Nearly two decades ago, the Clinton administration abolished “welfare as we know it” and Washington launched a new program of promoting “personal responsibility.” People receiving public benefits then faced sharp limits on their welfare aid, together with welfare-to-work programs that tried to discipline people into self-sufficiency. Today, after years of pushing people off welfare rolls and often plunging them into deeper hardship, New York City plans to retool its safety net to make it more humane for the city’s poor.
Under the new commissioner, former legal advocate Steve Banks, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has announced plans to overhaul its employment programs for welfare recipients, easing the mandatory work requirements and allowing more flexibility for people’s job-seeking and education priorities.
The reforms, covering about 56,000 New Yorkers, will reorient programs aimed at moving people into permanent, sustainable jobs: This target population includes “youth aged 18 to 24, domestic violence survivors, homeless shelter residents,” people with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency.
The city says it will offer more opportunities for training and adult education, moving away from rigid federal requirements to push people into the workforce as fast as possible. Young recipients will be supported by the city as they make progress toward completing a high school-level education program, or college coursework, provided they fulfill a twenty-hour weekly work requirement.
HRA spokesperson David Neustadt explains via e-mail that the reform agenda prioritizes “increasing the number of clients in training and education programs” as well as “lowering the rate of return to cash assistance” for those placed in jobs, and getting them higher-paying positions.
HRA plans to overhaul its “sanction” system, which metes out penalties for “non-compliance” with welfare-to-work program rules, potentially leading to the termination of benefits. Clients will get more leeway to challenge what they see as unfair sanctions. And the agency vows generally to become more responsive to social barriers that often impede people from following bureaucratic rules. Clients have long complained that the sanctions are both arbitrary and excessively punitive—for example, sanctioning people for missing case-management appointments, though they had been burdened by challenges, such as a lack of childcare or a family medical emergency. Many clients are involved with multiple institutions, ranging from the shelter system to child welfare services, so dealing with overlapping government agencies ends up exacerbating social hardships.