Many of us in the nonprofit community are on tenterhooks this week, as we await the unveiling of the State’s final budget. In addition to funding decisions that will impact our ability to serve struggling New Yorkers this year, there is another item that justice and commonsense would suggest made it into the final version. The Sanctions Reform Bill (A.2669/S.4830) would correct unfair and unnecessary policies governing people who apply for or receive public assistance benefits in New York State.
As a condition of receiving public benefits, recipients must, if able, participate in work-related activities, such as employment, education, and job training. If they do not comply, sanctions are imposed that reduce or eliminate their benefits for a period of three to six months. These penalties were put in place to prevent welfare fraud, but unfortunately they appear to have little impact beyond human suffering and skyrocketing costs.
- A disproportionate number of those sanctioned are disabled, ill, caring for young children or in other ways unable to participate in work activities. Others are able to comply, but for legitimate reasons could not participate in their work-related activity for some limited period of time.
- A whopping 81% of administrative Fair Hearings related to work activity in New York State are overturned, but not until great harm has been done to low-income, vulnerable families.
- Reduced or eliminated benefits lead to hunger, poor health, housing instability and homelessness. Families that already live without, live with less.
- Sanctioned families are put under tremendous stress, exacerbating mental and physical disabilities, increasing the incidence of domestic violence, and disrupting the transition, for those who can, from welfare to work.
- That 81% of hearings overturned? According to the Empire Justice Center, in 2011 there were 57,000 hearings related to work activities at an estimated cost to the State and districts of $18 million.
- The underlying inefficiency of the Fair Hearing process, and subsequent costly appeals, add to this burden.
- Sanctions drive up costs related to heath care and sheltering the homeless, straining already over-burdened pubic services.
The Sanctions Reform Bill proposes that the government be required to determine if an individual is unable to comply due to a disability, lack of child care or transportation. This just makes sense. The bill would prevent, presumably, the vast majority of sanctions from being imposed in the first place on those who cannot participate. For those who can comply with the work requirements, the system would allow the sanctions to be lifted immediately upon compliance, instead of forcing people to wait months to get back on the path to employment.
The work-activity policies we have now are indefensible. Low-income families are suffering unnecessarily, and all of us are paying the price. Let’s hope Albany agrees.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge