic violence survivors and people with disabilities. Many reported language translation services were not offered to non-English proficient clients. The vast majority said their calls to the agency were “rarely or never answered,” and people waited on average over 3.5 hours. When they did talk with a staffer, about eight in ten respondents reported “being spoken to in a rude manner.” And caseworkers lost clients’ paperwork about two thirds of the time.
The deterring effect of this poor treatment was most evident when applicants challenged the agency’s decisions. The study found that when people take a dispute over their benefits to an administrative review hearing, “HRA loses the vast majority of hearings that are held”—suggesting either systemic incompetence or a culture that promotes arbitrarily denying benefits on the assumption that people won’t bother protesting.