Next week experts on welfare, poverty and government support programs will gather in Albany for a conference sponsored by the National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics.
The conference is an annual event, but this year’s will be different.
In addition to the usual talks assessing efforts to alleviate poverty, participants will discuss the recession and whether the federal stimulus package is softening its impact on the poor and low-income people.
“This is a more extraordinary year,” said Thomas Gais, co-director of the Rockefeller Institute.
This is the first time the conference, which is co-sponsored by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, will be held in New York. It will run from July 12-15 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Gais said experts are interested in learning whether the “safety net” — government subsidies such as unemployment insurance and public assistance — is holding up during the recession, and whether the federal government’s expansion of programs that aid the needy has been effective.
The stimulus package, which is officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, contains billions of dollars for homelessness prevention, education programs for poor children and other programs. “It’s an interesting scattershot approach,” Gais said. “The government is putting a lot of money into a lot of different programs.”
Gais said there isn’t a lot of research on the effectiveness of the stimulus package or the state of the various safety nets. He said state welfare rolls are starting to go up, but that they’re not going up “all that much,” partly because the eligibility requirements have gotten stricter.
Gais said the welfare system was tested during the recession of 2001, but that states had more money then, and could draw upon their reserves when demand increased. But now “those surpluses are not nearly as high.” As a result, welfare grants are getting smaller and covering fewer people.
welfare to work
The Hunger Action Network of New York State recently released a report assessing how successful the state has been at moving people from welfare to work and economic independence.
“Unfortunately, New York has done a poor job with its welfare to work efforts, as has been documented in study after study, including by government agencies,” the group says in its executive summary. “Like many states, New York’s elected officials have sought to evaluate success primarily by looking at the reduction in welfare caseloads rather than in the reduction in poverty. Individuals who have left welfare for work in New York have not escaped poverty due to low wages and limited hours and benefits.”
Mark Dunlea, executive director of Hunger Action, said that very few people leave welfare for living-wage jobs and that the state needs to invest in programs that provide welfare recipients with post-employment job training so that they can find better jobs than the low-wage work they often end up in.
But Gais said New York is actually more generous than most states. “New York is one of the better states for welfare participants,” he said. “It’s a large-volume system and a lot of people come through it. It’s in better shape than a lot of states.”
That doesn’t mean the system isn’t without problems. The safety nets are “mostly used to help people who already have earnings, and a lot of low-income people don’t have earnings,” Gais said. As a result, a lot of people fall through the cracks. The system, he noted, is better equipped to help people who are already in the process of lifting themselves out of poverty. “It’s much more supportive of low-income workers than the very poor,” he said. “It’s more helpful when you’re moving up.”
Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance,, said the state is increasing its investment in job training and education programs for low-income state residents. “From our view, New York is a leader in helping recipients move into the work force and stay employed,” he said.
On July 1, the first increase to New York’s public assistance grant in almost two decades went into effect. The grant will be raised again in each of the next two years. A family of three will now receive $321 a month, up from $291 a month; approximately 200,000 households in New York will benefit from the increase, according to OTDA. The state received $407 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families contingency fund, and most of that money will be used to pay for the increase in the public assistance grant.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly referred to as welfare reform, laid out stringent work requirements for welfare recipients. Under the old welfare system, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, it was fairly easy for single, low-income parents to receive financial assistance for an unlimited amount of time. There was no work requirement, or few other requirements, other than being poor.
Today’s welfare system is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because the amount of time a person can receive public assistance is limited to five years over the course of a lifetime, although some states, such as New York, created safety nets to help people after their time was up.