New York State Bishops Statement on Welfare Reform

Published on September 28th, 2001

A rapidly approaching milestone of federal welfare reform threatens the well being of thousands of New Yorkers on public assistance. This is a matter of grave concern for the Catholic Bishops of New York State, and we stress that immediate action is required, both for the people immediately affected and for all who suffer in poverty.

As part of 1996 legislation overhauling the nation’s welfare system, a lifetime limit of 60 months for receiving cash assistance was instituted. For that reason, on December 1 of this year, federal benefits for thousands of recipients will end forever. Many of those about to be cut-off from assistance are the most vulnerable members of an already vulnerable population.

In a spirit of justice and charity, we call on our political leaders to take the necessary steps to ensure that this population of New Yorkers receive the support they need to live in dignity as human beings made in the image and likeness of Almighty God.
At the same time, the state and federal government must do more to reduce and ultimately eliminate the root causes of poverty that prevent many of our brothers and sisters from achieving self-sufficiency and sharing in the American Dream. In the last five years, the documented welfare caseload in New York State has dropped 55 percent, with nearly 1 million fewer families on public assistance than in 1995. While at first blush this would appear to mean that reform has been successful, there is precious little data to back up that claim. In fact, evidence suggests that, while cases have been closed like never before, poverty continues to rise. We know, for instance, that in this same five-year period, our Catholic Charities agencies have seen a steady increase in demand for emergency services, including food, shelter and cash assistance.

Clearly, while thousands of New Yorkers have left welfare, in many cases they often struggle to make ends meet in low-wage jobs that leave them in poverty. The U.S. Bishops always have supported true welfare reform with policies that assist those who are able to work to acquire the skills necessary to move into meaningful jobs, while maintaining a program of economic assistance for those who will never be economically self-sufficient.
Therefore, with the imminent five-year cut-off looming for thousands of recipients, the Bishops of New York State respectfully request that the Legislature and Governor address the following critical issues:

Ensure a seamless transition. When New York implemented welfare reform, the Legislature intended to smoothly transition individuals from federally funded Family Assistance to a state-funded Safety Net Assistance program that does not provide cash benefits. However, earlier this year, the New York State Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance (OTDA) issued regulations requiring that those who have exhausted Family Assistance benefits will have to re-apply for Safety Net Assistance. But these delays in processing could expose families to increased hunger or loss of housing and shift onto not-for-profit providers, such as Catholic Charities and parish outreach centers, the need to meet emergency services.

Invest TANF funds responsibly. New York receives $2.4 billion annually from the federal government under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, based on the state’s 1995 welfare caseload. These funds are intended to provide cash assistance to families eligible for Family Assistance, as well as non-cash services for the working poor.

Declines in the welfare caseload have generated surplus funds, allowing New York to finance an expansion in the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanded child care subsidies, and create the Temporary Opportunities Program to deliver educational and job services to families up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. These are all worthy and necessary endeavors. However, a large surplus remains, and the state would be wise to consider other poverty-fighting programs as well. For instance, the basic grant to those on Family Assistance has not been increased since 1990, severely eroding the buying power and financial security of low-income families. Nor have those on Family Assistance received appropriate education and training to succeed in a changing job market. The state must target TANF spending to increase the economic and social security of at-risk families and children in New York State.

Expand Definition of Allowable Activities. Federal welfare reform required that Family Assistance recipients must work or be placed in work-related activities, although many educational activities were excluded. New York State is allowed to exempt 20 percent of the Family Assistance caseload from the five-year time limit. Recipients are eligible for exemption if they are not able to achieve self-sufficiency for certain reasons. A majority of them have had poor education, combined with multiple disabilities, that made it difficult for local social service districts to place them in work activities. New York should ensure that there is a seamless exemption from time limits for the maximum 20 percent of FA recipients. The State could reduce the need for exemptions by modifying allowable activities, such as providing greater access to education programs that prepare FA recipients for self-sufficiency.

Understand the Effects of Welfare Reform. The dramatic five-year reduction in the welfare caseload has been characterized as an indicator of “successful” welfare reform. We fear that this has masked a failure to address the intractable problems of poverty. Whereas New York has focused on case reductions, there has not been a comprehensive evaluation of welfare reform, including any efforts to determine whether those who have left welfare are economically secure. Catholic agencies report that they are now more likely to provide food, clothing and shelter assistance to those who have left welfare, rather than those who remain on Family Assistance. This suggests that for many families leaving welfare has actually served to exacerbate their problems.

As New York marks the five-year anniversary of welfare reform, those who remain on assistance would benefit from intensive case management services. Rather than focusing on finger-imaging and drug screening (both of which seem to associate poverty with criminal behavior), local social service districts should conduct an assessment that determines a family’s strengths and needs. Then, supportive services could be delivered in an efficient manner, preparing those who require new skills or supports to enter the work force. At the same time, those who will never be able to work independently would receive the economic assistance that allow them to live an independent life with dignity.

Conclusion. As the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the United States faces the creation of two, unequal societies, one rich and one poor. Our considerations of assistance and compassion are further affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Along with the resulting emotional and financial tolls and the loss of property, we must remember that those who are poor and vulnerable are also in need of our continued assistance and compassion. With the looming December 1 cut-off, our leaders do not have the luxury of waiting to address these critical issues.

The Bishops of New York State support policies that help those who are capable of work to move off welfare. However, we believe that the State has not yet conquered the biggest of challenge welfare reform: to end poverty as we know it. As the Congress prepares to reauthorize TANF in 2002, we will work to ensure that everyone who works full time can earn enough to raise a family. The challenges that face us might be daunting, but we can do no less than to respond to the economic needs of the poor and vulnerable among us.

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