Bipartisanship Spells Disaster for Low-Income Families

Food Stamps Groceries

The $956 billion farm bill was signed by President Obama on Friday, February 7, 2014, at Michigan State University.

Apparently our legislators have finally found something to agree on: cutting billions in food assistance for hungry Americans. That’s what the Senate did when it passed the long awaited farm bill last week, which President Obama has signed into law. By all appearances the bill will help farmers and the larger US economy, creating jobs and encouraging exports. I have no argument with that: a thriving farming industry is good for everyone. But it is unconscionable, and ironic, that the same legislation that supports businesses that grow the food that feeds America is taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, working parents, seniors and veterans.

The farm bill is projected to cut $17 billion from the federal budget over the next ten years. Almost half of it – over $8 billion – will come from cuts to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cut will reduce food benefits by an average of $90 per month for approximately 1.7 million people, or 850,000 families living in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

New York State will be particularly hard hit. 300,000 families – highly concentrated in New York City and living in deep poverty – will be affected:

  • 62% are families with children
  • 36% are working families
  • 79% have annual incomes below the federal poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four)
  • 29% have annual incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line ($5,835 for an individual)

New York is not only disproportionately impacted by the number of families who will suffer from the cuts. At the same time, the average economic loss per family in our State is expected to be higher than the $90 average because the bill specifically eliminates the higher standard rate the State uses to calculate SNAP benefits. This comes at a particularly bad time for poor and low-income residents of New York City. Let me count the ways:

1. According to hunger-relief charity Feeding America, SNAP benefits are already inadequate for most families to purchase a healthy diet throughout the month.

2. The farm bill cut follows an earlier SNAP reduction of $36/month for a family of four, which was introduced in November, leaving most households with less than $1.40 per person per meal.

3. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, living in New York City costs more than 2.25 times the national average; hence, an income of $23,850 only buys $10,600 worth of goods in New York City.

4. The latest cut will leave even less on the table for families, especially larger households with children, elderly or disabled family members.

5. The Food Bank for New York City reported that, following the SNAP cut three months ago, almost half of the City’s food banks and soup kitchens ran out of food, or particular types of food.

6. Administering the reduced SNAP program will become even more onerous for the Human Resources Administration, the NYC agency that already struggles to issue benefits in a timely manner to eligible individuals and families in need.

7. In addition to reducing ongoing benefits to needy families, the change will likely restrict access to emergency food stamp benefits for NYC households.

8. According to a report just released by the Community Service Society, from 2002 to 2011, New York City lost nearly 40% of the total number of apartments affordable to low-income families, with rent now accounting for two-thirds of income, on average, for poor New Yorkers who do not live in subsidized housing. Fewer resources for food cannot be made up elsewhere in a poor family’s budget.

9. Poor nutrition spawns a host of problems for the poor including limited educational achievement, unemployment, and chronic physical and mental illnesses.

10. SNAP cuts have a negative impact on the City’s economy. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that each SNAP dollar spent generates nearly twice that amount in local economic activity that supports small businesses like grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

There are those who say the farm bill is a rare bipartisan success because, after four years, lawmakers were able to balance competing interests and compromise to get the bill passed. I don’t see it that way. The multibillion-dollar agribusiness made some concessions, but it gained much in return. We cannot say the same for the hungry children of New York. It is not a compromise when poor families have less food on the table. It’s a travesty.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Good Ideas Made Better

“Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

“Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

President Obama’s State of the Union Address outlined several measures being undertaken at the executive and state levels that aim to improve the lives of struggling Americans. These initiatives are limited in their impact, but they do have the potential to help more people – if the principles behind them are applied more broadly. Here is my takeaway of five “good” ideas that could be made “better.”

1. Minimum Wage
Thousands of employees and their families will benefit from the President’s executive order mandating an increase in the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. However, his plan will cover only those individuals employed under future government contracts. At the same time, many states and municipalities, including New York, are also taking steps to increase their minimum wages.

Better: If the federal minimum wage were raised across the entire country, millions of low-income people would be able to earn a “living wage,” and we would be a step closer to the time, as Mr. Obama said, when no fulltime worker would have to raise a family in poverty.

2. Early Education
Thirty states have already expanded funding for public Pre-K programs, including New York. This early advantage levels the playing field for poor and disadvantaged students, building a foundation for success throughout the course of their education.

Better: Every child in every state deserves the same access to pre-kindergarten classes. Pre-K has been shown to increase a child’s chances of completing post-secondary education, improving earning potential and enabling kids to break deep-rooted cycles of multigenerational poverty.

3. Tax Credits
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been a boon to poor working families with children, including many NYLAG clients, since it was enacted in 1975. This law encourages employment, strengthens credit, and helps low-wage earners make ends meet.

Better: Expanding the EITC to include childless low-wage workers would help raise the income of more of our poorest workers, and provide an incentive to stay on the job, reducing unemployment.

4. Student Debt
Many federal student loans are currently eligible for Income-Based Repayment plans to help reduce monthly payments and make student loan debt more manageable for out-of-work and low-income individuals. The President described efforts to “shake up our system of higher education … so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.”

Better: At NYLAG we have seen firsthand the devastating effects of overwhelming student debt on the lives of our clients – including those victimized by some for-profits schools that promise an education but only deliver crushing debt. Tougher federal oversight and regulation would help protect vulnerable, low-income students from these predatory practices.

5. Immigration Reform
 Several states have taken local action on immigration reform, passing legislation that facilitates college attendance. New Jersey, for example, just passed legislation making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates. Several states, including California and Texas, have gone a step further by granting financial aid to qualifying students who aren’t legal residents, and similar bills are progressing in New York and other states.

Better: NYLAG has worked with immigrants of every status for almost 20 years, battling the complexity, capriciousness, and inequities of our country’s immigration policies. There is bipartisan support for enacting comprehensive immigration reform. It’s time to fix a broken system that holds back our economy, victimizes the innocent, breaks up families, and keeps millions of hardworking people living in the shadows. The President is right. Let’s get this done.

The business of government is inevitably a business of compromise, and it would be unrealistic – in any era – to expect to see the wholesale adoption of so many sweeping domestic policy changes. But, by examining the greater good we could accomplish through enacting these types of broad measures, I draw inspiration for the fight to make justice a reality for the vulnerable, poor and voiceless.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The War Goes On

Where is opportunity in America?

This report outlines how the Opportunity Index works.

2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s War on Poverty, proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address in 1964. At the time, with 19% of the US population living at or below the poverty level, the Administration introduced a number of federally funded safety-net programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps, which to this day sustain and support the neediest in our nation.

Our current poverty rate of 15% may be a slight improvement over 1964, but it is also well above the nation’s low of 11% in 1973. In addition, the very nature of poverty has changed, becoming a legacy that is passed down from one generation to the next. The New York Times recently ran a series, The Invisible Child, about a young girl living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood who, along with her siblings, represents the third-generation in her family to be trapped in the same community, and the same abject poverty. Does this mean, after 50 years of battling, we have lost the war? I don’t think so – but we do need to rethink our war plans and adapt the weapons we use, if we are to fight this new brand of poverty. A lingering recession, growing income equality, and other factors, such as increasing natural disasters, are all challenges that must be addressed with new approaches.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

One organization with some interesting ideas is Opportunity Nation, a consortium of 275 nonprofit, community and business organizations across the US that believes: “The places where people live are pivotal to the opportunities open to them. Some communities have characteristics that open many windows of opportunity for their residents; others do not.” In October, the group issued its third annual Opportunity Index, which ranks the 50 states based on a series of interconnected economic, educational and civic indicators that influence the ability of poor and low-income people to lift themselves out of poverty. Are there good jobs? Do most young people graduate from high school on time? Are people actively engaged and involved in their own communities?

I took a look at how New York State fared in the latest Index. Our State ranked #20, with an “opportunity score” of 54.6. [Vermont ranked #1 with a score of 65.9, while Nevada came in last with a score of 37.9.] If New York aspires to improve its ratings, we have work to do. Sixteen percent of New Yorkers live below the poverty line, a rate higher than the national average and far above Vermont’s 11.5%. Even more troubling, 14.4% of New York’s youth aged 16-24 years are not in school and not working, as compared to 8.6% in Vermont. The national data shows there is a close correlation between the percentage of those living in poverty and the number of “disconnected” young people who drop out of school and cannot find or hold a job.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

The correlation between poverty and education was also highlighted in another recent study, the 2013 Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which was established by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to combat the “crisis of the unrepresented.” Similar to the Opportunity Index, this report casts a wide net by identifying the areas of greatest need for civil legal services, and making recommendations for the resources necessary to address them. This year, the taskforce presented compelling evidence that poor New Yorkers need help if they are to transcend their circumstances and improve their lives. This includes access to “the essentials of life:” health care, education, subsistence income, housing, and stable family situations.

The report includes testimonies from scores of civic, government and business leaders. One in particular struck me – that given by Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. Her words put a human face on the data linking poverty, educational opportunities, and the benefits of civil legal services:

“From an educator’s perspective, I can tell you that the consequences of the unmet civil legal needs of New York’s families are far-reaching and devastating for our students… these problems impact their ability to learn and, in some cases, their ability or desire to attend school. We need to make sure that all students and their parents or caregivers are able to fully engage in and benefit from their educational experience—including those whose families are facing eviction or foreclosure, those who lack access to needed health services, and those whose families struggle with domestic violence and addiction—all of whom could be helped with the provision of legal services.”

The Opportunity Index and Judge Lippman’s nationally recognized model for action are two examples of the kind of innovation and energy needed to address today’s intractable brand of poverty – and overcome a Congress seemingly determined to erode the availability of the effective safety-net programs established long ago. As we enter 2014, I am looking back to Lyndon Johnson’s famous words, and am making a New Year’s resolution to do whatever I can to wage my own “unconditional war” against poverty.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The Unconquerable Nelson Mandela

MandelaToday the world commemorates and honors the life of Nelson Mandela. Since his death last week, I have been thinking about his impact on our world. What kind of man could endure what he endured and live a life of such goodness and stature? Despite unimaginable suffering, he led the people of South Africa out of the darkness of apartheid and into the light of freedom. In reading about and remembering his life, I am struck by what a man of contrasts he was: at once confident and conciliatory, aggressive and humble, moderate and progressive.

He did not hate: Even as a black man in a nation of apartheid, he refused to hate whites, believing that a leader cannot afford to let hatred get in the way of results.

He was not afraid of controversy: He was proud that the translation of his given tribal name was “troublemaker,” and often upset members of his own party by taking a stand they did not support.

He fought injustice wherever he found it: Speaking at the trial that led to his 27-year imprisonment he said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.”

He used humor to his advantage: He referred to his prison guards as “my guard of honor.” They were amazed and amused, and eventually tempered their harsh treatment of him.

He promoted compromise and clemency: Perhaps there is no greater example of this than his effort to balance justice and forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he devised to provide amnesty to those who admitted their crimes during the apartheid era.

He used his bully pulpit judiciously: In 2007 he gave an interview in which he was critical of the man who succeeded him as President of South Africa, but he would not permit its publication until after his death. (It was published just last week.)

He believed in collective wisdom: Many credit the African National Congress party’s success under his leadership to the fact that he listened to, and took ideas, from all sides.

For all his confidence, he knew his faults and acknowledged them: He once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

He sought to know his adversaries – as a source of power and understanding: He learned Afrikaans, the language spoken by the white population in South Africa. And, it was he who initiated, while still in prison, negotiations with the white government that led to the end of apartheid.

As I join with people across the globe in paying tribute to his legacy, it seems to me that this flexible approach to life and to leadership enabled Mr. Mandela to achieve greatness, while still remaining – to paraphrase a line from the poem he kept on his prison cell wall – “the captain of his unconquerable soul.”

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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They Shouldn’t Have to Fight Their Own Legal Battles Too

American FlagToday is Veterans Day, a ritual day of thanks to honor the women and men who have served in the US armed forces. I think it is also a day to acknowledge the toll that military service takes on those who serve – and to identify solutions that can help ease their burdens.

The life of an enlisted person returning home is uniquely complicated. Returning veterans face enormous obstacles to maintaining their quality of life and achieving economic stability. Despite the number of existing safety net and supportive services out there, many former servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. For example, veterans are still 50 percent more likely to become homeless due to poverty than other Americans.The unemployment rate among veterans is three percent higher than the rest of the country’s population. Those with mental or physical health problems are even more likely to be homeless or unemployed; many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, leading to an alarming increase in the suicide rate of those returning from recent conflicts.

Sick or disabled veterans require specialized support to navigate the complex web of courts and government agencies in order to obtain the benefits and services to which they are entitled – and they know it. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (in a survey they have been conducting since 1994) access to legal assistance is one of the top three unmet needs cited every year by the veterans surveyed.

At NYLAG, we see it everyday on the faces of the vets we work with in New York City. For the last year, our LegalHealth Unit has been addressing the needs of veterans at two New York City Veterans Administration hospitals where we provide free civil legal services. Through a medical-legal partnership similar to those we have with 18 other City hospitals, our onsite attorney is integrated into the patients’ medical care team to address non-medical problems such as housing, social security disability and other public benefits issues, discharge upgrades, family law issues, and advance planning. The demand for our services has been staggering: in one year our dedicated attorney has handled 884 legal matters for 572 veteran clients. That is nearly three times the number of matters an attorney typically handles in other settings. We’ve prevented evictions, secured appropriate government assistance, improved housing conditions, and provided a whole host of other services to stabilize the lives of our clients.

Our VA hospital experience is dramatic proof that these types of medical-legal partnerships work. They help sick and disabled veterans overcome complex and daunting bureaucracies, connecting them to solutions that improve their health and well-being. The model should become the norm at VA hospitals across the country. Our nation’s veterans have done enough – they shouldn’t have to fight their own legal battles too.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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When I Think About Sandy

Hurricane SandyA year ago today, the forces of nature conspired against New York. The coincidence of a deadly storm surge, and astronomical high tides resulted in the disaster we now call Superstorm Sandy. The storm killed 181 people, displaced tens of thousands of New Yorkers and caused more than $50 billion in damages. It was so unprecedented that the National Weather Service retired the name Sandy: it will never be used again.

For NYLAG, and for me personally, the last year has been a time of hope and a time of heartbreak, a time of achievement and a time of struggling to do more, a time of learning and a time of sharing what has been learned.

To date NYLAG has provided free civil legal services to over 5,800 low-income storm victims, helping them with a tangle of legal issues exacerbated by public bureaucracies and private for-profit interests. Along the way, we learned a good deal about what makes a coordinated disaster response work, or not work so well.

First of all it is important to be prepared as an organization. I don’t just mean having an emergency response plan for your own operations, I mean having processes and procedures in place that will ensure that substantive disaster support gets to affected communities right away. And these procedures cannot just be in a binder gathering dust on a shelf, they need to be robust and kept current. For providers of civil legal services this means a serious level of commitment in order to be prepared to act immediately. For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced with Sandy was getting up to speed in unfamiliar legal areas, specifically insurance law where we had no in-house expertise. We were lucky to receive pro bono training, but in the future I will make sure that we keep current with disaster law, and track changes in regulations and procedures governing public agencies and private entities that come into play when disaster strikes.

There needs to be far better communication between federal agencies, state and local government, community-based organizations and civil legal service providers like NYLAG. The moment that the President declares a disaster area should be the trigger for rolling out a coordinated plan. For example, it is not enough to have FEMA and SBA onsite in community centers. They need to be trained as problem solvers and not slow down the process, as they did after Sandy. I also think the federal government might learn from some of the innovations introduced at the state or local level, such as New York State’s mediation program for homeowners’ insurance claims. A joint mediation program for both homeowners’ and flood insurance (which is a federal program) would be far more efficient and effective for everyone.

One other takeaway from our Sandy experience: all disasters are not created equal. Every city, every community, is unique – and a standard template is just not going to work. New York is a diverse community. Our population speaks scores of languages. We have particular needs regarding our large immigrant population. There are high volumes of both homeowners and renters with very different needs. New York City is one of the most expensive places to live in the world: plywood at the local Home Depot costs more than plywood in Boulder, Colorado. All of these factors need to be considered before a disaster strikes if we are to improve the nation’s disaster response capabilities.

I have an image that has stayed with me now for a year. I remember watching news coverage right after the storm. A woman from Staten Island was standing in the muddy ruins of her home, picking through rubble, her whole body signaling defeat. Then she looked right at the camera – at me in my living room, and said, “I just want to go home.”

More than anything else, when I think about Sandy, I think about that woman and the thousands more for whom the storm is not over, and may never be. We owe it to them to make the system work.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Affordable Care: Act One

iStock_000019472466Medium - webOn October 1, the nation’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) officially launched its initial phase – admittedly with some fits and starts – to enroll millions of uninsured Americans. While the majority of ACA news coverage has focused on the new insurance exchanges, one of the most promising aspects of the system relates to its treatment of Medicaid, the government program for low-income individuals who cannot afford health insurance.

On this front, New York State is leading the way. We are one of the 24 states to have taken advantage of the federal option to significantly expand Medicaid eligibility. Our State will now provide coverage with no premium and modest co-pays to individuals and families earning up to 138% of the poverty level – up from the former cut off of 100% for most people. This is a meaningful jump from $23,550 to $32,500 for a family of four. The federal government will pay for this expansion through 2016, and no less than 90 percent of costs in later years. In addition, people with incomes up to 400% of the poverty level who buy health insurance through the new Health Insurance Marketplace will receive premium subsidies on a sliding scale.

It is not surprising that New York State is taking full advantage of what the ACA has to offer: for over ten years, under consecutive administrations, the state has been a pioneer in eliminating barriers to health care coverage by streamlining eligibility criteria, eliminating unnecessary burdens such as proof of income and asset testing, and simplifying the application process. In fact, the ACA builds on many of these innovative previous reforms, and also helps New York implement its long-planned online Medicaid application system.

New York State has stepped up to the plate to help vulnerable populations get off the ranks of the uninsured, improving their health and the fiscal health of the state. Unfortunately, there are 26 other states in our nation that continue to trap their poor and low-income citizens in a limbo where they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive ACA subsidies.

There are an estimated 3 million uninsured New Yorkers who can potentially benefit from the ACA. The key provisions of the Act will take effect on January 1, 2014. Beginning now and into 2014, advocates for the poor and near poor must work together to make sure people are aware of the new law, informed of their options and enrolled in a plan. [Some tools to help understand and calculate subsidies are available here.] The Affordable Care Act is not a perfect law, and there will no doubt be difficulties ahead, and continuing inequities. But for now, let’s salute the ACA as a huge step forward for millions of people too long denied access to affordable health insurance.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Turning Five

first day of schoolThis week thousands of New York City five-year-olds strapped on their backpacks, clung tightly to their parents’ hands, took a big gulp, and became kindergarteners – a rite of passage that, while scary for some kids and bittersweet for most parents, is an exciting day of picture taking and pride. Sadly, this is not the case for too many low-income special needs students, whose parents find themselves up against a Department of Education that is pursuing policies that impede their children’s progress. For them, turning five and entering kindergarten often means the abrupt loss of many of the special education services and benefits that they received in pre-school.

I am not alone in being frustrated by the mindless bureaucracy and apparent indifference towards its special needs students shown by the New York City Department of Education. Parents of typically developing children have legitimate concerns about a range of issues, such as increasing reliance on high stakes testing, the lack of middle school choices, and the lack of planning for the impact of development on our neighborhood schools. But for poor families with special needs children, the stakes are even higher: it’s about a child’s access to education.

The problems are particularly acute for students making the critical transition from special-education pre-school to kindergarten. These “turning five” disabled students may have had the benefit of relatively robust and holistic support in their pre-school years: appropriate school placements, tutoring, therapeutic interventions and other supports to meet their individual needs. However, when they enter kindergarten, they are facing a host of obstacles. The DOE regularly terminates needed services for children entering kindergarten based on administrative convenience and unrelated to the needs of the child. This is despite the advice and recommendations of pre-school teachers, doctors, psychologists and other trained professionals who have worked with these students and know their needs. For example, in a recent NYLAG case, the DOE has terminated a turning-five autistic child’s one-to-one dedicated educator that the child needed to manage her severe behaviors as she transitioned into kindergarten. In another case, the DOE drastically reduced a turning-five child’s speech and language therapy simply because the kindergarten program could not provide more.

There are a limited number of attorneys, including the Special Education Unit at NYLAG, that provide free legal representation to see that low-income disabled children receive the appropriate public education, including necessary related services, to which they are legally entitled. When the DOE fails to do so, we represent parents at administrative hearings, and, where necessary, appeal to the State Review Office and federal court to secure DOE funding for an educational program in an appropriate non-public or private school that is able to address the student’s unique needs.

The State’s and City’s educational policies and practices impact not only the “turning five” population, they negatively affect all special needs students, at a time when the population of disabled children is continuing to rise.  Millions of dollars of taxpayer money are often wasted by the DOE in administrative hearings and appeals with the purpose of denying special needs children necessary educational programs and related services.  With a new administration about to get to work, let’s hope the DOE will make the changes necessary to ensure that all disabled children receive appropriate educations.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Remembering 9/11, and Learning From It

9-11 Anniversary NYC Skyline

We all have memories of that day, some painfully personal because of loved ones lost — others shared and communal, like how blue the sky was, how searing the images of devastation. But perhaps the most important memory for me and others in the nonprofit sector, is learning firsthand about the extraordinarily long-term nature of disaster relief services. While the families of those murdered on 9/11 can never be made fully whole, it is important that we as advocates remain available to help them, no matter how long it takes.

It’s obvious that mobilizing an immediate response is the first step. To accomplish this, agencies need to be nimble and adaptable — with the flexibility to suddenly re-allocate resources in creative ways. For example, at NYLAG, we didn’t wait to be asked to help victims with their legal needs. Within 48 hours of 9/11, we had five of our attorneys sitting at a table near Ground Zero. Not even knowing what to expect, we immediately found ourselves helping victims’ family members navigate the maze of FEMA benefits and other emergency programs. Later on, we began seeing more employment issues related to workers compensation and pensions. Then came a surge in estate issues and family matters, such as custody and guardianship. We worked with many immigrants whose status was affected by the attack – and even now, 12 years later, we still have immigration cases pending for immigrant family members of victims.

In total, we helped over 2,000 individuals whose lives were impacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. Nine years later, this experience enabled us to immediately launch a program to help New York’s Haitian immigrants in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. Over the last three years, as temporary protected status was renewed for Haitians, NYLAG has continued to serve this vulnerable community. In addition to immigration matters, we are helping them access public benefits, address employment discrimination, and a host of related issues. And of course, in 2012, NYLAG became the largest provider of disaster legal services to victims of Superstorm Sandy. Eleven months later, we have only just scratched the surface of the legal assistance needed to help these clients rebuild their homes and their lives.

Today I sit within blocks of the Freedom Tower, a memorial to those we have lost, and a tribute to the strength and resilience of our city. As a public interest lawyer, I am proud that the lessons of 9/11 have made our agency stronger for the future, by teaching us to recognize that the needs after a disaster are both immediate and long-lasting. As a husband and a father, and a citizen of New York, I honor the memory of those who were lost, offer my support to all who still suffer, and feel so grateful for the many people I love and cherish in my life.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Back-to-School: Putting Students Before Profits

For-Profit SchoolsAs our nation’s students begin returning to school this month, President Obama hit the road to talk about the plight of middle class Americans dealing with a host of economic challenges, among them the soaring cost of higher education. The President’s college affordability plans include making better use of online tools, and rewarding innovative ideas like a three-year bachelor’s degree. But his boldest idea is to create a new ratings system that will link a college’s eligibility for federal aid to how many of its students actually graduate, and how many successfully enter the job market – a move that he said, “won’t be popular with everyone – including some who’ve made higher education their business – but it’s past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”

Those who have “made higher education their business” are for-profit colleges, whose profitability hinges on enrolling individuals who will qualify for federal student loans and grants, regardless of the educational benefit to the student. And their business is booming at our expense: in 2011, federal taxpayers invested $32 billion in companies that operate high-cost, low-value for-profit colleges – 25 percent of the entire federal student loan budget.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are hundreds of for-profit schools in New York State and almost two-thirds of them operate in the greater New York City area. NYLAG serves hundreds of clients a year who have attended for-profit schools. They are targeted because they are unemployed and underemployed, so desperate to believe that an education will translate into a good paycheck that they sign up without realizing they have taken on enormous debt in return for little if any valuable training or education. They soon realize that the programs are inadequate, with overcrowded classrooms, poor teachers and language barriers. Over 50 percent of students who enroll in for-profit schools drop out within four months. Those who do graduate find that their “education” does not lead to jobs: the unemployment rate among students who attended for-profit schools in 2008 and 2009 was 23 percent. And many of those who are employed are working at the same low-paying jobs they had before they attended school.

There is a pressing need for vigorous federal oversight, in coordination with major improvements at the State level, to ensure the integrity of federal student loan programs.  As President Obama said, “Just tinkering around the edges won’t be enough: To create a better bargain for the middle class, we have to fundamentally rethink about how higher education is paid for in this country. We’ve got to shake up the current system.”

There is no denying that those whose profits depend on maintaining the status quo will strongly oppose the President’s plan, as they have other efforts to condition a school’s participation in federal student loan programs on the success of its graduates.  Next month, the U.S. Department of Education will open a round of negotiated rulemaking, which brings together representatives from government and diverse interest groups to negotiate and reach a consensus on the terms of a proposed administrative rule.  In this case, the subject of the rulemaking is “gainful employment,” a regulation aimed at holding for-profit secondary schools accountable for the quality of their programs by monitoring the job outcomes of their students. NYLAG attorney Eileen Connor will represent legal aid organizations at the negotiating table.  We support a gainful employment regulation consistent with President Obama’s plan, which would cut off federal student aid to for-profit schools that do not meet minimum standards.  But it is imperative that improved regulations be backed by rigorous oversight of the program by federal and other agencies.

By improving oversight of for-profit schools, this administration could reclaim millions of taxpayer dollars that would be better invested in private and community colleges committed to their students’ success, not their profit margins. It could also create opportunities for poor and near poor students to receive a good education, earn a decent living, and join the ranks of the middle class.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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