Chutes & Ladders

Elsa Davidson

leaned against the shabby exterior of Welfare Center 62, an infant daughter on
one shoulder. Although Social Security had issued Jeanette a notice stating a
delay in the processing of her daughter’s Social Security card, her welfare
caseworker had just refused to accept this surrogate document and had
terminated her daughter’s benefits. As cash assistance is allotted on the
basis of the number of people in a family, this glitch was potentially
devastating to Jeanette’s immigrant family of three. Despite her
children’s legal eligibility for welfare benefits, she was faced with the
possibility that her children would soon be without food.

Since her welfare caseworker
spoke only English, Jeanette had no idea what he had said to her, beyond an
angrily uttered “No!” which she took to mean her documents were
unacceptable. Nor was she confident that he had understood her questions,
spoken in Dominican Spanish, since they were entirely disregarded.

On learning of Jeanette’s
predicament, Andrew Friedman, co-director of a nascent Brooklyn non-profit
organization specializing in welfare rights, Make the Road By Walking (MRBW),
wasn’t surprised. “People have no idea who to turn to when they get cut
off, which often happens illegally,” Friedman explained. Welfare rights
lawyers and community advocates such as Friedman and Oona Chatterjee,
Co-Director of MRBW, are familiar with cases like Jeanette’s. In the age of
shrinking public assistance programs, client/caseworker communication is on a

People familiar with New
York’s welfare situation don’t blink at the fact that since the Giuliani
administration took office, the welfare rolls have been trimmed from 1.4
million people to 900,000. Many also know that the Human Resources Agency (HRA),
the bureaucracy which administers in New York City, has signaled a new era in
welfare administration with the citywide transition from Income Support
Centers to Job Centers, overseen by the Family Independence Administration (FIA).
But while many know about—even laud— welfare’s retrenchment and Work-
fare’s expansion, they aren’t necessarily appraised of the plummeting
quality of HRA services for those recipients who play by the new rules.

What do New York welfare
advocates say about the changes? Friedman puts it bluntly: “There’s a
total lack of quality control in HRA which would never be acceptable in the
private sector. The pace of change in the system is relentless. The HRA
constantly expands the Work- fare program even though they’ve been unable to
follow their own regulations since the 1996 Federal and 1997 State welfare
laws were passed.” Friedman’s not the only one to notice. In October 1998,
Katherine Kraft of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, and Irene Bush, a
professor in the University School of Social Work at Rutgers University,
published a pioneering “accountability” study of welfare reform. Ignoring
the eagerly-supplied opinions of middle class reformers, they let the natives
speak for themselves, producing a welfare recipient consumer satisfaction
report that makes interesting reading for anyone seduced by the myth of a
nation of happily cut off and well-adjusted ex-welfare recipients.

The quality control problem
led MRBW to turn their clients with welfare problems into community
organizers. Concerned with the effects of the HRA’s revamping upon welfare
recipients and applicants, MRBW formed the Coalition for an Accountable and
Respectful HRA (CAHRA). Armed with the preliminary results of a survey of
1,000 welfare recipients about HRA services begun in May 1998, they intend to
expose the unpunished and sometimes sloppy mistakes they say their clients
experience inside the Income Support and Job Centers. They argue that
caseworkers should speak their client’s language and that information should
be translated. Most provocatively, they insist that the HRA must create a
structure of accountability which would serve to redress mistakes made by
caseworkers, and penalize HRA staff for being rude and unhelpful to clients or
breaking their own regulations.

After Father John Powis, a
Brooklyn priest, announced MRBW’s first meeting, enthusiasm for community
policing of the HRA rose to an alltime high in the Brooklyn parish. That
meeting was crowded. MRBW’s clients didn’t understand why they had
suddenly received notices announcing the termination of their benefits. Some
couldn’t comprehend the notices at all, since they were written in English.
Even under the new laws, many of them shouldn’t have been cut off in the
first place. Those who have lost their SSI benefits or food stamps with no
warning or find themselves struggling under the weight of an overly generous
Workfare assignment, feel it’s time to demand HRA accountability.
Harnessing the nervous energy
generated by all cutting and revamping done in the wake of welfare reform
legislation, MRBW quickly recruited their own clients to help investigate
mistreatment at the Job Centers. At informal teach-ins, MRBW client-recruits
learned to decipher the legalese that changed their lives. A few mornings
every week, Friedman, Chatterjee, and a few clients make their way down to one
of the Centers. They ask people whether they have problems communicating with
their worker, if they have felt discriminated against, dissuaded from
requesting a fair hearing, or not been made aware of their welfare rights.

Policing the HRA’s
implementation of the laws would have been helpful when Roque, a recently
widowed father of five, saw his food stamp allotment cut from $300 to $12 a
month for his family of 6, due to an HRA worker’s miscalculation. It would
have been helpful when Fabio Nunez, a 71-year-old Dominican man living alone,
lost his food stamps under the new laws banning certain legal immigrants from
receiving welfare. Nunez’s termination should not have happened because of
an important modification of the 1996 Federal welfare law in New York,
protecting some legal immigrants over 60 and under 18.

Nunez had taken up the matter
with his caseworker, who, for some reason, refused to reinstate the food
stamps despite his continuing eligibility. Without legal advocacy, he would
have been permanently without basic food money.

Yoralis Vidal is a welfare
recipient turned community organizer. A former client of MRBW’s, she wants
to defend people like Fabio Nunez. After the 1997 state welfare legislation
was implemented in New York, Vidal lost her benefits, and Chatterjee and
Friedman helped get her illegally turned off benefits turned on again. Her
experience in the system helps her to skillfully elicit information from more
timid clients.

When a few disgruntled older
patrons complain that their HRA workers are refusing them basic services, like
handing them an application or answering a question, Vidal is miffed. “Then
go in and ask again,” she urges them. When an elderly Puerto Rican woman is
denied the form she needs because her worker says he’s “too busy” to get
it, despite the fact that she’s already waited in line for three hours, and
the form is within the reach of the HRA employee serving her, Vidal
intervenes. The older patron dryly sums up her situation with a tired smile:
“I am waiting all day for a yellow piece of paper.”

Those in CARHRA argue that
the HRA’s hostile attitude toward welfare recipients, and zero-tolerance
policy toward recipients who fail to follow any request or rule down to
minutiae-level details, is no accident. They say it’s a conscious strategy
on the part of a swamped bureaucracy with a mandate to cut caseloads by 10
percent every year for 3 years.

According to Chatterjee, when
clients ask to speak to their caseworker’s supervisor, they are frequently
told “Speak to your worker,” and can only return to the caseworker who
failed to provide the necessary assistance in the first place. For those
emboldened clients who feel mistreated, the HRA does have a complaint line
telephone number, but according to Friedman, it is busy 24 hours a day.

The terse communiques
announcing the termination of benefits or summoning recipients to the Job
Centers also provide ample opportunity for miscommunication. Such confusion
can result in a loss of benefits. Periodically, the HRA notifies recipients by
mail to appear at a Job Center with all their supporting documents. During
these “Face-to-Face” appointments, the HRA reassesses the eligibility of
the client, making sure that he/she still qualifies to receive benefits.
Friedman’s not impressed: “The Face-to-Face appointments are basically a
regimen to give the client an opportunity to miss an appointment and lose
their benefits.” Failure to understand an HRA message and its implications
never seems to be attributed to poor or cryptic instructions, but rather to
the inattentiveness of the client. When a recipient’s benefits are cut off,
the notice sent provides the most vital information about fair hearings in
fine print at the bottom or back of the page. As a result, many of the clients
who come to MRBW have failed to note this alternative.

Beyond the tiny print and
missed appointments, some welfare recipients and applicants are faced with an
even bigger problem: literacy. While James Whelan, the deputy press secretary
for the HRA, originally described the HRA’s reading materials for the
public’s consumption as, “targeted for a sixth grade reading level,” he
later downgraded his initial assessment to “plain English,” while also
stating that materials are translated into Spanish.

Liz Kruger, associate
director of the Community Food Resource Center, has found there is nothing
plain or sixth grade about HRA handouts. “It’s our experience that the
materials are both complicated and incomplete, and very often only available
in English, when at least 50 percent of welfare applicants and recipients are
non-English speaking.”

Kruger points out that HRA
information is “heavy on risks, responsibilities, and sanctions, and tends
to exclude benefits and rights.” While communication problems might be
considered inadvertent oversights in an expanding bureaucracy, the MRBW-documented
pattern of workers omitting to inform clients of their rights cannot be.
Rather, HRA workers neglecting to help clients obtain the correct documents
and failing to suggest or accept substitutions represent, “violations of the
HRA’s legal obligations,” according to Friedman. Conceivably, if a
structure of accountability were in place within the HRA, at least some of
these lapses in communication would warrant disciplinary action.

MRBW staff concur that
programs which epitomize the welfare reform trend contain structural
disincentives to enter the system. The City’s “Ladders to Success” and
“Work First” programs are cases in point. These built-in deterrents,
reminiscent of the poor-house work tests administered to desperate
alms-seekers of late 19th century London, now preoccupy lawyers such as Helen
Lee of the Legal Aid Society. Lee argues that Ladders to Success and the
administrative reality of the Work First concept often translate into austere
forms of punishment for being poor.

Under the HRA’s self-coined
“strategy of diversion,” potential recipients of welfare are diverted by
almost any means possible to work, often regardless of circumstance. During
the intensive screening process meant to weed out “malingerers” among
would-be welfare recipients, HRA workers meticulously investigate whether
family members, friends, church charity, or other community organizations
might be alternative income sources. If no leads pan out, the applicant begins
a mandatory 35-day, full-time job search—the “labor market test of
employability.” (Anyone hired during the labor market test is refused cash

Recent initiates to Ladders
to Success have told Lee that after failing the supervised job search, they
were “put in a room, given a phone book, and told to start cold-calling.”
Lee also reports that when there are no real jobs available for those
applying, “financial planners” in the centers end up discussing
hypothetical opportunities with people applying for emergency aid. Failure to
comply with any part of the process results in rejection of the application.
If deemed un-divertible, applicants are assigned a “work activity,” even
if disabled, mentally ill, or otherwise “hard to serve,” despite the fact
that the law clearly exempts the disabled or sick from such work assignments.

Whelan characterized the
application process as an opportunity for quality time: “The quality of
interaction is much greater in new Job Centers than in the (former) Income
Maintenance Centers. People are spending more time with workers. They meet
with financial planners and social service people who try to assess their
needs.” Kruger disputed this representation: “They’re [HRA clients]
asked to fill out 30 to 40 pages of technical and confusing questions about
themselves at different offices all over the city. It’s an obstacle course
to apply for and receive welfare.”

The fact that counties have
to meet WEP participation rates affects both the unhealthy and the uneducated
enrolled in Workfare. Attentive to the administrative reality of the new
programs which seemed legal on paper prior to their implementation, Don
Friedman is critical of the results thus far. Meeting participation rates has
meant that people who are in the Ladders to Success program may have
diminished their chances of finishing high school or improving their literacy
skills. “If education and training are ever offered to people in Ladders to
Success,” he says, “it is in conjunction with the maximum number of hours
of Workfare that can be assigned.”

When asked whether Workfare
limits educational opportunities, Whelan, the only HRA staff person I was
permitted to speak with, volunteered, “The mayor does believe in work. Work
is central for everybody receiving public assistance. To re-establish the
social contract, work is vital. Our people do try to work our schedule around
their schedule, but the stress is for people to be at work.”

The ladder may better
resemble a chute for New Yorkers on public assistance. The Job Centers may
soon be offering 10 percent employee bonuses for cutting caseloads by 10
percent over 3 years.

Given the current state of
welfare services and the anti-welfare political climate in New York, it is
striking that when I asked MRBW’s Oona Chatterjee what surprised her most
about her work, she quickly replied that it was the optimism of the struggling
welfare recipients. “They really believe that if they can engage the system
on a rational level, they will get justice.”

Elsa Davidson is currently pursuing a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology at
the City University of New York. She writes about urban culture.