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Bloomberg Seeks to Lower Barrier for Food Stamps

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April 17, 2006
Mayor Seeks to Lower a Barrier for Food Stamps
New York Times

The Bloomberg administration, in a significant departure from the welfare policies of the Giuliani era, is pursuing a federal waiver that would make it easier for able-bodied adults who do not have children to qualify for food stamps, even if they are not working.

In his first term, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hewed closely to the groundbreaking changes in welfare policy begun under his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who criticized what he called a culture of dependence on public aid and whose reforms were emulated in other large cities. But now Mr. Bloomberg is moving to loosen a major provision of welfare reform.

About 43,000 able-bodied childless adults in the city use food stamps, and easing the eligibility requirements would make at least 13,900 more people eligible, according to city estimates, although nonprofit groups that have been pressing for the change since the Giuliani administration predicted that even more could qualify.

Driving the change is a recognition that poor residents are facing growing pressures in paying for food and basic costs. The number of New Yorkers receiving food stamps has steadily risen in the last four years, even as the number of those receiving cash welfare assistance has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years.

"The city expects everyone to do their fair share when taking any form of public help, but we recognize that some people have barriers that make it impossible, or very difficult, for them to find jobs," said Robert McHugh, a spokesman for the city's Human Resources Administration.

With little public attention, the Bloomberg administration has been turning to the federally financed food stamp program over the past year as a way to help needy New Yorkers. Last April, the city began accepting food stamp applications by mail or fax. In September, the city received a three-year federal grant that allowed nonprofit groups to start accepting food stamp applications at food pantries and soup kitchens and to begin processing them online.

In January, in his State of the City address, the mayor announced a plan to build an online information and application system for food stamps, health insurance and other public benefits.

The waiver now being sought by the city, which is expected to be approved by the federal government, would affect adults ages 18 to 49 who are not responsible for a child or incapacitated relative and are not physically or mentally unfit for work. The federal welfare overhaul of 1996 imposed a three-month limit on food stamps in any three-year period for this group, known as able-bodied adults without dependents.

The overhaul allowed states to request a waiver of the three-month time limit for residents of areas with relatively high unemployment rates. Most big cities that have been eligible currently receive the waiver, including Chicago, Seattle and Washington.

"New York has been unusual in being one of the only cities in the country eligible for the waiver that has not had it," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group in Washington.

The three-month time limit does not affect those adults who work at least 80 hours a month, participate in job-training programs for at least 20 hours a week, or are enrolled in workfare, performing a job like raking leaves or answering phones in exchange for benefits.

Advocates of programs that feed the poor have long viewed the three-month limit as too harsh. A 1998 study sponsored by the Agriculture Department found that able-bodied childless adults who were receiving food stamps were likely to have incomes far below the poverty line and to have poor employment prospects because they lacked skills and education. Even when they find jobs in the retail or service industries, they have little job security.

"People can take six months and even a year to find new jobs," said James D. Weill, executive director of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger policy organization in Washington. "To say you can only have three months of food-stamp benefits is egregiously harsh and not a sensible public policy."

Joel S. Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents 1,100 food pantries and soup kitchens, wrote letters to Mr. Bloomberg each of his first four years in office urging him to accept the waiver. "I didn't bother to send such a letter in 2006 because I assumed this issue was a lost cause with this mayor," he said.

The waiver will cost the city almost nothing. Federal food stamp benefits are financed by the Food and Nutrition Service of the Agriculture Department, although states pay a portion of the program's administrative costs. In comparison, the federal government pays for roughly half of the cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, in New York; the state and local governments pay the rest.

The number of food stamp recipients dropped from a high of nearly 1.5 million in March 1995, during the Giuliani administration, to a low of 798,396 in January 2002, Mr. Bloomberg's first month in office. Since then it has steadily risen, to nearly 1.1 million as of February — its highest level since 1998.

The fall and subsequent rise in the use of food stamps mirrors a national trend, driven by unemployment rates and efforts by the federal government to simplify the application process. The average national food stamp benefit was $92.69 a month, per person, in 2005. (In most places, including New York, electronic benefit cards have replaced paper coupons.)

At least three major factors seem to have played into the decision by the Bloomberg administration to accept the waiver.

First, despite a short-lived rise in the welfare rolls, from 2002 to 2004, the number of city residents on public assistance is at its lowest level since 1964, allowing Mr. Bloomberg to ease his position on food stamps without opening himself to attack by conservatives as being irresponsible or encouraging dependence.

"New York City has developed the most extensive work-focused employment program of any large city in the country," the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, Verna Eggleston, wrote on March 28 to the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is seeking the waiver on the city's behalf.

Second, public pressure on hunger and nutrition issues has been mounting.

Since she took office in 2002, the city's public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, has called for the city to accept the waiver, and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, this month proposed setting aside $260,000 a year to operate a new citywide office to combat hunger and obesity. And Mr. Bloomberg himself has said that alleviating poverty would be a priority of his second term.

Third, there are practical benefits to accepting the waiver. In February 2005, the city began WeCare, a program that offers medical assessments, health care and individual training for welfare recipients who say they are too sick to work.

By easing the work requirements for some adult food stamp recipients, the city will be able to shift caseworkers away from the tedious task of verifying eligibility for food stamps and toward the goal of further reducing the welfare caseload by moving recipients into the workforce.

The city's moves to ease eligibility for such benefits marks a significant departure from past practice. In 1999, the Agriculture Department and a federal judge found that the Giuliani administration was routinely delaying or denying applications for food stamps and Medicaid in violation of federal law.

The Urban Justice Center has twice sued the Bloomberg administration over food stamp issues. In 2002, it asserted that the city was improperly denying benefits to poor people who were too disabled to work. In 2004, it claimed that the city's delays in processing food stamp applications were illegal. Both cases are pending.

Lawrence M. Mead III, a professor of politics at New York University and a conservative scholar of welfare, said he did not believe that easier access to food stamps would discourage people from working.

"To apply for the food-stamp waiver is an important departure from Giuliani's policies, but its practical effect, in terms of producing a large increase in dependency, is probably limited," Professor Mead said.
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