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You're Not Entitled!

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Hungry in New York

About the Author

Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

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An overwhelmed system struggles to meet President Obama’s order to fast-track deportation hearings on 62,000 lone child migrants.

Seven years after Katrina, poor people accused of crimes are being denied their right to counsel and left to languish behind bars.

When it comes to denying benefits, welfare offices take their cues from the local administration, whose leaders often want impressive numbers--at any cost. In New York City, for example, things got so bad in 1998 that needy residents were forced to take their case to the courts. In April 1998 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began to make good on his promise to end welfare in New York City by 2000 by converting welfare offices into "job centers" and erecting a series of hurdles designed to discourage applicants from applying for public assistance. The hurdles were effective: During the early weeks of the operation 84 percent of prospective applicants at one job center and 69 percent at another left without filing an application.

But, according to a class action suit filed in December 1998, Giuliani's job centers paid little heed to applicants' rights. The suit, Reynolds v. Giuliani, contends that the city is illegally deterring and discouraging thousands of poor people from applying for food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance, as well as failing to provide written notices of denials and hearing rights. Represented by the Welfare Law Center and the Legal Aid Society, among others, pregnant, disabled and homeless adult and child plaintiffs sought a court order to bar the city from converting more welfare offices into job centers until it stops its illegal practices. Federal District Court Judge William Pauley granted their request, requiring the city to halt its plans until it can prove that the situation has been corrected.

The evidence of illegal activities is credible and considerable. According to court documents, applicants are commonly misinformed. When they first arrive at a job center, receptionists routinely tell them that there is no more welfare, that this office exists solely to see that they get a job, that if they miss any appointments their application will be denied, that emergency food stamps and cash grants don't exist, that there is a time limit on benefits--without explaining that they can apply for Medicaid or food stamps. Receptionists also tell people who arrive after 9:30 am that they must return another day. If they aren't already deterred, applicants are given a five-page preliminary form to fill out. They must return the next day to get an application. They are fingerprinted, undergo several interviews and are then directed to meet with a financial planner and an employment planner. The financial planner tries to deter people from applying by directing them to churches, charities and food pantries. At various stages, applicants are orally denied benefits or told they are not eligible to apply, but they receive no written notice of denial or their right to appeal the decision.

One plaintiff in the lawsuit was in her fourth month of a high-risk pregnancy, carrying twins, when she repeatedly asked job center employees for emergency assistance (including help buying prenatal vitamins and blood pressure medicine) and expedited food stamps, saying she had no money for food. Instead of being given food stamps, she was referred to two food pantries, places that were closed--except during the daily hours she was required to be present at the job search center. Another plaintiff was referred to three pantries but was turned away and then found another pantry on his own; but when he went there during his lunch break from the job center, all the food, except for some old bananas, was gone. A third plaintiff tried to get food from the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army but was told that both had a three-month waiting period. (As the increasing need for emergency food in New York City strains the existing supply, many people are being turned away. According to a 1998 New York City Coalition Against Hunger report, 58,000 people were turned away from local soup kitchens and food pantries in a single winter month.)

For its part, the city is fairly cavalier about falling short in its responsibility to feed the poor. "There are always lots and lots of problems with any new program," says the city's corporation counsel, Lorna Bade Goodman. Explaining that the sheer size of the city's programs means that they are always complicated to launch, she says a few snafus are common. "We are inevitably sued," she says. "Eventually things get sorted out and begin to run in a more efficient manner."

But Jason Turner, commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (and architect of Wisconsin's aggressive experiment with welfare reform), acknowledged to an audience at the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government last year that these policies were not the result of "lengthy planning, followed by implementation." He was direct: "[The city] acted first and worried about the consequences later."

The latest front in Giuliani's lawless war on welfare is drugs: The Mayor has proposed using Medicaid records to uncover any evidence that welfare applicants have sought drug or alcohol treatment in the past, to compel them to undergo further treatment in order to receive benefits. (This, while there are only 200 residential treatment slots in the city for women with children--thanks to Giuliani's slashing of such services.) Although federal law forbids the disclosure of private medical information, Giuliani wants the city's Health and Welfare Department to take advantage of its access to Medicaid records and welfare lists to skirt the law.

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