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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    

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Calling All Victim Advocates!

As the weather turns cooler and the beauty of the foliage enchants, as the scent of pumpkin spice fills the air and Halloween candy is ever-present, remember to wear purple to raise awareness about domestic violence, and consider volunteering to help the Crime Victims Legal Network.

This October marks the 30th anniversary of national Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM).  DVAM was launched back in 1987 to unite individuals and organizations working on domestic violence issues and to raise awareness of the experiences of these unique victims of crime.  Wearing the color purple during this month, especially on the Thursday during the third full week of October (this year, October 19th), has helped to draw attention to this important issue.  Over the past three decades, we have shined a light on this social injustice that knows no social and economic boundaries, and through grassroots and legislative efforts, have made a significant difference in the lives of intimate partner violence survivors. But our efforts are still needed in support of these victims – and for other victims of crime.

The New York Crime Victims Legal Network (CVLN) is a partnership of organizations working together to better address the civil legal needs of crime victims, including victims of domestic violence.  Crime can have a huge impact on victims and their families.  The emotional reactions to a crime can include a variety of behaviors such as increased concern for personal safety, withdrawal from others, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and a range of feelings from fear and anxiety to guilt and helplessness.  On top of this, victims of crime may have to face multiple legal problems that stem from their victimization. It can be overwhelming, and many people aren’t sure where to turn.

The CVLN is in the process of developing new tools that will connect victims of crime with the information and services they need.  A dedicated website will have a suite of features including a triage screening tool, legal aid help directory, self-help resource library and live chat.  From the Needs Assessment we conducted last year, we know many crime victims don’t seek help because they don’t know where to go, don’t think that anything can be done to help, or because they think they can deal with things on their own.  The triage tool is being designed to help crime victims identify their legal needs.  For the pilot stage, we are focusing on providing legal resources in the areas of housing, family, employment, immigration, and finances – the top needs identified by victims of crime and service providers.  By offering know your rights and self-help resources, we hope that more crime victims become aware of the options available to them, and through the help directory that they know where they can obtain help with their legal problems.  And to assist users in finding their way around the website, a live chat feature will be available.

To create a product that truly meets the needs of crime victims in New York State, we need feedback from real people.  If you are a victim of a crime who resides in Erie or Genesee County, would you consider becoming part of our Community Insight Group?  We’ll be turning to you at various stages of the development of the website to get your thoughts, opinions, and advice.  Is the website design aesthetically pleasing?  Is the site easy to maneuver?  Is the content helpful?  Your feedback will play an important part in guiding the direction of the website.  User testers will receive a small stipend for their assistance.

Service providers – we can use your help, too!  Please help us recruit user testers.  Reach out to past clients you believe would likely use our site, anyone who could potentially have civil legal issues directly or indirectly stemming from their victimization.  We’re inviting 10-12 people to be a part of this Community Insight Group.  Or you can help by volunteering as a content expert, someone who reviews the legal content being developed for the site and makes sure the resources we offer are useful.  Please email me at if you are interested in helping or for more information.

I hope we can count on your help with the Crime Victims Legal Network.  And don’t forget to wear purple!

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Doing Time in Dilley

Issue Area: Immigrant Rights

This blog tells the true story of families seeking asylum in the United States- families that have gone through horrors not meant to be experienced, especially by children.  Please be aware that some of the content may be considered graphic by some readers.

In December 2016, I spent a week serving as a pro bono attorney at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), a family detention center for women and children located in Dilley, Texas.  Volunteers are organized through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a collective created by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).  These organizations joined together in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s expanding practice of detaining families seeking asylum at the United States and Mexican border.

  The water tower stands sentinal over Dilley.  

What exactly is a “family detention center?”  Well, it’s basically a cleaned-up term used to hide what these places really are: prisons.  The United States government is currently incarcerating women and children fleeing violence in their home countries (mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and who are asking for asylum at our borders.  Yes, children – some as young as just a few months old.

I met with a number of these women and children during my time at the STFRC.  One young girl’s story has stayed with me, months after I met with her.  My colleague was interviewing her mother, and I sat down to keep her pre-teen daughter company.  As we sat coloring with crayons, she turned to me and asked if I wanted to know why she came to America.  I told her I didn’t know why but if she wanted to tell me, she could.  She proceeded to tell me about how her uncle had been raping her for years and that when she told her mother about it, everything got worse.  Her mother called the police, who didn’t do anything, and her family turned on her for dragging others into their private affairs.  Her own family threatened her with violence, and her mother made the decision that in order for them to be safe, they had to flee the country.  This child does not belong in a prison while she and her mother rightfully seek asylum under US laws.  She needs to be counseled and offered medical services, not incarcerated.

After telling her story, the young girl turned to me and asked if I could play her some songs on my laptop.  She was really worried and nervous about their hearing the next day with the asylum officer and what questions they might ask her.  I tried to ease her mind and said she could answer any questions the way that she had just explained it to me. 

  Prathiba in Dilley, TX  

After that, we sat and watched Disney music videos to take her mind off things until her mother was done preparing.  Before she got up to leave, she turned to me and asked if the Empire State Building was as tall as she had seen in pictures.  She said she was hoping to see for herself.  She is a kid, one who has been through a lot, but a kid nonetheless. 

Why are children being imprisoned?  Mostly because the companies who run these private prisons are earning millions of dollars a year in revenue for each of the 2,400 beds they fill at the STFRC.

In even more appalling news, in May 2017, Texas lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would license family detention centers as child care providers.  This is despite a 2016 court ruling where a judge held that the STFRC did not meet the minimum requirements to care for childrenThe GEO Group, the  private prison company that runs the other Texas family detention center, Karnes, lobbied Texas lawmakers to introduce the bill, a bill that would earn them exponentially more revenue and allow them to remain open and hold children in these facilities for even longer.

Beyond the disturbing reality where a family jail would be licensed by the state as a childcare provider – this is a dangerous precedent.  From someone who has been to the STRFC, seen and spoken to the children and women being held there – there is no way that they should be allowed to pretend they are childcare providers.  Almost all of the children there have severe diarrhea, congestion and hacking coughs.  Their coughs were so forceful it sounded like they would vomit at any moment.  When mothers tried to seek medical attention, they were told to give their children honey or a throat lozenge.  When I was there, the medical staff did not even speak Spanish, so most mothers did not know what medicines were being given to their children.  Children who were running around playing would come back from the infirmary and just pass out asleep from the pills given to them.  One day, a child in the “daycare” room was found by a CARA volunteer passed out and nonresponsive, with no STFRC staff member in the room with the children.  And if that weren’t enough, volunteers were all warned to not drink the tap water in Dilley because it has been contaminated by nearby fracking.  Yet, the STFRC staff filled water dispensers directly from the tap for the women and children being detained.

Family Detention Centers are inhumane, not a solution.  With the Trump administration planning to expand detention, these human rights abuses need to be brought to light and these centers need to be closed.

The experience of volunteering in Dilley has reaffirmed my dedication to fighting for immigrant rights, and I already have plans to return.  If you are interested in volunteering or learning more, please visit AILA’s website.

  Prathiba joined a long line of advocates volunteering in Dilley, and hopes to go back this year.  

Tags: daca | immigrant rights | Dilley

Working for Justice: Beginning with Inspiration

Written by Emily Miron, Policy Intern

In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher.  The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice?  What is a voice if it does not sing for change?”  I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in.  The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.


The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general.  Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice?  What is equality?  How are they intertwined and are they universal?  Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others.  Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality.  I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.

My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.”  I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime.  I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.

During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day.  SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft.  The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers.  Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year.  These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health.  The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill.  It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.


I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team.  We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses.  The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.

I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial.  Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State.  Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.

Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation. 

Tags: wage justice | intern | justice | sweat

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project: Moving into the Pilot Phase

Last Spring, the Crime Victims Legal Network Project launched a comprehensive needs assessment to better understand the civil legal needs of crime victims in New York State.  To the hundreds of crime victims and service providers who completed surveys or took part in focus groups and in-depth interviews: Thank you!  I am overwhelmed and gratified by your participation and excited to share the results with you. 

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project is a federally funded partnership between the New York State Office of Victim Services, Empire Justice Center, the Center for Human Services Research at SUNY Albany (CHSR) and Pro Bono Net.  Together with our fourteen-member Advisory Committee, we are working to develop a first- of- its- kind statewide network outside New York City that uses sophisticated technology solutions to make it easier for crime victims to access civil legal aid.

Over a year was spent designing and conducting a multi-phase Needs Assessment, led by our research partner, CHSR.  The Needs Assessment was essential to helping us identify the civil legal problems faced by crime victims, the barriers to seeking help and the role an online resource could play in helping fill the existing gaps in services outside of New York City.  While we had a sense of what these problems and gaps were, we want to create an evidence-based solution that will play a meaningful part in assisting victims of crime and the professionals who work with them.

The response to the surveys was tremendous.  We received 310 responses to the victim of crime survey, and 412 responses to the service provider survey.  Focus groups for both sectors were conducted in nine regions across the State, and civil legal attorney and law school clinical faculty were interviewed.

Here are some highlights of the analysis of the issues, services and challenges in meeting the civil legal needs of victims of crime:

  • Most crime victims faced problems related to money or finances, family and housing as a result of their victimization. 
  • High percentages of victims reported needing help with knowing what services were available and understanding the legal system.
  • Of those who did not seek help to deal with their problems, many indicated that they did not know what services were available or they didn’t think anything could be done.
  • Service providers also indicated that the biggest barrier to meeting the needs of crime victims was victims’ lack of knowledge about the availability of services.
  • Focus group participants and interviewees echoed these responses and highlighted transportation as well as language access and cultural issues as barriers to victims receiving civil legal aid.
  • With regards to the use of technology in helping meet these service needs, most victims indicated that they would, or may, consider using an online tool, and most service providers reported a willingness to refer their clients to an online resource.

The complete report can be found on CHSR’s website.

As the Project Leader, I had the privilege of assisting in four of the focus groups in western New York, and I am humbled by the generosity of all the participants.  The expertise of service providers was astounding, and your recommendations – all of which came from a place of genuine caring – were taken to heart.  And the crime victims?  Your willingness to share some of the most intimate and traumatic experiences of your life to ensure that other crime victims get the help you didn’t is nothing short of incredible.  Thank you, to all the participants.

What’s so exciting is that, now with the analyzed results, we can make sure that the technology solutions developed for the Network Project are truly grounded in the real life needs and preferences of crime victims.  Based on the results, Pro Bono Net, our technology partner, has proposed that the Network’s technology include a website with a suite of features designed to meet the needs of crime victims, and at the same time help civil legal assistance providers in delivering holistic services to their clients.  And that’s what we are starting to develop during this second phase of the Project.

May 1st marked the start of Phase II, the pilot phase of the Network Project.  As we develop the technology, we will be focusing on growing partnerships within the western New York region, specifically in Erie and Genesee counties, the geographic area of the pilot.  Our goal is to work with service providers – both legal and human services providers – whose clients may benefit from the technology solutions being developed, and have them test the online resource and help us improve it before we expand it to the rest of New York State. 

For the pilot stage, we will be focusing on the top concerns identified by both crime victims and service providers in the needs assessment: family, money/finance, employment, housing and immigration.  Your knowledge, along with the continued guidance of the Advisory Committee, will help us make sure the information on the website is useful, practical and can really assist crime victims with their civil legal issues. 

In the next few months, I’ll be reaching out to some of you to be a part of this initiative.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Crime Victims Legal Network Project or in helping out, please contact me.  I can be reached at rparthasarathy[at]empirejustice[dot]org.

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tags: crime victim | domestic violence | Crime Victims Legal Network Project

TANF at 20: The 1996 "Welfare Reform" and its Impact, Part 3

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights.  We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty plus years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group, continues his thoughts in his third installment.


In my previous articles, I examined the 1996 welfare reforms and assessed where things stand today, nationally and in New York State.  I intended, in this third and final installment of TANF at 20, to take a forward looking view:  In what ways might Congress and the Federal government improve the welfare system to make it a more humane and effective in fighting poverty?  A TANF reauthorization bill introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators, despite its flaws, gave hope that some less punitive, more productive legislation might be achievable. [1]  Then came the November elections, and I felt compelled to rethink what I could discuss that might be possible, of interest and of value.  The new game plan:  I’ll review what we might anticipate in the way of federal TANF legislation in the coming year(s), acknowledge that we will probably not be able to turn to the Federal government for constructive change, and then focus on what New York State can do to help fill the void.

What Action Is the Federal Government Likely to Take on TANF?

In June, 2016, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the most powerful voice in Congress, released a report entitled “A Better Way:  Our Vision for A Confident America” (interesting choice of adjectives). [2]  It was written by the House-created Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility.  Though lacking in legislative detail, it offers a peek into the likely changes the Republican-controlled Congress would expect to make in the TANF program.  Most of the news is bleak, though there are a few positive concepts and some of the rhetoric might align well with progressive perspectives. [3]  But these hopeful signs tend to be overwhelmed by more harmful provisions, and of course, even the best of ideas are inconsequential if tax cuts and budget cuts prevent meaningful implementation.  Shortly before this article was completed, the Trump administration proposed the outlines of a federal budget that would cut tax revenues and increase defense spending by $54 billion.  Discretionary programs such as TANF would be the inevitable targets of the resulting spending cuts.  Here are some “high”lights of the Ryan plan:

Work (Part 1)

Some pretty good rhetoric
The TANF portion of the “Better Way” report is primarily focused on work.  It begins with some promising rhetoric.  It quotes a state welfare official who complained that the TANF law emphasizes technical programmatic requirements rather than real individual progress.  This is likely a reference to TANF participation rates, which measure whether enough recipients are “engaged” in mandated activities, without regard for whether favorable outcomes are being achieved.  For years, progressives have urged Congress to replace participation rules with more meaningful measures, like poverty reduction and long-term placement in decent-paying jobs.

The TANF section also suggests that states should be accountable for helping recipients improve their employability and secure decent jobs, and observes that child care, transportation, stable housing, adequate food and consistent work schedules are important to successful employment.  This could be the introduction to a progressive overhaul of the welfare system! 

The actual recommendations? 
The Task Force does not formulate detailed proposals, but things go downhill as the paper proceeds.  Most strikingly, it repeats, in so many words, the “Work First” mantra of the 1996 reforms:  a job, any job, is more effective than, for example, education-focused activities.  If that was ever true, it is most certainly not true at a time where decent paying jobs increasingly require higher education and/or specialized training.  The report repeatedly insists that adults on TANF who can work must work, as if that were not already the law of the land.  It complains that the states are not engaging enough of the TANF recipients in work activities.
What we might expect
I would be surprised if TANF reauthorization did not include some mix of higher participation rates and the elimination of the means by which states can reduce their required level of work participation. [4]  The conservatives will also have to resolve the tension between two competing principles.  First is the impulse to be much more restrictive about the activities that can count as work participation.  Second is the bias in favor of greater local discretion.  A number of states, red and blue, have called for broader authority to define countable work activities.  We’ll see how it plays out… 

Work (Part 2)

Not strictly TANF
The preeminence of work in the “Better Way” report shows up in its discussion of some non-TANF programs.  But because of the repeated reference to the TANF work rules, and the likely impact on the people we serve, they bear mentioning here.

SNAP – The report recommends that the law “insist on work for work-capable adults” receiving SNAP benefits.  The discussion seems to simply restate the SNAP rule for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependent Children [5] – ABAWDs – but may foreshadow even more rigorous, punitive and broadly applied work mandates.

Housing assistance – The Task Force expresses concern about the length of time that people remain in subsidized housing, and cites data to the effect that many employable residents are not working.  Not surprisingly, the proposed solution:  impose TANF-like work requirements, which are always accompanied by severe punishments for alleged noncompliance.  Admittedly, the proposal would include help with child care, transportation and other work supports.

The Ryan Task Force speaks out on anti-poverty programs in general
I’d like to touch briefly on a number of observations and recommendations in the report that address the anti-poverty, non-profit and social services world in general, governmental and otherwise.

Incentives/“cliffs” – The paper addresses inappropriate incentives at some length.  We all might agree that public benefit “cliffs,” where a small increase in earnings might result in the loss of eligibility for some critical benefit, create an incentive not to increase earnings.  A robust remedy would be welcome.  But the paper is also concerned about the law’s insufficient marriage incentives.  The TANF law already promotes marriage and two-parent families, but one could imagine alarming new possibilities.

Non-profits – The report complains that non-profits are often rewarded for helping more clients to receive benefits, without also giving the agencies an incentive to move people off of benefits.  There is no specific proposal, but there’s glaring potential for mischief here!

Effectiveness – Under the folksy title, “Pay More for the Good Stuff, Less for Everything Else,” the report bemoans the fact that federal funding too often fails to distinguish between effective and ineffective approaches.  But how will “effective” be defined?  The Task Force seems to suggest, for example, that extended time receiving benefits is a sign of ineffectiveness.  So the federal match rate should be reduced over time to ensure that the state is invested in moving people off of benefits.  This would be deeply troubling…

Program evaluation – The Task Force argues that most federal programs are not evaluated, and when they are, many are found ineffective.  Certainly, a strong case can be made for evidence-based policy making.  The danger is that effectiveness will be defined by policy makers who are overtly hostile to the programs they are assessing. 

Waste, Fraud, Abuse – It seems reasonable that the feds should “focus support on the people who need it most,” doesn’t it?  But unfortunately, this is the Task Force’s way of saying that too many recipients are wrongly paid due to fraud, waste and abuse.  TANF is actually not singled out, but the report lists the major offenders, such as the EITC, which in 2015 allegedly had an improper payment rate of over 27%, or $17.7 billion.

Local control: the New York impact - The report supports more local control and flexibility in TANF program choices.  That principle is too often honored in the breach.  But ironically, we in New York State might distinctly benefit – or at least be somewhat less vulnerable – if Congress and the new administration delegate more authority to the states.  It’s a very different story in many other states.

What can New York State do?

A disclaimer - I’ll share my thoughts here on changes in the welfare system that New York State should consider.  We of course cannot be certain when or how the federal government will modify TANF laws or what the final federal budget will look like.  But sadly, it is probably safe to say that constructive, beneficial change to the welfare system in the coming years is much more likely to originate at the state or local levels of government.  We would, therefore, do well to consider what might be done in the Empire State. [6]

An informational aside - Family Assistance (FA) is New York State’s TANF program, whereas Safety Net Assistance, our other public assistance program, is purely a State creation.  While federal law is controlling for TANF/FA, it has no jurisdiction over SNA.  In New York, comparable policies have generally been adopted for both programs, though with some notable exceptions. In any event, this section looks at state options for change in the TANF/FA program under current federal law constraints.

And a prelude - The list that follows is by no means exhaustive.  Hopefully it provides a useful sample of actions that New York State can undertake to enhance our welfare program while comporting with federal law.

The Welfare Work Rules

  1. Sanctions:  The New York State legislature recently passed a fine law addressing sanctions for alleged work rules violations.  It requires that the social services district investigate to determine the reasons for non-compliance before the sanction process is triggered, and it provides that a person can have a sanction lifted upon a showing of willingness to come into compliance.  But the law only applies to New York City.  Federal law mandates sanctions for non-compliance, but nothing more specific than that. [7]  The sanction law can and should be expanded statewide.
  2. Two-generation programs:  I am increasingly persuaded that programs that address the needs of low income parents and their children represent one optimal means of serving both generations.  Programs might have to be structured in such a way that the activities in which the parents engage might be countable as work, but the endeavor is well worth the effort. [8]      
  3. Career Pathways:  I generally favor more forceful leadership from Albany on welfare policy.  I also recognize the value of the districts – intimately familiar with the population they serve – having some latitude with regard to the work activities they assign.  But it is not unreasonable for OTDA to provide guidance and ground rules regarding the activity assignments.  There should be programs that take local labor market conditions into account and that adhere to best practices in the field.  One example of a model that has a track record for effectiveness is the Career Pathways concept.  In brief, Career Pathways programs offer a ladder of instruction and training, with multiple entry and departure points, each level offering skills training that can result in the granting of recognized credentials; many of the most effective programs include “soft” skills development.  This may include training in the realm of executive function, skills that focus on flexibility, “working memory” and what is sometimes called self-regulation. [9]
  4. Households with children under 1 year:  This is fully permissible under current TANF law.  In New York, advocates tried for years to secure a work activities exemption for PA recipients with children under the age of one year.  Initially the primary motivation was to free up child care funds for already-employed parents.  But a terrific additional gain might be that the exemption would enable parents to spend more time with their infant children, and districts might offer services and programs to assist young parents.
  5. Access to education:  Because the federal government has asserted itself aggressively in the realm of countable work activities, access to education may depend more on what happens next in Washington D.C. than some of the other recommendations made here.  But there is at least the possibility that more discretion will be given to states regarding assignable activities.  In any event, New York should act decisively to make all levels of education and skills development more integral components of PA work assignments.  The research about the benefits, in terms of employment, retention and compensation, of every increment of quality education and training is overwhelming.  For starters, making college education one of the activity options and making homework a countable activity should no longer be left to local discretion.  

General Welfare Policies

  1. Benefit levels:  A shameless plug!  Federal law says nothing about TANF benefit levels in the states.  A singular achievement in New York would be the enactment of the Home Stability Support program, which would vastly enhance the capacity of PA recipients to pay rent and heating bills.  Please visit, or drop me a line to join our list-serv.
  2. Screening for disability:  Over the years, I have informally surveyed advocates around the state regarding the local districts’ treatment of people with disabilities.  I have consistently been told about systemic problems in this area.  Disabilities are too often not identified, and of course if the disability is not identified, then individuals are unlikely to receive the accommodations that are needed to secure benefits and that are mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Federal TANF policy requires upfront disability screening, though there has been little in the way of enforcement and that is unlikely to change under the next administration. 

New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which oversees the state’s welfare programs, has been incredibly frustrating in its unwillingness to set forth explicit directions for the districts with regard to identifying disabilities.  Under the ADA, screening must be voluntary, and there are issues that need to be worked out so that the process is not seen as coercive, but the state can certainly do a much better job in ensuring that disabilities are identified and, where appropriate, that needed accommodations are offered.
The culture of welfare administration 
In the first two installments of this blog, I have decried the culture of welfare administration.  In too many, but not all, districts this often create barriers that prevent people from receiving urgently needed assistance.  The effect of these obstacles is to discourage, intimidate and confuse people seeking benefits.  The remedies are many; they might include:

  • Demystifying the application process by making sure that the rules and process are clearly and understandably communicated to clients.  The duty to assist clients having difficulties documenting their PA eligibility is often honored in the breach.  Workers should be trained and reminded of this critical responsibility.
  • Making sure that time limits for action on applications are observed.
  • Providing full access in terms of interpretation and translation services for people with limited English proficiency.
  • Improving staff training, including training in the recognition of possible mental health issues.
  • Zero tolerance for explicit or subtle intimidation based on disability, immigration status, or alleged fraud.
  • Ensuring full access in terms of hours of service, taking into account, among other factors, clients’ possible employment or PA work assignments and other sometimes conflicting requirements.
  • Significant enhancements in the ability of PA clients to conduct their interactions with the system by phone or computer.  The SNAP and Medicaid programs, perhaps because they are less stigmatized than public assistance, are far ahead of PA in this arena.

Welfare law has stringent rules about resources and eligibility.  But possession of some level of resources is often critical to the ability to leave welfare, and may offer a cushion against the unpredictable nature of employment.  It is reasonable that people with substantial wealth should not be eligible for PA, but households with modest resources should not have to exhaust them before receiving aid.  For example:

  • All households should be able to possess a car, without affecting eligibility.
  • The resource limits should be eliminated or substantially increased.
  • Districts should not be permitted to take liens on houses for those infrequent cases in which a person in need of public assistance owns his or her home.  This is one resource of value that might provide some long term protection for a family.

Child care
A brief step beyond the realm of public assistance.  Child care is guaranteed by law for PA recipients who are given work assignments.  But the shortage of funding for child care for working parents who are not eligible for welfare has reached crisis proportions.  Thus, if a welfare recipient does exactly what the system demands of them, that they secure employment and leave the welfare rolls, they will, sooner or later, face a crisis if they are unable to secure a child care subsidy.  The situation became ever more desperate when Congress wisely enacted rules to improve child care health, safety and quality, but absurdly failed to provide funding to enable the states to comply.  Certainly, the provision of adequate child care funding for both the PA and the non-PA populations must be among the highest of priorities.


Coming to the conclusion of this “TANF at 20” posting, I return to the beginning, the adoption of “welfare reform.”  From the start, many advocates felt that the TANF program, and the larger PRWORA legislation under which it was created, were ill-conceived, and grounded in biases about public assistance and the people who need it.  And nothing about the 20 years since 1996 has changed our views.  Take a look at a remarkable series of articles by Peter Germanis, who dubs himself Peter the Citizen, an “ardent conservative deeply concerned about truth in policy making and policy assessment.”  I am sure we would disagree about many details, but in his article, “Making “Welfare Reform” Great Again:  Five Recommendations for President-Elect Donald J. Trump,” [10] Germanis notes that he played a role in writing the 1996 welfare reform law, and now regretfully calls it a massive failure.  He recommends that the new president not rely on sweeping anti-poverty reform packages, but rather that he encourage state flexibility but with accountability, reject block grants, emphasize work, but focus on what is realistic, reasonable and effective, and recognize that welfare dependency should be reduced, not by cutting the caseloads, but by reducing poverty.  Germanis strongly believes that the 1996 reforms failed in virtually all respects.  I might tinker a bit with his themes for the new administration, but considering the source, his ideas might carry considerably more weight.  We can hope.

In this third installment, I discuss the prospects for the TANF program in Washington – ranging from uncertain to bleak.  I then proposed a sampling of steps that New York State can undertake without conflicting with Federal law.  I conclude with the hope that this not be simply an informational exercise, but that we continue to share thoughts and ideas about addressing the urgent needs of low income New Yorkers and work together to enable some of these and your ideas to become reality. 

End Notes
 [1] See The Empower Act of 2016,
 [2] The section on poverty can be found here,, with links to various formats, snapshot, fact sheet, entire document, etc.
 [3] During the course of 2016 there was at least one potentially promising, bipartisan legislative proposal, but my fear is that such moderate initiatives will face steep resistance in Congress and the White House.  See,
 [4] States can currently reduce their mandated work participation rate by reducing their caseload, and also by increasing their “maintenance of effort” expenditures.  For a fine brief explaining the participation rates, see Elizabeth Lower-Basch, “Work Participation Rate - TANF,” Center for Law and Social Policy, updated July 2016,
 [5] This rule provides that ABAWDs are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period unless they are meeting prescribed work requirements.  Issues such as adequacy of notice, availability of work options, and the accuracy of “able-bodied” determinations, makes this rule particularly problematic.
 [6] Most of the proposals here are based on my experience and research into welfare issues.  But this discussion is also specifically informed by two publications, Elizabeth Lower Basch and Stephanie Schmit, TANF & The First Year of Life – Making a Difference at a Critical Moment, Center on Law and Social Policy, October 2015; and Donna Pavetti and Liz Schott, TANF at 20: Time to Create a Program, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 2016.
 [7] 45 CFR §216.14
 [8] For more information about the two-generation approach to building family economic security, see, for example, Report by the Executive Director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, “A Two-Generational Approach: Helping Parents Work and Children Thrive,”  See also a wealth of materials from Ascend - Aspen Institute,; and the Center for Law & Social Policy,
 [9] An excellent overview of executive function can be found at the website of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child,  While this site focuses on early childhood development, the need to address executive function deficits in adults is challenging but crucial.
 [10] Peter Germanis, November 2016.  This and many other “Peter the Citizen” articles can be found at

Empire Justice emergency response

Over the last several days, attorneys on our Immigration team were first responders to refugees, asylum seekers, and green card holders, including those that were detained at JFK International Airport after President Trump's Executive Order suspended the resettlement program for 120 days, and banned refugees from select countries.

Our Immigrant Justice Fellow Nabila Taj (pictured below) and staff attorney Amanda Bransford rushed to JFK International Airport to support those who were detained. They worked with other volunteer attorneys to draft attorney affirmations and told Customs and Border Protection: Stick to questions about immigration status, not religious beliefs. 

2017 Nabila volunteering at JFK  
Over the weekend, staff attorney Prathiba Desai spoke with mothers who are being held in a Texas detention center, and helped them prepare for their asylum interviews.

And stationed back at the office, several Empire Justice Immigration advocates diligently researched how the new order would impact our clients and community. They fielded calls from worried clients who are trying to finalize their legal status or seek asylum, keeping them informed and updated on their rights and how new policies could impact their daily life. 

As a civil legal aid provider, it’s our duty to defend the legal rights of any person that has a low income or is facing hardship. The ability to do so is a core component of our democracy. 

Day in and day out, our advocates quickly and dynamically react to changes in policies and practices, and we defend the rights of those who are at risk. But we can’t do it alone. We need the independent support of our friends that allows our advocates to quickly respond to emerging and immediate needs--whether it be in the immigration context, or in health, education, LGBT rights, public benefits, workers' rights, and the list goes on.

In order for social change to happen, we need donors to join in and support democratic principles, values, and action.

Join us.

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Donate to the Immigrant Fund, or where the need is greatest. 

Giving Tuesday is November 29!


Looking for ways to take ACTION?
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside  'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.

Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid

TANF at 20: A Look Back at the Impact on Immigrants

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights.  We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

Barbara Weiner, Attorney Emeritus and Celebration of Leadership Honoree, talks about the impact of TANF on immigrants.

In the summer of 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), the law that would “change welfare as we know it.”  “Personal responsibility” was the catch word of the day, coming before “work opportunity” even in the title, suggesting that accepting the first would inevitably lead to the second.   History since then has not borne that out.  When the economy falters, regardless of their desire to work, low income people are the first to feel the sting.

At the time PRWORA passed, I was an attorney working with the Greater Upstate Law Project (GULP), predecessor of Empire Justice Center, focusing primarily on housing issues.  PRWORA changed all that.  I turned back to an earlier area of my practice, public benefits law, but this time with a focus on how PRWORA impacted immigrants in particular.

Elderly and disabled immigrants were hit hardest by PRWORA.  With the exception of refugees and other humanitarian based immigrants, the door to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the federal program providing income assistance to low income elderly and disabled people, was slammed shut to immigrants unless and until they became US citizens.  Even elderly and disabled refugees were only eligible to receive SSI for a limited time frame.  Access to the other federally funded program, food stamps, was also severely restricted.  TANF and Medicaid, two programs that both the state and federal government contribute to, barred most immigrants from receiving benefits for the first five years after achieving a qualifying immigration status.  After the five year bar expires, states are free to allow qualified immigrants access to one or both programs or to continue the bar.

The benefits eligibility structure enacted through PRWORA was extremely complex, requiring at least a rudimentary understanding of immigration law and an understanding of the meaning of an infinite variety of immigration documents.  This was expertise the state benefits agencies charged with administering the federal and state welfare programs were ill equipped to provide.  Thus the first impact of the new law was that agency workers often simply turned away immigrants with documents the workers didn’t understand, simply because they weren’t “US citizens” or didn’t have a Social Security card.  

Legal services programs, long barred from representing immigrants in immigration matters, but responsible for representing low income clients in their struggle to obtain the benefits that they were entitled to, were also not equipped at first to deal with the complications of immigrant access to benefits resulting from PRWORA’s provisions.  As a statewide back-up center, GULP entered into the breach and we began the long road of familiarizing ourselves with the various circumstances immigrants found themselves in, and how they connected to the complicated immigrant eligibility rules of federal and state benefits programs. 

I was particularly drawn to this new area, perhaps because I had myself come to the US as an immigrant long ago, and so wanted to dive in.  I was given complete freedom by my office to go off in this direction, something rarely encountered these days.  Other legal services programs doing public benefits work, particularly in New York City where immigrants comprise a huge portion of the population, began a similar journey. 

Thus began our first task… to gain a familiarity with immigration law sufficient to make sense of the immigrant eligibility rules established in PRWORA, and then bring an understanding of those rules to others in our legal service community.  I did at least some of my learning by doing – taking on immigration cases, particularly the cases of victims of domestic violence who, if married to an abusive US citizen or lawful permanent resident, had a special path to permanent residence which they could pursue on their own, without the cooperation of their abusive spouse.  Once on the way to applying for status on their own, they had access to at least some state public benefits programs.

In the years since PRWORA, we in the legal services community have litigated and advocated with the New York State agencies responsible for administering public benefits programs, all with a view to ensuring the correct application of immigrant eligibility rules and to be as expansive in their application as the law permits.  No doubt our greatest victory was with Aliessa v. Novello, the 2001 Court of Appeals decision that made it forever clear that New York State, unlike the federal government, is not free to discriminate among and between lawful immigrants in providing access to state funded public benefits.  That principle was recently applied to immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) by the Supreme Court of Erie County in a case called Karamalla v. Devine.  People with TPS had long been excluded from access to federal benefits, but we argued in Karamalla that the Court of Appeals had made it very clear that New York State did not have similar authority to exclude them from access to the state’s Safety Net program.  The Court emphatically agreed.  Although initially OTDA filed an appeal of the Court’s decision, which would have stayed its implementation, we have now received notice that OTDA has withdrawn their appeal.  From here on in, needy individuals with TPS are eligible for state funded welfare benefits.

For me personally, these twenty years have brought many challenges, have been sometimes frustrating, but have always been rewarding.  Still, more remains to be done to mitigate the damages to needy immigrants brought about by PRWORA.

Tags: TANF | #TANFat20 | immigration | welfare | afdc | prwora

TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 2

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights.  We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group, continues his thoughts in this second installment.

My previous article in this series on TANF at 20 offered an overview of the main components of – and problems created by – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA), or what most of us call “welfare reform.”  I had intended to follow up with an assessment of the impact of welfare reform in the U.S., and in New York State, but it occurred to me that over these 20 years the law itself has been changed, significant new regulations have been adopted, there have been two presidencies, an increasingly deadlocked Congress, some important demographic trends, and a major recession.  In short, 20 years’ worth of change.   So instead, I offer something of a snapshot of the current state of affairs for the poorest Americans and poorest New Yorkers particularly in relation to welfare policy, from an advocate’s point of view.  In my third and final installment, we’ll explore how things might be improved by changing federal policy, and what New York State can do in the all-too-likely absence of federal change.

Three Observations

First, the more I researched welfare policies and benefits in the U.S. and in New York State, the more evident it became that New Yorkers in need of public assistance struggle with programs and practices that are flawed, punitive and inadequate, but welfare policies in most other states leave low income individuals and families in substantially worse shape.  On the other hand, we must remember that the exorbitantly high cost of living in many parts of the Empire State diminishes the value of New York State’s generosity relative to other states.

Second, we must acknowledge, in the context of our observance of TANF at 20, that New York is one of very few states that have a secondary, state-funded public assistance program that mitigates some of the harshest consequences of PRWORA: Safety Net Assistance.  Not only does SNA provide benefits to residents who are not eligible for TANF due to time limits or their immigration status, but also to needy single adults.  As with TANF, the program falls far short of meeting even the most basic of needs, but nevertheless provides some support for New Yorkers that is available in few other states.  We in New York should appreciate our standing relative to other states, but our advocacy for a true safety net that provides a decent, if modest, standard of living for those in need and a path out of poverty cannot be paused in the least.

Third, I will discuss further in my final installment the fact that a new administration in New York City has resulted in dramatic changes in welfare policy there, unlike anywhere else in the state.

TANF’s Role in Addressing Poverty

The block grant.  As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the most significant changes that PRWORA brought was the change from a matching grant to a block grant, so that the TANF block grant isn’t able to respond to increases in need, no longer serving as a buffer against economic fluctuations.  The block grant was a total of $16.57 billion in 1996.  It’s the same today, meaning that its real value has diminished by 33%.  71% of the TANF budget was used for basic monthly cash assistance in 1997; it was 27% in Fiscal Year 2014.  This is primarily attributable to a decline in caseloads during that period, the result of a booming economy, welfare reform and other factors.

Benefit levels.  In 2014, there was no state whose TANF benefits reached even 50% of the federal poverty level (FPL), [1] and in 34 states, they didn’t reach 30% of the FPL.  The most recent data suggests that New York State has the second highest TANF benefit level for a family of three in the country, but in 2014, this benefit brought the typical family to only 47% of the federal poverty level (FPL) - that’s just over $9,300.  Even with SNAP benefits added in, a family today would still not reach 70% of the FPL, or $14,063. [2]  And even these numbers are somewhat misleading because the cost of living in New York State, especially for housing, is among the highest in the nation. [3]

Nationwide, the value of cash assistance has decreased significantly since welfare reform.  In most states, the value of benefits since 1996 has decreased, in real terms, by 20 to more than 30%. [4]  It’s also worth noting, with TANF being a program that purportedly encourages employment, that in 43 states a family will typically lose all TANF eligibility when someone in the household has earnings equivalent to 75% of the FPL.  New York is one of the seven states that allows for higher earnings, but only up to the federal poverty level.

Response in times of economic distress.  Since the 1996 reforms, TANF has essentially abandoned its critical role as a cushion against complete destitution, a role it’s played since the Great Depression.  The TANF caseload has declined by 60% since its inception in 1996.  This includes a 30% decrease since 2000, a period during which the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased by nearly a third.

In 2010, with the country still deep in recession, TANF lifted 600,000 children from deep poverty; [5] in contrast, the SNAP program brought 2.7 million children out of deep poverty.  SNAP, by definition a benefit designed to supplement other income for food purchases, is not intended or equipped to serve as a primary income source.

Similarly, in New York, from 2006 to 2014 unemployment increased by 37%.  During that same period, the number of SNAP recipients increased by 78%, but receipt of TANF actually decreased by 4%.  No plausible claim could be made that the level of need had diminished during that period.

One more crucial statistic highlights the extent to which TANF increasingly fails to protect low income families with a modicum of financial support.  In 1995, 68% of those in poverty received AFDC, TANF’s predecessor.  By 2013, TANF served only 23% of those in need.  Once again, New York State is better than most, though still not good enough:  The percentage of New Yorkers in poverty who received AFDC/TANF in 1995 was 79%; by 2013 it was 40%. 

Not everyone whose income is less than the FPL is necessarily eligible for welfare.  It’s therefore perhaps more telling and, frankly, sadder to note that across the nation in 1992, roughly 86% of those likely eligible for TANF received it, and by 2012, 32% of eligible Americans received TANF benefits. 

TANF and Work

The framers of welfare reform in 1996 were determined that TANF policy must adhere to a “work first” philosophy.  Two key features of the work rules were

  1. that the mandate to engage in work was strongly biased in favor of job-like activities and against participation in education, training or services, without regard to the individual’s needs, and
  2. that any failure to comply with the rules would result in onerous sanctions involving a reduction or termination of benefits for a designated period.

Work activities.  It has often been observed that the TANF work rules are much more about process than about outcomes.  The driving force behind the work rules isn’t a mission to enhance recipients’ employability or to ensure that they can secure decent-paying employment.  Rather, states are motivated by an obligation – on pain of substantial financial penalties – to have the required number of recipients engaged in a limited number of countable activities for at least the minimum number of hours.  Indeed, a study in one state revealed that state workers spend 53% of their “TANF time” on documenting, verifying, collecting and reporting data to demonstrate that the state is meeting its participation rate obligations.  Furthermore, there can be little doubt that workers have felt subtle if not explicit pressure to move recipients – particularly those with barriers to employment – off of the welfare rolls and out of the participation rate calculation.

Many of those who were able to obtain even the lowest paying employment left welfare in the years immediately after welfare reform.  One result is that the remaining TANF population includes disproportionate numbers of people facing serious obstacles in their path to employment, including mental and physical disabilities, domestic violence, limited skills and job experience, and significant education deficits.  It’s this population that must comply with welfare rules skewed heavily against training, skills enhancement, education and services.

In 2012, nationwide, less than 7% of individuals who were part of the participation rate count were engaged in education and training activities.  In New York, in June 2016, 134,025 public assistance recipients were subject to the work requirements; 3,249, or 2.4%, participated in some form of education or training.  This despite the fact that research consistently demonstrates that virtually every increment of additional education improves employability, job retention and compensation.

College:  There are many public assistance recipients who may not be ready for college, or don’t want to pursue higher education.  But, like the rest of America, many do dream of attending a two- or four-year college and would benefit immensely from the experience and the degree.  As is too often the case, research findings on a subject appear to have a limited impact on policy.  It has been persuasively found that “…a postsecondary education, particularly a degree or industry-recognized credential related to jobs in demand, is the most important determinant of differences in workers’ lifetime earnings and incomes.” [6]

Notwithstanding that research, securing a “college option” for TANF participants has been a long and torturous slog.  In the waning days of the Bush II administration, surprisingly enough, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations that would make college attendance feasible, at state discretion.  It took New York State on the order of ten years to adopt that rule, and when the state did act, it passed the discretion to the county level; it’s not clear how many counties are approving college participation. 

TANF, employment and income.  In the early years after welfare reform, there were significant increases in employment by current and former TANF recipients, particularly single mothers.  This was hailed as one of the chief successes of the new welfare regime.  It is true that between 1993 and 2000 – beginning well before PRWORA was enacted – the national employment rate for single mothers increased from 57.3% to 72.8%.  But the fact is that this occurred during one of the most robust and sustained periods of economic growth in recent American history, a period which also saw expanded work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care subsidies.  How much of the change was attributable to welfare reform is very difficult to determine, but was clearly limited.

The trend in employment for single moms stalled after 2000, falling to 67.5% in 2014.  Furthermore, many of the single parents who took jobs after welfare reform tended to have limited skills and education, and often took jobs with low pay, no benefits and little job security.  In many cases, they were employed, but still living in poverty.  Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office has estimated that 83% of the TANF caseload decline from 1995 to 2005 was due to non-participation by families who were still eligible for benefits, not families whose earnings had made them ineligible.  Some might see this as a positive development, people choosing not to resort to a program so stigmatized and reviled.  But many of those in this category have disabilities that make employment difficult and put the daunting process of applying for public assistance out of reach.   

Deep poverty.  One critical piece of information, sometimes overlooked, is the increasing number of Americans living in “deep poverty,” defined as having an income below one half of the federal poverty level.  In 2014, nearly 21 million people, or 6% of the population, were living in deep poverty, including more than 9% of children in this country.  Even more disturbing is a study that used the World Bank’s dramatically lower definition of deep poverty, families living on $2 a day per person or less.  Without necessarily suggesting that PRWORA was the sole cause, the study found, using the $2 a day standard, that deep poverty more than doubled to 1.46 million people in the years from 1996 to 2011. [7]  This data does not often make its way into the glowing reports of welfare reform’s success.

TANF and the Culture of the Welfare Bureaucracy

I’ll close this second article where I began the first, with the belief that an essential component of post-welfare reform can be characterized by the administration of welfare programs at the front lines.  That is, we know that PRWORA imposed mandatory time limits, more rigid funding, more restrictive and punitive work programs, and more.  But it also ushered in an era in which TANF program administration tended to divert and often intimidate applicants and to overwhelm them with inflexible bureaucratic demands. 

Single mothers and TANF.  This administrative tendency is revealed by the fact that there’s been a significant increase, to an estimated 20%, of single mothers who aren’t employed and aren’t receiving TANF or disability benefits.  There’s been a fair amount of research on why there are so many families in this situation, described strikingly in the recent book, $2 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin.  Principle among the reasons they found for non-receipt of welfare by needy moms were a lack of information or false information, difficulties in accessing or maintaining benefits, long wait times, multiple visits, lots of paperwork and intrusive questions.  Others reached the time limits, and simply couldn’t find work.

This administrative nightmare is also described in my first article, in the discussion of practices by the Human Resources Administration in New York City during the reign of Mayor Giuliani and HRA Commissioner Turner.  Until ordered to cease by a federal judge, they employed a tactic they called “diversion,” making it virtually impossible to receive benefits without repeated visits to the welfare center and multiple layers of documentation and verification.

Finally I close with some data from New York State that amply supports the notion that bureaucratic entanglements and processes result in barriers to benefits to many needy and eligible individuals and families.  During the period July 2014 through June 2015, there were 573,775 public assistance recipients (TANF and Safety Net).  During that same period, 31,298 cases were closed for alleged noncompliance with work requirements and 134,747 cases were closed for “other” compliance-related reasons.  This somewhat oversimplifies things, but it suggests that there was nearly one closing for every three cases.  Assuming many cases were eventually reopened because the households were still in need and eligible, this is a classic case of what we call “churning.”

Similarly, during that time frame, there were 633,237 applications for public assistance, 64,160 denials for failure to comply with employment rules, [8] and 132,370 denials for “other” compliance issues.   That means 44.6% of all applications were denied, with more than two-thirds of them because applicants failed to comply with one of the myriad rigid prerequisites of the application process, not because they weren't eligible.


This is an inordinate number of case closings and application denials, and is the result of a mix of factors:  the fact that many of those in need are people with mental and/or physical disabilities, victims of domestic violence, people with substance abuse issues, and people living under the tremendously debilitating effects of dire poverty, all navigating a system shaped by welfare policy in general, welfare law as modified by welfare reform, and the accompanying culture of obstructive welfare administration.

What to do?  I’ll share some thoughts in the final installment.

Sources:  I relied upon the following sources for most of the statistical data provided.  Feel free to contact me for additional information about sources.

End Notes:
 [1] In 2015, the FPL for a family of three was $19,790.
 [2] In 2016, the FPL for a family of three is $20,090.
 [3] New York State is the 3rd most expensive state to live in out of the 48 contiguous states.
 [4] In New York State, the value of the grant has decreased by 13% since 1997.  That’s shameful, but nationally only two states have experienced a smaller decrease.  It’s another case in which New York is simultaneously one of the better performing states and also seriously inadequate.
 [5] A family is considered to be living in deep poverty when household income is half of the federal poverty level or less.
 [6] What Works in Job Training: A Synthesis of the Evidence, U.S. Departments of Labor, Commerce, Education and HHS, 2014,
 [7] Center for Poverty Research, University of California, Davis,
 [8] Certain work assignments can be made even during the application process.

Tags: TANF | welfare | welfare reform | prwora | snap | food stamps | work first | work rules | poverty | #TANFat20

Remembering 9/11

Fifteen years seems like a lifetime ago.

That gorgeous blue sky September morning.  So many of us gathering in Albany for the first statewide Access to Justice Conference.  The top leaders of the New York State Judiciary -- then Chief Judge Judith Kaye, Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, head of the courts’ Access to Justice Initiative Judge Juanita Bing Newton.  Leaders of the legal services community from Buffalo to Montauk.  Leaders of the New York State Bar Association.

All gathering to celebrate justice.

We were looking forward to a day and a half of workshops, seminars and strategy sessions about emerging legal issues confronting our clients and the on-going unmet civil legal needs of New York’s most vulnerable populations.  What could we do more, do better, do differently to help expand access to civil legal aid for those who needed it most?

What was the funding situation looking like?  Why did New York lag so far behind so many other states in supporting legal services?  What did it mean to have legal assistance when you confronted an eviction, or the loss of health care, or the denial of critical benefits?  Why did it matter?

Then the planes hit.

Like people across the nation, our New York City colleagues tried frantically to reach their spouses and children, partners and parents.  All systems jammed.  We hunkered down in stunned disbelief in front of the TVs, the computers, anything that would give us information.

Chief Judge Kaye, Judge Lippman and their top staff literally turned the Desmond Hotel in Albany into command central for the Office of Court Administration.  The OCA offices on Beaver Street were a few short blocks from the World Trade Center.  Could they locate their staff, was everyone OK, how would they keep the courts running?  Helaine Barnett, then head of the Legal Aid Society’s civil division, her deputy Steve Banks and Andy Scherer, the head of Legal Services of New York City, tried not to panic as they tried again and again to reach their offices in lower Manhattan.

Legal services directors arrived that morning from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse stumbling off the Thruway on that beautiful terrible morning asking, “What can we do to help?”

The day shifted; our world shifted.

There was no getting back into New York City.  We debated whether or not the dinner should go as planned that night.  Chief Judge Kaye said yes.  Her talk to us that night went from rallying the troops around a call for expanded access to justice, to a powerful, somber reminder that we live thankfully under the rule of law.

Chief Judge Kaye reminded us that access to justice and respect for the law really do matter.  Deeply and profoundly.  She urged us that night to recommit ourselves to working for justice, not to give up, but to go on. 

Tags: 9/11 | 9-11

TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 1

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights.  We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

First up, Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group… 

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA), commonly known as “welfare reform,” reaches 20 years of age this year.  I was somewhat taken aback to realize that my experience with public assistance advocacy began 20 years before this welfare reform, and has now extended for 20 years since!  But my assessment of PRWORA has not changed: I believe that this law not only introduced an array of harmful policy changes, but also – building on changes wrought during the Reagan administration – served to intensify public hostility towards public assistance programs and to ensure that benefits for those in need would be increasingly difficult to access and ever more punitive in their administration. 

Here I’ll describe key primary provisions of the 1996 welfare reform and discuss some of the consequences, intended or otherwise.  In light of the wealth of research on PRWORA, I also provide citations to a sampling of available resources. 

The Culture of Welfare Administration

I’ve chosen to begin this discussion not with the statutory changes instituted by welfare reform, but with the cultural changes in welfare administration that accompanied or were exacerbated in the course of welfare reform.  These weren’t necessarily federal mandates, but rather changes that were made more feasible due to the spirit as well as the specifics of the new law.  State and local welfare agencies around the country actively discouraged pursuit of TANF benefits and erected ever higher procedural barriers, making it increasingly difficult to pursue and retain needed benefits.

A case in point:  Jason Turner became nationally famous for dramatically reducing the number of welfare recipients in Wisconsin.  Much of what he did anticipated the federal reforms.  Mayor Giuliani brought him to New York City to work his magic.  A key element of Turner’s approach was called diversion, using a variety of tactics – many subsequently ruled illegal by a federal judge – to discourage people from applying for benefits.  It was the culture encouraged by the welfare reform law and the national debate that surrounded it. [1]

Block Grants, Benefit Levels

The 1996 welfare reforms, as with prior welfare law, left it to the states to determine benefit levels (in contrast with many other benefit programs).  But PRWORA converted TANF (what had been AFDC) [2] from a matching grant program to a block grant program.  This meant that instead of states getting a federal contribution to meet half of their welfare costs – the prior 50% matching grant – each state would receive a fixed amount based on a formula – a block grant – and they would receive that amount and no more, regardless of how many people might need assistance. [3]  In addition, the law provided that the block grant could be used for a range of different purposes, not just cash assistance.  Multiple consequences flowed from these changes:

The block grant and use of TANF funds:  In the early years after PRWORA became law, the nation was experiencing an economic boom, and fewer people needed TANF.  But the block grant remained the same, so states actually often had a TANF surplus.  This masked the problem of a fixed block grant.  Now, 20 years later, the amount of the block grant has not changed – in real dollars, it has lost about 30% of its value – even as the cost of living, particularly with the gradual recovery from the recession, has steadily risen.  In addition, in most states, cash assistance now comprises a significantly reduced percentage – about one-third – of the block grant.  The other purposes for which it is allocated are generally worthy, but too often they don’t reach the poorest Americans. [4] 

Stagnant benefit levels:  As a result of the intense stigma associated with welfare, the diversion of the TANF block grant for other purposes, and the fact that the block grant has remained flat, family benefit levels have stagnated throughout the nation.   A critical result is that, whereas in the mid-1970s a welfare grant plus food stamps would typically bring a family to the poverty line or even above it, the grant plus SNAP now is more likely to leave a family well below the poverty line. [5]  And by itself, the average monthly TANF benefit provides roughly one-third of the poverty threshold for a family of two. [6]

TANF’s counter-cyclical effect:  Before PRWORA in 1996, and particularly since the 1970s, welfare had played an important counter-cyclical role in the American economy.  That is, when the economy was doing poorly, more families would become eligible for and receive benefits to help them weather hard times.  Because of the stagnation of benefits and the diversionary and punitive tactics of the welfare culture, TANF, to a large extent, no longer plays this critical role of cushioning families against economic downturns.  In recent years, including during the great recession from which we are only gradually emerging, only about one-quarter of families with income below the poverty threshold have received TANF cash assistance in a typical month. [7]

Time Limits

Perhaps the most historically dramatic change in the 1996 welfare reform package was the imposition of time limits on the receipt of TANF benefits.  With limited exceptions, families could only receive TANF for a lifetime maximum of five years.  Until the adoption of this rule, welfare law required that each state establish welfare eligibility standards, and then provide benefits to any family that applied and met these criteria.  Many of us saw this as the essential definition of an “entitlement.”  With the adoption of time limits, however, a family could continue to meet the eligibility criteria, comply with all requirements, and still be in need, but nevertheless be denied benefits because they had reached the five year limit.  Furthermore, the five years was a maximum; states were free to set a shorter maximum period, and many have done so.

The TANF time limit, perhaps the most onerous provision in a law packed with restrictions, sanctions and burdensome mandates, has not had the impact in New York that it has had in most other states.  This is owing to either the wisdom and humanity of our lawmakers, or to a unique feature of our state constitution, or some of both.

New York’s Constitution and TANF time limits:  Article 17 of the New York State Constitution provides that the state must provide for the “aid, care and support of the needy…. in such manner… as the legislature may from time to time determine.”  This article has never guaranteed that the public assistance grant would be adequate to meet the basic needs of poor New Yorkers.  But it has meant that the state can’t refuse all assistance to a household that has established its need.  And so, when time limits were placed on TANF benefits, New York created Safety Net Assistance (SNA) to provide aid to families that had reached the TANF time limits.  As with all welfare benefits in New York, SNA grants are inadequate to meet even the most rudimentary needs of poor families, but they do provide some protection, in contrast with states that terminate all assistance when the time limits are reached.

Work Rules

Welfare programs have always imposed work requirements on adult recipients.  But before PRWORA, states had a good deal more latitude in determining who would be required to participate in work activities, and the range of activities that might be assigned.  With PRWORA, states were mandated to increase the number of people participating in work, increase the hours they would be required to work, and sharply limit the activities that would count as work.

“Work First”:  Perhaps most significantly, the new law embraced the “work first” philosophy, in which the rules were heavily skewed in favor of participation in activities that most resembled a “regular” job. [8]  This might sound reasonable, except that many welfare recipients, in order to improve their job prospects, need training, education and assistance with soft skills.  They also might need drug treatment, appropriate accommodations for disabilities, psychological counseling and support in domestic violence situations. 

Education and training:  PRWORA imposed drastic limitations on the discretion of states to count such crucial activities as education, vocational training and various supportive services as work participation.  For example, for some welfare recipients, being permitted to complete an associate’s degree or obtain a four-year degree would virtually assure their ability to leave and remain off of welfare.  But four-year college was completely off limits until regulatory changes were adopted about 12 years after welfare reform was passed.  In New York City, the number of welfare recipients attending college at the time of PRWORA was about 28,000.  Within a few years that number was closer to 5,000. [9]

The impact of participation rates:  PRWORA instituted “participation rates” under which states had to have a certain percentage of adult recipients engaged in countable work activities.  Certain technicalities in the law made this less onerous than it might have been, but states nevertheless tended to shape their work programs to avoid penalties for non-compliance with the participation rates.  Since these rates are based on the total number of families that include an adult, states have had a strong incentive to reduce the number of recipient families, especially families in which the adult is not able to engage in work activities because of, for example, a disability.  Thus the changing culture of welfare administration described above, resulting in daunting barriers to obtaining public assistance, paid off by helping states meet their participation rates. 
In this article, I’ve described, in broad terms, some of the key provisions of the 1996 welfare reform.  In the years after its adoption, the number of families receiving TANF benefits fell by more than half nationwide, and by significantly more in some states.  As a result, PRWORA was the hailed as a great success – the rolls fell dramatically, and the disaster predicted by many progressive advocates did not occur.  I have not discussed the major changes made to immigrant eligibility for federal benefits.  This will be the subject of a separate post by Attorney Emeritus Barbara Weiner…

In the next installment, I will take a closer look at the aftermath of PRWORA in an effort to better assess its impact.

End Notes:
 [1] See, Reynolds v. Giuliani, 35 F.Supp.2d 331, 347-48 (Southern District, N.Y.1999).
 [2] PRWORA – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, a/k/a welfare reform; TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal cash assistance program for families with children; AFDC – Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the predecessor to TANF.
 [3] An excellent overview of the TANF program, including the block grant, can be found in “Policy Basics:  An Introduction to TANF,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 15, 2015,
 [4] See, for example, TANF Block Grant, Center on Law and Social Policy, August 2015,
 [5] It should be noted that the Federal poverty level is, especially in more expensive parts of the country, unrealistically low.  For example, to suggest that a family of 3 in San Francisco or Boston or New York City is not poor if they an income of $20,160, does not accord with reality. 
 [6] “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options.” Congressional Budget Office, January 2015,
 [7] See “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options,” above.
 [8] A good overview of the TANF work requirements, as modified in 2005, can be found in H. Hahn, D. Kassabian, and S. Zedlewski, “TANF Work Requirements and State Strategies to Fulfill Them,” Urban Institute, March 2012,  For a brief description of “work first,” see Work First:  A Guide for Implementing Employment Programs for Welfare Clients, Department of Health & Human Services, May 2009;  A work first program emphasizes the mandatory nature of the program, with penalties non-compliance; universal participation with limited exemptions; and a primary focus on rapid employment, as opposed to participation in education, training or job preparation.
 [9] Some of this decline is attributable to the overall drop in the number of welfare recipients, but the impact of PRWORA was clearly a major factor as well.  During this period, the welfare rolls declined by over 50%, but college participation declined by closer more than 80%.

Tags: TANF | welfare | welfare reform | prwora | snap | food stamps | work first | work rules | poverty | #TANFat20

Crime Victims Legal Network Project’s Needs Assessment Survey

We are looking for your help!  Please complete the Crime Victims’ Legal Network Needs Assessment Survey that will help crime victims seeking civil legal services.

You may have come across it already – a hard copy survey in the library or in the waiting room of a human service organization in your community.  Perhaps you’ve seen a poster or received a link to an online survey from a colleague on a professional listserv.  If you have, I hope you complete the survey and be a part of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project’s Needs Assessment.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project is a federally funded partnership between the New York State Office of Victim Services, Empire Justice Center, the Center of Human Services Research at SUNY Albany and Pro Bono Net.  Together we are working to develop a statewide network using cutting edge technology that can make it easier for crime victims, especially those in rural & underserved regions, to access much needed civil legal services.

This broad-scale, multi-phase Needs Assessment will help us gain a better understanding of the non-criminal legal needs of crime victims in New York State.  We need to know how to improve access to civil legal services, and how those services can be improved - and we need your recommendations on how to do that – both from victims (en español) of crime and service providers.  We need to know:

  • Who informed you of your rights as a crime victim?
  • If you had a legal problem, would you use a virtual help program to video conference with an attorney?
  • Would you use an online web-based program to help you prepare court forms?
  • What are the most critical needs for civil legal services that are not being met?

The information we obtain will help us make sure that the technology solutions we develop are grounded in the real-life needs and preferences of crime victims.

I was a crime victim years ago.  I didn’t go to the police, I didn’t seek help, I didn’t tell anyone.  To be honest, at that time I don’t think I really knew that what happened to me was a crime.  I had no idea where to go for help, no clue what my legal rights were, and I certainly didn’t know that so many aspects of my life would be impacted.  As Project Leader, I don’t want anyone to be as isolated, as alone and as overwhelmed as I was.  By sharing your experiences with us, you’re helping us create a Network that can help thousands of New Yorkers connect to legal resources they didn’t have access to before, or to help they may not have even known about. Your voice is essential to making this Project meaningful and valuable.

  Remla Parthasarathy, Crime Victims Legal Network Project  

The surveys – one for people who have been victims of crime (en español), and one for service providers – are just the first part of the assessment.  Next steps include putting together focus groups – small group discussions led by facilitators – that will be conducted as part of the second phase of the assessment.  The focus groups will start in July and August in ten cities across New York including Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Plattsburgh, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Utica, Watertown and two on Long Island.  Additionally, the research team will be interviewing attorneys, staff at law clinics and legal professionals, looking to garner key insights that will help inform the network’s development.  So you have different opportunities to be involved.

Some of you may take a look at the hard copy survey, see the multiple pages and immediately say ugh, I’m not going to do this – it’s way too long and I don’t have the time. 

Please take another look.

We crafted the surveys to be as easy to complete as possible, and the information you provide will be invaluable as we work to assemble the Network.  I took both surveys myself and it didn’t take very long.  The survey is anonymous, and after completing one you can enter yourself into a lottery for a chance to win a $150 gift card.  We’re hoping for at least 500 people to complete a survey – that’s you & 499 others.

If you’re interested in being involved in a focus group, or would like a link to the survey, please contact the primary researcher Susan Erhard-Dietzel at or 518-591-8796.

Thanking you in advance for your participation in the Needs Assessment, and looking forward to sharing the results with you.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project has received the guidance of an amazing group of individuals who serve as its Advisory Committee members.  They have been instrumental in the development of the Needs Assessment questions, and their support has buoyed me in my work. These members are:

  • Philip Burse, In Our Own Voices
  • Tabitha Carter, The Safe Center, LI
  • Joseph Fazzary, Schuyler County District Attorney
  • Lisa Frisch, The Legal Project
  • Lisa Gerritse, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office
  • Rachel Halperin, Legal Service of the Hudson Valley
  • Rochelle Klempner, New York State Courts Access to Justice Program
  • Jennifer Nadler, Onondaga Community College
  • Karen Nicholson, Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled, and Disadvantaged
  • Robin Marable, Legal Assistance of Western New York
  • Lew Papenfuse, Worker’s Justice Center
  • Susan Patnode, Rural Law Center of New York
  • Charlotte Watson, New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts
  • David Young, Disability Rights New York

This article was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Working for Workers: Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow takes on wage theft, bolsters workers' rights

Don and Koo lobbying

Empire Justice Center is excited to welcome the 2015-17 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow Elizabeth Koo to the Workers’ Rights Project. Elizabeth, a community organizer-turned-community lawyer, credits the unjustifiable experiences and stories of our clients with energizing her passion for change.

Prior to earning her J.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Elizabeth served as a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). During her five years at AALDEF, she was entrusted with personal, painful experiences—of stolen wages, working in extreme and unsafe conditions, and persistent barriers that kept her clients from asserting their legal rights. It’s this institutional injustice that motivated Elizabeth in her work as a Community Organizer for five years, and what inspired her to go to law school to gain more tools and skills, in order to bolster the movement for workers’ rights.

Now at Empire Justice for just over six months, she’s building relationships with local workers’ centers and community organizers. She’s also providing legal support to workers themselves, in order to empower them through litigation, education, and policy change.  And it’s this model—comprehensive legal advocacy and cooperation between organizers, lawyers and individuals—that Elizabeth believes in.

“The legal system can be a source of empowerment if a worker can access it, tell their story, and achieve their goals, but it can also be slow, rigid, and unfair,” she said, noting that together, organizers and attorneys are able to support the client in alternate ways.

In addition to representing low-income individuals in wage theft and discrimination cases and providing know-your-rights workshops and community legal education trainings throughout the Rochester community, Elizabeth is advocating on a statewide level. Namely, she is building coalition strength around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill (A.5501 [Rosenthal]/ S.2232 [Peralta]), which will provide essential tools to victims of wage theft and help workers collect on court-awarded judgments for stolen wages.

In wage theft cases, exploitative employers hide or transfer their assets to avoid paying wages they stole from their employees.  Even when workers win a court-awarded judgment, they are unlikely to collect the money owed to them.  And when they are unable to collect the wages they earned, the minimum wage and overtime laws are rendered useless.

This proposed legislation would prevent employers from simply refusing to participate in the legal process by defaulting and selling the business or shutting it down, thus effectively insulating themselves from liability.

“Even after a worker stands up for their rights, wins and gets a judgment against their employers, oftentimes they can’t collect the wages that were stolen at the end of the day because the employer has  filed for bankruptcy, transferred their assets, or closed down the business, only to operate a new one,” Elizabeth said.

This legislation will strengthen New York’s law, providing workers with legal tools to ensure payment of their earned wages once they are awarded a judgment. For example, the bill would allow workers to place a lien on the employers’ property if the employer refuses to comply with a court order to pay the  earned wages. Momentum has been growing around the SWEAT bill, as workers’ rights issues come to the fore. And in July of this year, Governor Cuomo created a Statewide Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse.

This is part of why Elizabeth believes it’s an exciting time in Western New York, as there are many people from this area on the Statewide Task Force. “It’s a good moment for us to build on recent attention to these issues and keep workers’ rights on the map.”

Coincidentally, Western New York is one place on the map that this Queens-native never thought she’d be living. That was until she was introduced to Jerry Wein, and thus the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship. She and Wein met at the Feerick Center for Social Justice of Fordham Law School, where Wein (Hanna Cohn’s husband) served in the emeritus attorney program and where Elizabeth interned after her first year in law school.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded every two years to a dynamic, new attorney. The fellowship was established in 2002 in memory of Cohn, who was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project (VLSP) in Rochester for 20 years. The fellowship allows the attorney to design and implement a project to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income individuals and families.

The fellows are often already leaders in their field—Elizabeth won the esteemed Samuel M. Kaynard Memorial Law School Student Service Awards, presented by the New York State Bar Association in 2015. She was also presented with the Haywood Burns Graduate Fellowship in Civil and Human Rights while in law school.

But Elizabeth admits that when Wein first mentioned the Fellowship, she wasn’t sure it was for her. It was “the perfect opportunity and dream job,” she recalls, but not in the city that she loved to call home. She grew up both on Long Island and in Queens, raised by newly emigrated parents who owned their own small business.

But as she advanced her legal career through clinical work and internships, representing clients in Workers’ Rights, consumer rights, public benefits and housing justice cases, doing the work that she loved in a new city didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’m so grateful to the family members and friends of the Hanna Cohn Memorial Fund, for giving me this tremendous opportunity to do work that I love.  It’s been exciting to learn about and explore Rochester through social justice work with the community here.”

“To be in a position of learning is a really humbling experience and to be doing community lawyering work right out of law school is a tremendous privilege,” she said, keenly aware of the challenges that face her in navigating a new place—not just the physical layout of the city, but the “community landscape.”

Empire Justice is thrilled to bring on an attorney with such a commitment to empowering low-income individuals. Like many of the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellows, we believe her impact will be a great one.

Tags: Workers' Rights | Wage Theft | Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship

Bilingual Orders of Protection to be Issued on Long Island

Empire Justice Center and other advocacy groups that support domestic violence survivors were thrilled to learn that family courts on Long Island began issuing bilingual Orders of Protection in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian on January 4, 2016.  In response to a letter from a coalition of more than 10 Long Island based organizations, Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins announced the extension of a pilot project to issue Orders of Protection (OPs) in languages understood by limited English proficient (LEP) participants in family court proceedings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  The coalition of advocates had urged that bilingual OPs be made available on Long Island because of its large immigrant population and the potential dangers that arise when OPs are not understood by the people to whom they are directed. 

New York LEP residents have always been actively involved in family courts.  Victims of domestic violence will often petition in family court for OPs against abusers.  If a victim alleges that the abuser continues to represent a danger , the family court judge will issue a Temporary OP specifying what, if any, contact is permitted between the alleged victim and abuser prior to a hearing.  A temporary order will be extended if there is proof at a hearing that the abuser poses an active threat to the victim.

Until this year, however, OPs were only issued in English.  LEP domestic violence survivors often have access to language assistance and support from advocates, and interpreters are present in the courtroom.  However, when they return home with an order they are unable to read or understand, they will have difficulty if they need to seek its enforcement from the police or the court.  Additionally, it is problematic for the courts and law enforcement to insist on adherence to an order to stay away or refrain from certain activity if the order is in English and the LEP perpetrator cannot understand it.

New York began a pilot project in 2015 to issue bilingual OPs in English and Spanish in selected counties throughout the state.  The success of the pilot led the Office of Court Administration to expand the project to other counties and additional languages in 2016.  When Long Island advocacy groups realized that neither Suffolk nor Nassau County was included in the expansion despite the large LEP population in both counties, we wrote to OCA’s Executive Director and the Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, the Tenth Judicial District Administrative Judge who oversees the administration of state courts in these counties, asking for reconsideration.  As a result, OCA determined to include Long Island in the 2016 expansion.

The availability of bilingual OPs will improve the safety of Long Island residents and may save lives.  Empire Justice and other advocates will continue to press for translation of bilingual OPs and other vital court documents into Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, and other widely used languages to offer greater protection to as many people as possible.  But for today, we can celebrate that the family courts are poised to take an important step in safeguarding our communities.

Bringing awareness to the many civil legal needs of crime victims


When you hear the words “crime victim,” what images immediately come to mind?  Someone who was mugged or assaulted, or who had their property stolen or damaged?  Someone who sustained injuries – physically or emotionally – because of the crime? Someone going through the criminal court process “Law & Order” style, the complaining witness in the District Attorney’s case against the defendant, waiting anxiously in court for a “guilty” verdict?

If that’s what you pictured, you wouldn’t be alone. Nowadays, there is an assumption that crime victims will have access to the help and assistance they need through the police and the criminal court system.

But many victims have non-criminal legal needs that are not addressed by these support systems. Yet these related issues have the same power to upend a victim’s life.

Picture this:  Someone is attacked and assaulted in their neighborhood, a couple of blocks from where they live. They are beaten up badly, and their wallet with cash, credit cards, and I.D. is stolen from them. Although the attack did not occur in their apartment building, they may no longer want to live there --- they may feel uneasy walking in the neighborhood and they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.  They can’t sleep, not just because they are now hyper-vigilant, but they are also in pain from injuries that are still healing. They can’t make it to work because of the injuries, even though not working means not getting paid, which in turn may impact their ability to pay child support, rent, or their medical bills. They think of moving, but that means breaking the lease to the apartment and incurring financial penalties.

That crime victim may have medical, landlord-tenant, employment, child-support, and possible identity theft issues to worry about, in addition to any criminal court matter.

Overwhelming? Yes.
But where can they go for help?

Fortunately, the recently-created NYS Crime Victims Legal Network Project will bring awareness to the many civil legal needs of crime victims while also helping victims access civil legal assistance. 

The Project, a partnership between Empire Justice Center, the NYS Office of Victim Services, the University at Albany’s Center for Human Services Research, and Pro Bono Net, will focus on the on the 57 counties outside of New York City.  It is funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project will commence in two phases. During the first 18-month phase, we will conduct a needs assessment to determine the civil legal needs of crime victims, and the availability of those services. In the second 12-month phase, we will develop a new online resource that allows victims of crime to easily find the legal help and services they require. Critical to the Project is an Advisory Committee comprised of victim advocates, attorneys and social workers from community based organizations, district attorneys, court personnel, and crime victims. Their knowledge and expertise will guide the needs assessment and, ultimately, the implementation of the online tool.

NYS is one of four sites selected in 2014 to form a legal network; six other sites were selected in 2012.  We’re fortunate to be one of only 10 sites across the nation that received OVC funding to create this network, and we’re excited to work with colleagues around the country who can support our efforts and from whom we can learn. Each of the ten sites is building a network to meet the specific civil legal needs of crime victims in their community. We plan to create a technology-based tool to meet the diverse needs of residents living in areas outside New York City – areas that are typically under-resourced.

From my vantage as the Project Leader, I can say how great it is to get the Project off the ground and start the needs assessment. Having worked for over two decades with victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have an acute awareness of civil-legal concerns faced by that population of crime victims, and I’m excited to see if the empirical evidence matches our experiential knowledge. For me, the best part of the Project is that we’re working to provide resources and build capacity in areas where there are little or none, and that soon this underserved, vulnerable population will have access to the legal services they need. To make justice accessible to all – it’s one of the reasons I became a lawyer in the first place.

The goal stated in OVC’s “Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services” report is a simple one: to permanently alter the way we treat victims of crime in America. That’s what the mission of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project aims to do in New York State – to develop new technology solutions to connect victims of crime with the appropriate trauma-informed, culturally competent legal services they need. Keep your eye on us in these next few years, while we work to make positive transformations.

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


Empire Justice attorney provides pro bono assistance out of Texas detention facility

Issue Area: Immigrant Rights

Dilley, TX

Empire Justice staff attorney Amanda Doroshow will be working out of an immigration detention center in Dilley, TX this week, as a volunteer attorney with the CARA Project. She is joined by 20 other advocates and attorneys from across the country helping to get families—mostly women and children—released from detention. Most of the families are seeking asylum and fleeing extreme violence.

Just this August, a U.S. District Judge issued an order limiting the length of detention of families and issuing guidelines about the living conditions of detention centers.  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are not fully meeting with these standards and continue this inhumane practice of detaining women and children for extended periods of time.

Representation is important to these crucial cases. Nearly half of all minors represented by lawyers in immigration court in the past decade eventually won permission to remain. But nine out of 10 without legal representation were sent back to their home countries. And there continues to be a dire need for legal representation in the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), the detention center where Amanda will be volunteering her time representing women and children in the motions for bond and immigration proceedings.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, Amanda says she has always been very passionate about this work. Her mother came from Cuba at the age of 13 by herself.

“This country is built on immigrants. I think it is very brave to leave everything you know and come to a country you don’t know, many times leaving everything behind,” Amanda said.

“Many of the families detained are in desperate situations facing persecution. Their only option is to make a very dangerous journey to the United States. I feel like these people should be treated with dignity and respect after enduring such trauma. They should have a fair opportunity to fight their case and should be met with support and compassion.”

CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project is a collective created by Catholic Legal Immigration Network, American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and American Immigration Lawyers Association. These organizations joined together in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s expanding practice of detaining families.

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Tags: immigration

The SWEAT Bill: Protect Workers from Wage Theft

While Empire Justice Center applauded Governor Cuomo for the administrative mandate requiring bonds for nail salons as an important first step, the need to protect all workers from businesses which regularly fail to pay their employees spans all industries and is a crisis across the state. 

The SWEAT bill – Securing Wages Earned Against Theft, A.5501a (Rosenthal)/S.2232c (Peralta) - operates similarly to a bond by creating a lien against an employer’s property when there is a case of unpaid wages.  This will ensure that a business can’t unload or transfer their assets, leaving workers empty handed when a court issues a judgment in the workers’ favor or when the Department of Labor issues orders in their favor. 

The challenges of finding bond companies willing to issue bonds to businesses known for their unscrupulous practices underscores the need for alternative methods to protect immigrant workers.  The SWEAT bill provides a critical tool to protect workers and good businesses against those businesses that exploit workers and steal salaries without facing any consequences.

Empire Justice Center looks forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to pass this bill to protect all workers at risk of wage theft.

Happy Anniversary, Social Security!

Happy Anniversary, Social Security! 

Social Security’s is turning 80! Since the retirement program was enacted in 1935, it has expanded in important ways. The disability component, introduced later, is a now critical piece of Social Security, and ensures that those who aren’t able to work have a small measure of protection. Now is the time to ensure that the Social Security programs remain strong for our future.

We join others in honoring this anniversary and calling for the program’s protection in the future.  Ask candidates where they stand on Social Security programs in the lead up to the 2016 election.

CFPB Publishes Complaint Narratives - What it Means for New Yorkers

Issue Area: Consumer

On June 25, 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) published over 7,700 consumer complaint narratives about financial companies.  Since first making the complaints database public in 2013, CFPB has been improving access to and search capabilities for the data collected.  The ability to view consumer complaint narratives may be the most significant change in this access yet.

The CFPB began accepting complaints as soon as it opened its doors in July 2011.  Three years later, in July 2014, the CFPB announced that they would begin making narratives associated with those complaints public.  They faced stiff opposition from the lending industry.  To address opposition, CFPB Director Richard Cordray responded to industry concerns stating “By publicly voicing their complaint, consumers can stand up for themselves and others who have experienced the same problem.  There is power in their stories, and that power can be put in service to strengthen the foundation for consumers, responsible providers, and our economy as a whole.”

I have done a review of a subset of complaint narratives, specifically those that were filed in New York and were related to servicing mortgages in default.  In just three months, 44 of the complaint narratives that were submitted by New York homeowners trying to save their homes from foreclosure were published publicly.  These public narratives for NY homeowners reveal interesting, although unsurprising, trends. 

First, mortgage servicers repeatedly transfer servicing from one servicer to another.  This makes it nearly impossible for homeowners to keep track of where to send their mortgage payments.  Second, servicers make repeated requests for documents they have already received from the homeowner.  Third, servicers regularly fail to notify homeowners within five days upon receiving a modification application as required by CFPB’s mortgage servicing guidelines.  For a more in depth look at the CFPB complaints database, check out USPIRG’s analysis (US Public Interst Research Group).
I commend the CFPB for moving forward with making these consumer complaint narratives public and searchable.  Those who are in the business of providing consumer finance products should be held to the highest standard.  These companies have access to resources not within the reach of most consumers.  Publishing complaint narratives is another step toward leveling the playing field for all consumers. 

Consumers can now file a complaint with the CFPB at and utilize a critical tool to educate and empower themselves in the financial marketplace.

Tags: Consumer Complaints | CFPB | mortgage servicers | foreclosure prevention

Winning with tenacity- Empire Justice helps save another home from foreclosure

Issue Area: Housing

Dave is the epitome of tenacity. For more than four years he’s been fighting tooth and nail to save his family’s home from foreclosure.  A single father of three and a Navy veteran, Dave was unable to work after a back injury during his service.  So he used his savings to pay his mortgage, until that was no longer an option.

In 2011 his lender filed a foreclosure action against him, and he faced the possibility of losing his home.

Throughout the four-year process of fighting foreclosure and applying for a loan modification, Dave received what seemed like a never ending flood of repeated document requests. At each turn we helped him gather and submit the tax forms, the benefit letters, and the bank statements. Only to have the banks come back and say they didn’t receive them or requesting more information, leading to the entire process being repeated.

All in all, we submitted 15 loss mitigation packets—an extraordinary amount for a typical foreclosure case—each totaling over 80 pages.

But Dave was determined. He wouldn’t give up, and neither would we.

Together we tried every option available. Our advocates escalated the case several times, and each time the bank claimed that they didn’t own the loan, that their “hands were tied.” Dave contacted the press, he contacted the Veterans Administration, and he filed a complaint with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). We highlighted his case in our policy report, In the Eye of the Storm: Why the Threat of Foreclosure Damage Continues (link), putting pressure on policymakers to support neighborhoods and homeowners like Dave.

It is this type relentless advocacy - tenacity - that ultimately leads to a win.

Utilizing all of our advocacy tools, we convinced the bank to take responsibility for the loan, and they gave Dave the modification he needed to afford his monthly payments.  Now he and his three kids can stay in the house that for the last 13 years they've called home.

Congratulations, Dave!

suburban house

While we celebrate this success, we recognize that there are many homeowners that face the foreclosure process alone, without an attorney. Your support helps us represent more homeowners—stabilizing neighborhoods, communities, and families. Thank you.


US Supreme Court Upholds Disparate Impact Standard under the Fair Housing Act

Issue Area: Housing, Consumer

One of the more notable, though less noted decisions coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past week was its ruling on June 25, 2015, to uphold the long-standing tenet that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory impact, even if the discrimination was not intentional. 

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project was brought by a Texas group who challenged the state’s housing agency’s issuance of tax credits for the development of affordable housing.  The group contested that the housing built through these credits was being concentrated in racially segregated, African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Dallas.  The effect of the policy, they argued, has a “disparate impact” on minorities and thus violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA). 

The FHA makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, “or otherwise make unavailable” housing to anyone because of race, national origin, gender, familial status, and disability.  The 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy emphasizes that a broad-reading of the statute is necessary to combat discriminatory conduct.  For as the court noted, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.  In this way disparate-impact liability may prevent segregated housing patterns that might otherwise result from covert and illicit stereotyping.” (Texas Dept. of Hsg.  v. Inclusive Communities, at 17-18).

Fair housing and anti-discrimination advocates are cheering the decision because strong and effective fair housing laws are vital to ensuring equal opportunity in housing.  Governmental policies such as zoning laws or enforcement of housing codes may seem benign on their face, but have detrimental discriminatory impacts.  The same holds true for private corporations such as developers, real estate professionals, and lenders – programs that seem neutral on paper may in fact further disenfranchise people. 

This decision is a tremendous victory not only for those communities, but for all of us.  Equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination benefits everyone.

The Supreme Court Reigns Supreme: Protecting Equal Rights, Access to Health Care for All

Issue Area: Health, Civil Rights


Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies for health care will continue to flow to those who need affordable insurance the most, regardless of which state they live in.  It’s heartening to know that the Supreme Court has again upheld the validity of the Affordable Care Act, and this latest challenge to expanded access to health insurance is behind us.  Here at Empire Justice Center, we’ll continue to work to make sure that everyone is able to obtain quality health care.  Our friends at Health Care for All New York have released a statement – check it out here.

Marriage equality is now a legal reality in the entire United States! In a landmark decision, the SCOTUS ruled today in Obergefell v. Hodges that it is unconstitutional for states to ban same-sex marriage.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the opinion that same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike are guaranteed “equal dignity in the eye of the law” under the U.S. Constitution.  We honor and thank the brave couples who demanded full equality for their families, and the lawyers and organizations who continued to fight for this victory! Today truly is a historic day to celebrate!

Finding a Summer Meal Program

We all know that nutrition is one of the building blocks of healthy and growing minds and bodies.  Around New York, millions of kids depend on school lunch programs, and now finding summer meal programs for kids is easier than ever.

Hunger Solutions New York has developed this easy to use tool to help families find programs close to home.  Click the summer meals button below to find the program nearest to you!


Tags: summer meal programs | childhood hunger | feeding programs

Long Island Immigrant Children's Project: Much Accomplished, More to Do!

Issue Area: Immigrant Rights

Advocates from Empire Justice Center’s Long Island office recently met with a wide range of local advocacy and social services organizations under the leadership of the Long Island Health and Welfare Council and the Hagedorn Foundation.  The meeting was arranged to brainstorm strategies for responding to the needs of the thousands of unaccompanied minor children from Central America arriving on Long Island.  This loose affiliation very shortly became the Long Island Immigrant Children’s Project.  At the initial meeting, we created three work groups to focus on provision of legal representation, mental health services and support, and education advocacy with school districts to ensure registration and enrollment.  Shortly after thereafter, the Hagedorn Foundation formed a Long Islander Funders Collaborative with the Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, Rauch Foundation, and the Sisters of St. Joseph to develop funding for the Project.

In early May, Project advocates reconvened to report on the activities of their workgroups and plot a path forward in preparation for a second wave of unaccompanied children while still grappling with the needs of the first wave.  The Project has made a remarkable amount of accomplishments so far, but there are still many challenges that need to be faced.  Here’s what the workgroups have been able to accomplish so far:


Anne Erickson, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center, participated in the initial conversations discussing possible sources of funding for Long Island.  The LI Funders Collaborative, including Empire Justice and consisting of foundations that have long supported legal services and social justice agencies, amassed an initial $125,000. The Collaborative gave grants to Catholic Charities, CARECEN, Safe Passage, and Touro Law Center to increase capacity to provide legal services to recently arrived children.  These dollars were leveraged by $50,000 from the New York State Office for New Americans.  An additional $400,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock permitted Hofstra and Touro Law Centers, CARECEN, and Catholic Charities to hire additional attorneys and paralegals for intake and representation.

Legal Services Workgroup

As a result of this new infusion of funding, LI organizations will be able to represent most of the children in deportation proceedings in US Immigration Court, and some of those children or family members are also being represented at Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) guardianship hearing s in Family Court.  Empire Justice Center has one full-time immigration attorney, Jackeline Saavedra, and receives additional help with client representation from the Touro Law Center Immigration Clinic attorney.  CARECEN and Catholic Charities are each doing 15 intakes a week, and Make the Road has started taking cases as well. 

The LI organizations are greatly aided by programs in New York City that staff the initial intakes at U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan.  There are also attorneys who will take referrals on asylum cases for kids not eligible for SIJS.  This collaborative work permits all of the organizations to increase their caseload.

Even with these great strides, organizations are still not able to meet current needs, and are exploring how to somehow link or refer clients to pro bono or private pay immigration attorneys. 

Education Workgroup

The Education workgroup, including Empire Justice attorney Linda Hassberg, has focused on school districts that illegally prevent children from enrolling and/or fail to offer them appropriate placement and opportunity to pursue degree programs.  At least in part due to the group’s advocacy efforts, both the New York State Education Department (SED) and the New York State Office of the Attorney General’s (AG) got involved and have been instrumental in enforcing enrollment mandates and proper programing.  They’ve provided new regulation, community meetings, investigations, and settlement agreements between the AG and several school districts. 

The very fact that state officials have reached out to us to collaborate is very encouraging and much has been accomplished.

There are still big gaps in our ability to reach, inform, and provide assistance and support to families experiencing problems with school enrollment and programming.  We haven’t been successful in getting SED to mandate that enrollment, residency, and program information be provided in languages other than English, even though it’s required by Title VI.  Some LI school districts are doing a good job and the AG can be an ally in encouraging others to interact more meaningfully with LEP communities, but this remains a big challenge.

Mental Health Services Workgroup

This workgroup, including Empire Justice Social Worker Paralegal Cheryl Keshner, reported an expansion of services.  This includes some capacity to address the issues of Spanish-speaking children, but the majority of recently arrived kids are not getting the support they need.  Many have suffered trauma and their parents and other caregivers are struggling just to integrate them into their households and support them financially.  Although the group cited a lack of overall capacity, there was also discussion about families’ reluctance to access mental health services because of the stigma, and families’ lack of time and energy.  Many parents/guardians are working 2-3 jobs, have transportation problems, and need to care for their whole family.

We talked about overlap between education and mental health.  Although it wouldn’t address the entire problem, making use of referrals for special education for students with emotional disabilities, and connecting to funded programs in Nassau and Suffolk Counties that provide school and community based youth services would help.  For education and mental health outreach, involving faith-based programs and leadership, as well as ESL teachers and other school personnel who work with these families.

Project advocates are energized by these meetings, and feel that they accomplished a great deal in the months since the first forum.  Clearly, there remain many large issues that will require dedicated resources, creative collaboration, and hard work to tackle.  There are predictions that a second wave of unaccompanied Central American children will come to Long Island this summer.  We’re now concentrating on solidifying the progress that's been made, reaching out to more families and children in need, and continuing to convene the workgroups to strategize about new methods of addressing problems. We here at Empire Justice Center look forward to working with this dynamic group!

Tags: unacompanied minors | immigrant kids | legal services | mental health services | education services

No Pay No Way: Stop Wage Theft in Port Chester

The No Pay No Way campaign in Port Chester, NY is an initiative created by the Communication Workers of America Local 1103 and Don Bosco Workers' Center.  The goal of No Pay No Way is to make the village of Port Chester a no tolerance zone for wage theft.  Port Chester businesses are asked to put a “Good Workplace” decal in their storefronts, pledging that they follow all wage and hour laws. 

Empire Justice Center provides legal representation to members of Don Bosco Workers’ Center who are victims of wage theft, and values and supports the No Pay No Way campaign as an important preventative measure and a way for the whole community to come together to combat wage theft.  No Pay No Way educates businesses and consumers about wage theft to ensure that businesses who exploit their workers no longer profit from unfair advantages and cause damage to the community.  

To learn more about No Pay No Way, check out their Facebook page and this video:

Tags: wage theft | Port Chester | CWA Local 1103 | Don Bosco Worker Center | No Pay No Way

Black Lives Matter

Issue Area: Civil Rights

Fair treatment in our justice system is a basic American right.  Everyone deserves equal protection under the law and to be treated with dignity and respect. 
The recent failures to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men clearly violate the principles of fairness and equal access to justice, undermining the rights granted to all of us under the United States Constitution.
Here at Empire Justice Center, we mourn the fallen and stand in solidarity with their families as well as all of those that have been affected by the inequities in our justice system that have been highlighted in the past several weeks.

We recommit ourselves to the pursuit of racial justice in all aspects of the justice system.
Will you join us?

Sleeping Bags on Sidewalks

Issue Area: Consumer

I live around the corner from St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center in Rochester, New York, which provides free breakfasts to people that need one in my neighborhood.  So many mornings, there are so many people waiting for breakfast, that I literally walk around them sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.  This time of year, these folks are more often than not lying directly on the sidewalk or in the doorway with a blanket or sleeping bag over them, trying to find some kind of warmth.

This morning, there was a woman younger than me with four small children under one sleeping bag on the sidewalk.  One of the children woke as I walked by, and in her tiny voice asked me if breakfast was ready.  It made me pause and wonder how this family had come to be on this sidewalk on this morning.

At Empire Justice Center, I work in the Consumer Finance and Housing Unit, helping local families avoid foreclosure.  My work day is full of bank statements, paystubs, legal motions, court filings and endless bank applications - doing everything I can to keep people in their homes.  I spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about principal reductions, mortgage servicing violations, urban blight and opposing counsel. 

This morning, along with the bank statements and paystubs, I will be thinking about sleeping bags on sidewalks.

Of course I have no idea if that little girl and her family once had a house that was lost to foreclosure - there are countless paths that could have led them to that sidewalk on South Avenue.  In our busy jobs, it’s easy to become immune to the numbers and to the stories behind the problems that we’re trying to solve. 

Sometimes it’s just too easy to pass by the sleeping bags on the sidewalks, and the tiny voices and puffy eyes of small children.  But I think in the days ahead, I might do my job better if I keep this morning’s walk to work in mind.

Summer 2014: A Great Experience for our Diversity Fellow, Tianna Bethune!

Issue Area: Consumer

Written by Tianna Bethune, Empire Justice Center 2014 Diversity Fellow

This summer, I had the opportunity to move back to my hometown of Rochester, New York and work with an extraordinary group of attorneys at Empire Justice Center.  With great pleasure, I accepted the position as the first Diversity Fellow and I am very glad that I did!  This summer has been full of fulfilling learning experiences.  I was given the opportunity to work directly with clients, attend a mediation session, help prepare a case to be filed in federal court and more!  I am especially appreciative of my supervisors Peter Dellinger, Reyna Ramolete and Bryan Hetherington.  They afforded me the privilege to work in an environment free from micromanagement where I was able to put my research, writing and time management skills to the test.

I was introduced to three new areas of law: consumer law, real estate law and employment law.  In consumer law, I worked on a case that required me to gain experience in contracts, specifically the nuances associated with exculpatory clauses.  In the area of real estate, I assisted a client by researching transactions, fraud, misrepresentation and warranties.  In the employment law context, I calculated damages, wrote a complaint and prepared the documents to file a Fair Labor Standards Act case in federal court.  The diversity in my work load allowed me to narrow my focus on what I would like to do after graduation.  This is invaluable in that every student fears making the mistake of accepting a position that they dread being in after law school. 

In addition, I was given the opportunity to write a policy memorandum for Bryan Hetherington, Chief Counsel in the Rochester office.  As a student, it was priceless to receive direct mentorship from a leader in the legal community.  Mr. Hetherington actually took the time to read each of my drafts, while patiently guiding me through the writing process.  This was a tremendous learning experience because my law school courses had not prepared me to simultaneously advocate to both members and non-members of the legal community.

I decided to apply for a position with Empire Justice Center because their commitment to serving the community and giving back is aligned with my interests.  I would definitely recommend other law students who are interested in public interest law to apply for a position with this organization.  The environment cultivated by the individuals in this office is very relaxed, welcoming and inspiring.  I am truly grateful for the experience.

Tags: Diversity Fellowship

Empire Justice Center Partnering with New York Disability Vote Network to Bolster Political Capital of Individuals with Disabilities

Written by Nicholas M. Lind, 2014 Policy Intern

New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN) Strengthens Individuals with Disabilities

Empire Justice Center is proud to announce our partnership with the New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN), a project of the Center for Disability Rights.  NYDVN strives to build, solidify and unify a disability voting bloc in New York State.  The network – the first of its kind in the State – will serve as a vehicle to promote a nonpartisan disability-friendly agenda initially focusing on health care, housing, transportation and employment.

NYDVN is developing at a time when voting rights for individuals with disabilities have come under attack.  In Los Angeles, the Disability and Abuse Project recently submitted a Voting Rights Act complaint to the U.S. Justice Department when officials limited the voting rights of individuals with disabilities who enter into conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians are appointed to make certain financial or medical decisions. [1]

Bruce Darling, CEO of the Center for Disability Rights, commented in a statement released by CDR that, “People with disabilities have to fight for their civil rights every day.  Now New York will have a coordinated effort to ensure that the same people are also fighting for their rights in the voting booth as well.”  Kenyatta Dacosta, a community member, was also quoted in the report, remarking, “This project is important because it will allow elected officials to easily see how many people are affected by issues concerning disabilities.” [2]

Organizing a Disability Voting Bloc

A national movement led by the American Association for People with Disabilities has arisen in response to wide gaps in voting patterns between individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities.  In addition to New York’s campaign, similar voting and political networks have been created in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. [3]

Click here for a list of easy ways to make a difference and get involved!

Researchers that have studied political and voting participation of individuals with disabilities found that from 1992-2002, voter turnout for people with disabilities was 14-21 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities who had similar demographic characteristics. [4]

One factor leading to lower voter turnout may be persistent barriers to accessible polling places.  A review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 2000, 84% of polling places had potential impediments to access, and by 2008 that number had only fell to 73%. [5]

Even when physical barriers to participation are overcome, social and psychological characteristics of disabilities sometimes hinder voter turnout by decreasing an individual’s social capital and identification with mainstream society. [6]  Reaching out to voters not only informs them of the issues at stake but also counters feelings of segregation.

Despite these barriers, it appears that the movement to improve turnout of voters with disabilities is having an impact.  In 2008, the participation gap fell to 7% and by 2010 it had slid to 3%. [7]  NYDVN will work to cement the progress made in voter accessibility, and will turn toward the next step of political organizing: solidifying the disability voting bloc.  Importantly, statistics show that voter turnout among people with disabilities is positively correlated with developing group consciousness with a political party or organization (such as NYDVN), commitment to specific policies and involvement with formal or informal networks of like-minded peers. [8]

Making Progress: Gaining a Unified Voice

Political organizing efforts similar to NYDVN have proven effective at gaining the attention of policymakers.  Former Congressmen Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Tony Coelho (D-California) agree that “one of the biggest challenges [within the disability community] is uniting around common identity and common struggles.  When the community does unite, however, there is no stopping its strength and power.”

“It is estimated there are more than 65.7 million family caregivers, supporting relatives with disabilities and seniors at home,” Dole and Coelho write.  “Add to this the millions of direct-care workers, other professionals and friends who care about loved ones with disabilities.  You start to get the picture.  This is clearly an important constituency!” [9]

For more information, please contact Jessica Thurber, Voter Rights Coordinator at the Center for Disability Rights at jthurber@cdrnys.

End Notes:
 [1] Michael R. Blood. (2014, July 10). “Disabled people denied voting rights, group says.” Associated Press. Retrieved from
 [2] “New Website Geared at NY Voters with Disabilities” Press Release, The Center for Disability Rights (CDR). Retrieved from
 [3] Each source provides information on voter organizing within a specific state.  See “Ohio Disability Vote Coalition Seeks People to Join its Voting Bloc” (2012, March 15). Disability Rights Ohio. Retrieved from; “Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access for Americans with Disabilities”. (2014). Services: Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from ; “Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition” (2012). Retrieved from; “Rhode Island Disability Vote Project”. (2011). Retrieved from; “Vote 2012! Your Right. Your Voice.: A Guide to voting for North Carolinians with Disabilities”. (2012). Disability Rights North Carolina. Retrieved from; and “All About the Disability Organizing Network”. (2014). DONetwork. Retrieved from
 [4] “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see  “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [5] “Voters with Disabilities: Additional Monitoring of Polling Places Could Further Improve Accessibility” (September 2009). Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office. GAO-09-941. Retrieved from
 [6] “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [7] See “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, July 2009. And “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2010 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, June 2011.
 [8] See “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [9] Bob Dole and Tony Coelho. (2012, September 16). “Disabled voters possess untapped political power”. Politico. Retrieved from

Tags: disability rights | Center for Disability Rights | Voting Rights Act

Welfare, Work Rules and Education: The 2014 Changes

Issue Area: Public Benefits

With the 2013-2014 state legislative session over, we are excited to share news of expanded access to education and training for welfare recipients, a long-time priority for Empire Justice and for me personally.  As is often the case for me, this was the work of a coalition, the Education Task Force, with crucial leadership and energy provided by the Welfare Rights Initiative.

For the first time, participation in a four year college program can now count towards a welfare recipient’s work requirement.  Placing four year college on the list of “countable activities” is a crucial step in enabling individuals to receive public assistance and pursue a four year degree. 

The details are somewhat complicated.  Basically, for 12 months, college and related activities can comprise the bulk of a person’s work obligation.  After 12 months, college must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in, for example, paid employment, work experience or on-the-job-training.

Another significant revision relates to work preferences.  A rule stating that client activity preferences must, when feasible, be honored has long been the law for households with children.  This rule now applies to all households.  If the preferred activity is not assigned, the reasons must be set forth in writing. 

Some comments about these amendments:

  1. These changes can significantly improve access to education and training for welfare recipients, perhaps the wisest investment that can be made with public assistance dollars.
  2. There is still considerable local discretion about assigning a person to college.  However, we would argue that where college is an appropriate activity, it cannot be arbitrarily denied. 
  3. Homework:  We were unable to secure a mandate that districts count homework hours as work.  But districts have discretion to allow homework hours to count, and some already do.

As I have often observed, the people we seek to serve may be unaware of rights such as these, and may struggle to advocate in support of their rights if confronted by an overworked, not very supportive agency staffer.  I fear that these laws barely exist unless advocates educate their clients and local agencies, and demand that they be fully and fairly implemented.

Click here for a more detailed analysis.

Tags: welfare | public assistance | work rules | education | college

Assisting Non-Custodial Parents to Modify Child Support and Arrears Payments

Issue Area: Child Support

Legal services providers and community agencies throughout New York State are seeing an alarming increase in the number of very low income parents burdened with onerous child support obligations and arrears debt that adversely affect their ability to avoid homelessness, remain employed, cope with illness and disability, and maintain a relationship with their children. For the most part, legal services offices do not offer legal representation for child support matters.  Parents are left to navigate the family court and child support enforcement system without any assistance, often without success.

With this posting, we urge legal services and other community agencies to consider offering some guidance to pro se poor parents who may be entitled to a modification of their support obligation or can reduce their monthly arrears payments based on their limited income. Using the steps outlined below, parents can determine the amounts owed, whether there is a basis for modification, and which forum will entertain an appeal.  We do not assert that offering guidance will make up for the lack of legal representation and assistance available, but many parents may be able to obtain some adjustment to the amounts they must pay on their own if they understand what information they need to provide to either the county’s Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) or the court.  Although not a comprehensive list, here are some straightforward ways to assist parents to proceed pro se:

1.  The first step is to understand what is being garnished from their paycheck or disability payment.  Does the amount represent current child support, arrears, an “add-on” to arrears (see below for explanation), or some combination of these?  If the payment is made to the NYS Division of Child Support Enforcement and parents know their account number, they can obtain  a PIN number by applying online at the Non-Custodial Parent page on the OTDA website at, or by calling the Child Support Helpline at 1-888-208-4485. With a PIN number, parents can view their accounts and figure out whether they are paying ongoing support, arrears, and/or add-ons and how much they owe.  They can also obtain copies of their child support orders that the Division has on file.  A copy of the order is needed to petition in family court for a modification of support.

2.  Reduce the monthly payment amount.  In some cases, the Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) will reduce the amount of monthly payment, even though it cannot reduce the total amount of arrears.  If part of the garnished amount is the “add on,” an administratively imposed garnishment that is applied when a child support respondent is in arrears, application can be made to reduce or eliminate this portion of the amount of the arrears payment.  The “add-on” portion of the payment will be reduced or eliminated if the payment of the add-on brings the individual’s income below the self-support reserve (135% of poverty for a household of one – this year the SSR is $15,755). The self-support reserve is adjusted annually and is posted on-line at   There is an application on the NYS DCSE webpage for Non-Custodial Parents, entitled Request for Review of Additional Amount that must be submitted along with a Statement of Income and Expenses and other income documentation such as a tax return or a Social Security statement.  These forms are also available at  When completed, the forms are submitted to the local child support enforcement office. The addresses of the local offices are available at  To read more about the add-on see 18 NYCRR 347.9(e) and 09 ADM-02, available at

3.  Apply to stop collection of arrears from exempt income and to correct mistakes.  If the parent’s sole income is SSI, public assistance, or another exempt source, there is an application on the same Non-Custodial Parent Page of the NYCSE website to stop garnishment from a bank account. This application, Mistake of Fact and/or Exempt Money Claim Form, should also be submitted if the support amount being collected does not agree with the order amount or if the order has been vacated.   If parents are receiving exempt income in a check that is being garnished, they should submit the Request for Review of Additional Amount and Statement of Income and Expenses described above and state that the income being garnished is exempt.

4.  Reduce amount of ongoing child support. The parent must petition in Family Court for this relief and it can be difficult without legal assistance.  However, the state now offers DIY (do-it-yourself) programs with which pro se petitioners can work their way through a series of questions that result in a petition and affidavit to file in court.  The link is and the program is quite good.  Currently, it is available in English and Spanish.  The Spanish version produces a petition in English for submission with a translated copy in Spanish for the litigant. 

If the support order includes an amount of arrears that must be paid periodically in addition to ongoing support, a request to reduce that amount should be included in the same petition.  Please note that there is no reference to arrears payments in the standardized or DIY petition forms, so the request will have to be added by the petitioner.

5.  Cap the amount of arrears owed at $500.  Family Court Support Magistrates cannot reduce the total amount of arrears owed, except in very narrow circumstances.  However, pursuant to the Family Court Act § 413 (1) (g), a noncustodial parent can petition the Family Court to limit the amount of arrears owed to $500 if his/her income was below the federal poverty line for a single individual at the time the arrears accrued.  Case law dictates that the parent must make application to the court for such relief and must show that the income limitation was due to disability or some other inability to earn income.  Proof that the individual is receiving public assistance should be sufficient as well.  If appropriate, this claim for relief needs to be added manually to the DIY or  standardized Petition for Modification, as neither form includes it. 

A cap on arrears may provide the best relief to indigent parents, but there are few published decisions to date in which the petitioner was successful.  If you are interested in offering legal representation to a client who can assert such a claim for relief, please free feel to contact us for assistance.

Tags: child support arrears | child support | family court | support modification | garnishment

New York State Legislature Extends Settlement Conferences for Five Years

Issue Area: Consumer

The New York State Legislature last week passed crucial legislation that serves to assist homeowners facing foreclosure.  One piece of the legislation is that mandatory foreclosure settlement conferences, set to expire in early 2015, have been extended for five more years.

A settlement conference occurs in court, where the homeowner or an advocate on their behalf meets with the lawyer representing the mortgage servicer.  The statutory purpose of the conferences is to see if a mutually agreeable resolution can be reached, with both sides being obligated to negotiate in good faith, in order to avoid loss of the home.  In most cases, avoiding foreclosure entails some form of modification of the original mortgage.  In practical terms, the homeowner needs to show that they can afford the modified mortgage payments.  The servicer, in turn, is obligated to review the homeowner’s application to determine if they qualify for any modification or repayment options.  While a homeowner is in the settlement conference process, the servicer is not allowed to move forward with the foreclosure.

In the application process, the homeowner’s financial situation is established largely by submitting documents to the servicer or their representative.  While this may sound very simple, in fact the process is often very confusing and frustrating.  Before the establishment of the mandatory settlement conferences in New York’s judicial foreclosure process in 2010, the homeowner dealt directly with the servicer with no intervening “umpire,” so to speak.  There were lots of problems, including homeowners submitting documents that were often lost or not reviewed in a timely manner, the same documents being requested multiple times, or requests were made for documents that did not exist.  The homeowner had little or no recourse to counter the demands of the servicer.  Once the settlement conference was introduced, judicial oversight was added to the mix.  Now the mortgage servicer had an entity to answer to, and there exists the possibility of real world negative consequences if the homeowner is not being treated fairly.  The servicer can be fined, or the foreclosure suit can be dismissed.  At the same time, if the homeowner does not meet their obligations, the servicer is allowed to move ahead with the foreclosure process.

While the loan modification application process in the settlement conference era is far from perfect, it is undeniably more efficient and fair than the pre-conference process, which has been likened to the "Wild Wild West."  Here at Empire Justice Center, we have contact with many homeowners in foreclosure, and their experiences are very consistent.  The settlement conference mitigates the fear, confusion and frustration of the application process.  In the words of one of our clients, “Before appearing in front of the judge, dealing with the bank was like yelling at a brick wall.”

The establishment of the settlement conference has led to thousands of New Yorkers saving their homes.  In addition, they have instilled fairness into the system by establishing a consumer-friendly model for homeowners to defend themselves against foreclosure.  Prior to the conferences, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) estimated that over ninety percent of foreclosure cases ended in a default judgment against the homeowner – meaning the vast majority of homeowners had no meaningful way to either work with their servicer or to defend themselves in the legal proceeding.  In the first full year of the conferences, OCA reported that homeowners appeared in over ninety percent of the first conferences scheduled.  About one-third of New York’s civil docket is foreclosure cases, and the data available tells us that the mortgage crisis in New York is far from over, with record numbers of foreclosures still to come.  The mandatory foreclosure settlement conference will be a critical factor in helping as many New Yorkers save their homes as possible.

Tags: foreclosure | settlement conference | mortgage

LGBT Rights in Education: Recent Victories, But Our Fight Continues

Issue Area: Civil Rights

This is a dynamic time in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) civil rights movement.  Our LGBT communities continue to gain important victories in the fight for marriage equality, but there are still many inequalities that marriage simply cannot solve.  For multitudes of LGBT people, both in New York and nationwide, discrimination, violence and harassment are a reality lived daily that cannot be ignored.  True civil rights advancement means attaining long overdue, explicit federal and state legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the central areas of our lives - such as education, employment and housing. 

That is why Empire Justice Center wants to publically applaud the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for its recently released written guidelines declaring that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 [1] protects “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students” from sex discrimination. [2]  As this statement comes directly from the federal agency charged with enforcing Title IX, it is particularly impactful.  The sheer scope of Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education programs or activities which receive Federal financial assistance. [3]
Title IX’s importance to the community of LGBT students who can rely on this directive to help attain the dignity and respect they need in the educational setting cannot be understated.  LGBT students face high rates of discrimination, violence and harassment in school - both nationally [4] and in New York. [5]  This discrimination can negatively impact LGBT people later in life.  For example, transgender people who were fired due to anti-transgender discrimination are homeless at 4 times the national rate. [6]  

These OCR guidelines follow a growing federal trend confirming that the “sex” protected status category includes gender identity and expression in both the education and employment contexts.  At least 6 federal circuits [7] and another federal agency, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), [8] have issued opinions to that effect.

OCR began showing its support for LGBT students publicly as early as 2010 in a “Dear Colleague Letter” [9] and since then also entered into a Resolution Agreement requiring the Arcadia, California Unified School District to implement inclusive policies for transgender and GNC students. [10]

Despite this trend, discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is still not explicitly prohibited in the text of any federal law.  This is another reason why it is so crucial for federal agencies and courts to continue to build a body of positive case law and guidance confirming the scope of existing laws’ application to these students.  Until the laws are amended or new LGBT-inclusive laws are finally successfully passed, Title IX will advance educational equality for these students.

Here’s the good news: though we need to continue demanding more for our nation’s students, it is now absolutely clear that anti-LGBT discrimination by a covered entity is illegal under Title IX.

To read Julia's article about other efforts on this topic, click here.

End Notes:
 [1] 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).
 [2] U.S. Dept. of Ed Office for Civil Rights, Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence, (April 29, 2014), available at
 [3] U.S. Dept. of Ed. Office for Civil Rights, Title IX and Sex Discrimination, (June 18, 2012), available at
 [4] J. G. Kosciw ET AL., GLSEN, The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools, 90 (2012), [hereinafter “National School Climate Survey”].
 [5] GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), School Climate in New York (State Snapshot), 2 (2013), (finding the majority of New York K-12 students surveyed reported being verbally harassed based on their gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation).
 [6] Jaime M. Grant, ET AL., National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 3 (2011),
 [7] See Gossett v. Okla. Ex rel. Bed. Of Regents for Langston Univ., 245 F.3d 1172, 1176 (10th Cir. 2001) (Title VII jurisprudence is authoritative in a Title IX analysis because “courts have generally assessed title IX discrimination claims under the same legal analysis as Title VII claims”); see also  Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566, 575 (6th Cir. 2004) (holding that “discrimination against a plaintiff who is a transsexual – and therefore fails to act/or identify with his or her gender” is illegal sex discrimination under Title VII); see also Schwenk v. Hartford, 204 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2000) (holding that the definition of “sex” under federal non-discrimination laws includes both biological differences between men and women and failure to “conform to socially prescribed gender expectations”); see also Rosa v. Park West Bank & Trust Co., 214 F.2d 213 (1st Cir. 2000) (holding that a transgender loan applicant refused a loan because of her gender identity/expression may bring a sex discrimination claim under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a statute construed consistently with Title VII); see also Glenn v. Brumby, 663 F 3d at 1317 (11th Cir. 2011) (holding “discrimination against a transgender individual because of her gender-nonconformity is sex discrimination” under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment); see also Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2d 293, 308 (D.D.C. 2008) (holding “gender transition” is actionable per se sex discrimination under Title VII).
 [8] Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995, at *6 (E.E.O.C. Apr. 20, 2012) (finding that anti-transgender discrimination is per se sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination proscribes gender discrimination, and not just discrimination on the basis of biological sex . . .”).   
 [9] See “Dear Colleague” Letter of Russlynn Ali, Ass’t Sec’y for Civil Rights, 7 (Oct. 26, 2010), available at
 [10] See DOE OCR, Arcadia Unified School District Resolution Agreement, 3 (July 2013), available at

Tags: HRL | Title IX | Transgender Rights | gender identity | Office for Civil Rights | LGBT | gender nonconforming

Happy DAP Thank You Day!

Monday, April 28th is “DAP Thank You Day.”  Since there is a possibility that some folks don’t celebrate this holiday, we thought an explanation might be helpful.  Let’s start with the basics.

What is DAP?

New York’s Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) is a nationally recognized program that generates significant savings for New York State and local governments while also providing disabled New Yorkers with a stable income stream.  Through the DAP program, local advocates provide low income disabled New Yorkers in every county with legal assistance when their federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability (SSD) applications have been denied or benefits terminated.

When did this DAP thing start? Who does it help?

While DAP Thank You Day is a fairly recent addition to the holiday calendar, DAP has been around for a while.  DAP advocates have represented thousands of disabled New Yorkers since the program began over 30 years ago.  DAP clients are among New York’s most severely disabled adults and children—they are simply unable to navigate the complicated legal process without assistance.

If you are wondering if you know someone who has been helped by the program - yes, you probably do. While each case is unique and there is no “typical” client, an individual story can illustrate the importance of this program to the people it directly assists.

Meet Tom

Empire Justice Center’s DAP unit recently represented Tom (not his real name), a 28 year old man, who was suddenly unable to work full time.  As a child, Tom had several brain tumors requiring surgery.  As a result, he suffered a traumatic brain injury.  While the surgery saved his life, he was left with lingering effects such as learning disabilities, memory problems and seizures.  Tom’s parents were strong advocates for him during his school years.  He received special education services and eventually earned an Individualized Education Program (IEP) diploma.  Through diligent monitoring and medication management by his mother, Tom’s seizures were controlled well enough for him to obtain a job and work nearly full time at a restaurant where he was given special accommodations for his disability, including reduced production expectations and limited duties.
When both of Tom’s parents died unexpectedly, he was unable to adequately manage his medications on his own.  Tom’s seizures became more frequent, and his memory problems increased.  It became difficult for him to do his job; he repeatedly missed work or had to be taken off his shift, so his earnings were greatly reduced.  His utilities were shut off and he forgot to pay the tax bill on the house he inherited from his parents. Tom was in danger of becoming homeless.  Reluctantly, Tom applied for SSD benefits.  His application was denied, in great part because he continued to work as much as he was able.  Tom appealed the denial and sought help through the Disability Advocacy Program.

The DAP unit gathered medical evidence documenting Tom’s seizure disorder and contacted his employer for documentation about his increasing difficulties at work and the accommodations provided for him.  A detailed brief was submitted to the Administrative Law Judge outlining Tom’s claim.  After a lengthy hearing, the judge issued a fully favorable decision.  The decision was especially important in Tom’s case because receipt of disability benefits was a prerequisite for increased services. 

With the disability finding in hand, he applied for a supervised housing program for people with traumatic brain injuries that provides assistance with managing resident’s medications and with other daily activities including budgeting.  With the added support, Tom looks forward to getting back to work on a more regular basis.

I can see how DAP helps individuals, but how does it help the rest of us?

Despite the lack of holiday spirit displayed by that question, I’ll answer it.  Yes, there is something in it for you.

From a financial standpoint, DAP provides a great return on investment for New York State.  For every dollar invested in DAP, $3 are returned to the local municipality and state in the form of cost avoidance and interim assistance paid by the district.  Additionally, DAP clients receive millions of dollars in retroactive awards that are spent in communities around the state.  Simply put, DAP makes New York stronger.  In addition to the economic benefits just described, DAP moves individuals onto stable federal benefits, bringing much needed stability to their homes and families.
Why thank you? And will there be turkey on this Thank You Day?

In its recently approved budget, New York funded the DAP program at $7 million, the highest it has been funded since 2007.  On DAP Thank You Day we want to express our gratitude to all those who stepped up to the plate for our clients and for the state. This includes Governor Andrew Cuomo; leaders of the Senate Majority Coalition, Senator Dean Skelos and Senator Jeff Klein; Senate Social Services Committee Chair, Senator Tony Avella; Assembly Social Services Committee Chair, Assemblymember Michele Titus; Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; and Assemblymember David Weprin.  So, if you see any of these legislators, say “Thank you,” and tell them about DAP. 

Turkey?  Since this is a relatively new holiday, we have not yet worked out the traditional meal.  Feel free to send us your suggestions.

In the meantime, check out DAPWorks to learn more about how DAP works for New York State.

Tags: Disability Advocacy Program | DAP | disability | SSI | SSD

Principal Reductions in Mortgage Workouts are Essential to Reducing the Discriminatory Impact of Foreclosures

“Preserving an affordable home, in a stable neighborhood, for all Americans”—this phrase summarizes three key aspects of housing opportunity and the realization of the American dream.  The foreclosure crisis and the resulting recession, however, have undercut every aspect of this vision. 

Access to an affordable home with sustainable payments is out of reach for many more people today than before the crisis.  Millions of homeowners have already lost their home through foreclosure, are still at risk of foreclosure, or are stuck underwater with unaffordable mortgages as a result of the decline in housing values or lost income.  New York State alone currently has 122,544 mortgages in some stage of foreclosure, and another 197,507 that are seriously delinquent. [1] 

Moreover, due to stricter underwriting guidelines and other changes in the mortgage industry, the lower-income minority borrowers who are the potential purchasers most likely to help stabilize neighborhoods of color now have less access to affordable mortgages.

Our neighborhoods are at risk of instability and blight.  Worse yet, the neighborhoods that have seen the highest concentrations of foreclosures, resulting in higher numbers of vacant properties, are now seeing the steepest declines in housing values, putting many of these neighborhoods into a spiral of increasing instability and blight.

Rust-belt cities, like Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, which already had high numbers of vacant properties before the foreclosure crisis, are experiencing sharp declines in their tax bases, and may soon have to adopt triage strategies to stop the spread of blight.

The foreclosure crisis has had a disparate impact on African American and Latino homeowners and communities.   Foreclosures have not affected all homeowners and communities equally.  Since foreclosures are disproportionately concentrated in minority neighborhoods, and since all of homeowners living in those neighborhoods are impacted by foreclosures, African American and Latino homeowners are suffering disproportionately.  That’s because we live today with patterns of segregation that were established decades ago.  Because we live in segregated communities, African American and Latino homeowners are several times more likely than White, non-Latino homeowners to live in the areas most impacted by foreclosures. 

Minority homeowners either in foreclosure, or living in neighborhoods impacted by foreclosures, are suffering disproportionately from declines in housing values and neighborhood instability.

To get neighborhoods of color back on track, so they can share in the economic and housing recovery, we need to keep as many homeowners as possible in their homes.  This is especially true for the homeowners in the neighborhoods most impacted by foreclosures.

Principal reductions based on true value assessments are fair.

Requiring mortgage servicers to do principal reductions – based on the true (i.e., reduced) value of homes in impacted areas – will help us get back on track by keeping more owners in their homes, reducing  foreclosure-associated vacancies, stabilizing impacted neighborhoods, and thus reducing  the disproportionate impact of foreclosures and foreclosure-related vacancies on African American and Latino homeowners and neighborhoods.  Banks and servicers wouldn’t be losing anything, they’d just be recognizing the lost value of their assets that had already occurred.

Principal reductions must factor in the effect that HIGHER CONCENTRATIONS of foreclosures have on property values.  

True value assessments done in conjunction with principal reductions would result in a greater number of successful loan modifications and keep more owners from losing their homes.  But to do true value assessments, the impact of higher concentrations of foreclosures must be taken into account.  Neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreclosures [2] can be readily identified [3] and property valuations can be adjusted fairly.  If we fail or refuse to do principal reductions that take into account the greater drops in home values created by concentrations of foreclosures, it will be African American and Latino homeowners and minority neighborhoods as a whole who suffer. [4]

We can address the problem of concentrated foreclosures by urging federal policy makers to act.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, needs to begin to not only allow, but to require mortgage servicers to do principal reductions.  Congress needs to pass legislation requiring principal reductions and true value assessment.

Let’s make minority homeowners and communities of color equal participants in the nation’s housing recovery.

End Notes:
 [1] Empire Justice Center estimate using data from the CoreLogic, “National Foreclosure Report,” December 2013, as found at
 [2] Note, however, that zip code foreclosure totals alone are not sufficiently accurate for this purpose. For example, a suburban zip code with 350 foreclosures is not impacted as severely as an urban zip code with the same number of foreclosures, but which is 1/43 the size. (This is an actual example based on zip codes 14619 and 14580 in Monroe County, NY). Instead, the rate of foreclosures and geographic density should be taken into account. That can readily be done at the census tract level.
 [3] Empire Justice Center did this on Long Island. See our report.
 [4] These findings are based upon a data analysis conducted by the Empire Justice Center in New York State which included an evaluation of all foreclosures initiated in Rochester NY since January 1, 2009, mapping the foreclosures and linking the court records for each property to the city’s property information database, as well as census demographics for minority homeowners, in order to evaluate the characteristics of properties in foreclosure including location, concentration, case status, vacancy status and changes in ownership. 

Tags: foreclosure | minority homeowners | African American | Latino | neighborhoods of color | principal reductions | housing opportunity | FHFA

Directing Cornell’s Legal Aid Clinic: A Fulfilling and Worthwhile Experience!

Issue Area: Civil Rights

This fall, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a visiting clinical professor at Cornell Law School, where I am directing the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic.  I am still working at Empire Justice approximately one day a week, and I will return to full-time status in December.  This has been a great experience for me, but before I elaborate on that, I need to thank everyone at Empire Justice, especially the people with whom I work most closely, for letting me do this.  I know it is not easy to cover the caseload when I am only at Empire Justice one day a week, and I am so grateful for everyone’s flexibility, which has allowed me to teach in the clinic.
Although everyone might not agree, I see this opportunity as a “win-win-win” situation – yes, triple win!  First, it has been great for me on a personal level, as I really enjoy teaching, and this has given me the opportunity to do so.    Second, it has allowed me to spread the word about Empire Justice to a relatively new audience (Cornell and the Ithaca legal community).  I have brought several cases to the clinic from Empire Justice, and by working on the cases, the law students have learned about Empire Justice and the work we do.   Finally, by being exposed to new types of cases and new areas of the law, I have broadened my horizons, which hopefully will make me a better lawyer when I return to Empire Justice.  I have supervised clinic students in an unemployment insurance hearing (which we won!) and in a brief submitted to the Division of Human Rights, both of which were new experiences for me.   I have also been collaborating on many clinic classes with Professor Susan Hazeldean, who directs the LGBT Clinic.  By working closely with her and her clinic students, I have learned much more about legal issues affecting LGBT clients and the LGBT community, which is also an exciting new area for me.

Happily, by all indications, it appears that the law students gained much from their experiences, as well.  First, the students were very grateful for the opportunity to work on real cases.   As one student expressed, “The biggest reason why I wanted to work for the Legal Aid Clinic was because I wanted to stick my hands in the dirt and do some real lawyering instead of just slogging through abstract concepts in a lecture hall.  Wish fulfilled.”   Even more gratifying, the law students gained firsthand knowledge of the issues facing disenfranchised New Yorkers, which resonated on a personal level.   As one student explained, “As a patron of fast food establishments, I never gave much thought to the employees who were making my food and coffee.  In taking our client’s employment discrimination case, however, there was a reminder that the people working behind the counter are people too and not just machines that churn out coffee and a sandwich.  In fact, I no longer go to the fast food restaurant here in Ithaca, knowing that the employees are being poorly treated by their managers and the corporation.”  Because of insights such as these, I know that my Cornell experience will provide many lasting benefits when I return full-time to Empire Justice.

Bringing Together Language Access Advocates on Long Island

For many years, I have worked as a legal advocate and social worker with immigrant communities on Long Island.  During this time, I have witnessed the many difficulties which my clients have experienced in negotiating the system, obtaining benefits from government agencies, gaining police protection, accessing healthcare and understanding information about their child’s educational needs.  These difficulties are often compounded when there are language barriers or cultural misunderstandings.  When government funded programs, such as the police and social services, do not provide proper interpretation or translation, the results can be disastrous, leading to homelessness, a lack of protection for victims of domestic violence or other crimes, inadequate healthcare and even the removal of the children from the household.
Many other advocates on Long Island have shared these concerns.  Even though Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funds from practicing national origin discrimination, we were aware that this was happening on Long Island on a daily basis.  For this reason, in October 2010, several advocates from a diverse group of programs and agencies came together to form the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC).

LILAC has been active in addressing the disparities faced by limited English proficient (LEP) community members on Long Island  by documenting these problems, reaching out to program administrators and policy makers, letting them know the challenges our community members are experiencing, reminding them of their legal obligations and providing them with technical support.  We have seen positive results, including the assigning of more bilingual workers, increased staff training, improved signage and translations of vital documents.  We are also very encouraged by the passage of New York State Executive Order No. 26, which mandates state agencies with frequent public contact to provide comprehensive interpretation and translation services, and by the enforcement efforts of New York State’s Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice.  In alliance with other organizations, LILAC has been instrumental in gaining the passage of executive orders in Suffolk and Nassau counties which mandate county agencies to provide interpretation when needed, as well as translation of vital documents into six languages.  Yet we know that there is still so much work to be done and that we need to continue strategizing and learning to move forward!
On Friday, November 15th at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, LILAC will hold its second annual conference, “Navigating a Roadmap for Language Access: Celebrating Our Successes, Addressing Our Challenges.”  The purpose of this conference is to continue raising awareness and seeking solutions to the need for language access and cultural competence in our communities. 

The conference will begin with an overview of language access presented by Michael Mule, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice (and former employee of Empire Justice Center).  Workshops will feature a number of renowned speakers including Jose Perez of Latino Justice/PRLDEF, who will address language access and law enforcement issues, the Office of the NY State Attorney General discussing voting rights and Dr. Jack Levine of Nassau University Medical Center presenting findings of a study on the disparities in services for Hispanic families with children with autism.  Hot topics such as Language Access and Disaster Recovery, and Language Access and the Affordable Care Act will also be covered, in addition to numerous other topics. 

The afternoon will conclude with a panel of Suffolk County representatives discussing their plans to improve language access services on a local level.  We hope that participants will leave this conference with a better understanding of the issues and acquire the tools and resources necessary to improve their agency’s services, to assist their community members or to defend their own right to language access. 

To register online, go to  Early registration ends November 8th, so please register now for a reduced rate.  We look forward to seeing you there!

Tags: language access | limited English proficient | LILAC | New York State Attorney General

60 Minutes Gets it Wrong

CBS aired a 60 Minutes story on October 6, 2013, featuring Senator Tom Coburn (R - OK), who claims that the Social Security disability system is being “gamed,” and is in need of an overhaul.  The truth is that close to 12 million American workers and their families depend on the Social Security Disability programs for life-sustaining funds needed to help pay their basic living expenses.  60 Minutes has unfortunately joined recent media mis-portrayals of these essential disability programs.

In March 2013, we responded to a similar report on NPR’s This American Life60 Minutes is guilty of many of the same misrepresentations and omissions.  The piece implies that the Social Security Administration has opened the floodgates for unemployed workers who cannot – or don’t want to – find jobs.  This simply isn’t true.  The standard to receive disability benefits is very stringent.  In fact, less than 40% of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

The 60 Minutes report is also highly critical of some lawyers who represent disability claimants before SSA and may engage in unethical conduct.  We also condemn any incidents of fraud, but in our view those incidents are indeed isolated.  We support protecting the integrity of the system.  In fact, claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  That is one of our key roles here at the Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of pursuing federal disability benefits.  We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  In a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining, our success rate is over 80% - underscoring how necessary our services are to our clients.

Read some of the critiques of the 60 Minutes piece:

Tags: SSA | Social Security | 60 Mintues | This American Life

Empire Justice Center to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”

Issue Area: Domestic Violence

On Saturday, October 5, 2013, Alternatives for Battered Women, Monroe County’s licensed domestic violence organization, will hold its annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event at Ontario Beach Park.  The Rochester office of Empire Justice Center is so proud to have a team walking this year.  This major event by Alternatives for Battered Women is their kickoff event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  The Walk raises funds to support their work with victims of domestic violence, as well as awareness of the topic. “Walk a Mile” was founded by a man, and stands as a call to action for all men to stop violence against women-and all victims.  The Walk is an international event, and for over a decade has had tens of thousands of participants and raised millions of dollars for local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, as well as education and prevention programs.  To learn more about the local event, click here.  For more information on the history and mission of the Walk, click here.


Throughout the year, Empire Justice Center works hard to address domestic violence issues from a variety of angles.  From providing training and support to domestic violence organizations, legal advocates, and others to advocating for change to both legislation and public policy, we strive toward the goal of making the lives of victims of domestic violence, and all New Yorkers, better.  At the Walk, we’ll do this good work in stilettos—or sneakers!


Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that is intentionally used by the abusive person to gain or maintain power and control over their intimate partner.  Coercive tactics can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and economic abuse or threats.  Abusive conduct injures, humiliates, frightens, isolates, threatens, intimidates or manipulates its intended target. Where there are children in a home infected by domestic violence, they may also suffer consequences as witnesses or direct victims of abuse.  Domestic violence can happen in new, dating relationships, as well occur over time in more long-term partnerships without regard to gender, sexual orientation, age, race, faith community, and socio-economic status.  To learn more about domestic violence, visit the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.      


To learn how to create a local Walk a Mile team of your own, click here.  Please join Empire Justice Center in our support of this most worthy of causes--whether you do it with your feet or your pocketbook!  We also encourage everyone to participate in or host a domestic violence awareness event in their community in the month of October.  Together we can stop abuse.  

Tags: Empire Justice | Domestic Violence | Alternatives for Battered Women

A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient

A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient


Imagine for a moment that you are the victim of domestic violence and are enduring the ongoing physical and emotional violence of your abusive intimate partner.  Now, imagine that during a particularly dangerous attack, you call 911 so that the police will come and help you and your children.  The police arrive, but you are unable to communicate with them because you are a non-citizen and English is not your primary language.  Your abuser, on the other hand, speaks English well and, instead of talking to you, the police only interview your abuser because they don’t call for  an interpreter.   As a result, you have no way of explaining what actually happened from your perspective.  Later, a domestic violence advocate advises you to seek an order of protection in family court.  You are not really sure what an order of protection is or how to get one.  Your experience with the police has alarmed you and you are not sure how to even begin taking the steps you need to take to get help without language assistance. 


This nightmarish scenario is the reality for many domestic violence victims in New York State who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning English is not their primary language and they have a limited ability to speak, read, write, or understand English.  An estimated 2.4 million residents of New York are LEP.


Unfortunately, many LEP victims of domestic violence are unaware that both state and federal law require the courts, the police, and other service providers to offer language assistance at no charge when LEP individuals seek help.  In addition to language barriers, victims may be hesitant to access the civil or criminal justice system because they fear losing custody of their children or immigration consequences, such as deportation and removal from the United States.  Lack of familiarity with the legal system, as well as economic, cultural and religious barriers may also conspire to erect additional barriers for victims in their attempts to stop the abuse they suffer.


We are pleased to report that Empire Justice Center has produced a pamphlet designed to address this problem by clearly outlining the language access rights of limited English proficient victims in Family Court and how to access other services.  The pamphlet will be translated into the top 3 most common languages requested in New York’s courts. In an effort to reflect actual experiences with courts and police, as well as the real life fears and barriers to seeking help for this project,  Empire Justice Center surveyed various domestic violence and legal services providers across the state and used the information to inform the text.


The new resource, “Seeking Protection from Domestic Violence in New York’s Family Court: Information for Immigrant Victims with Limited English Proficiency is now available in English.  It is easily downloadable and will shortly be available in Spanish, Russian, Simplified Chinese— in addition to English.  For organizations that would like to order copies of this pamphlet in bulk, they will also be able to do so through our website.  Stay tuned!  In the next few days we will reveal the translated brochures!!!

Tags: Domestic Violence | Limited English Profiiciency

New report highlights impact of hunger on seniors

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Two weeks ago, the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH) released an important new report, State of Senior Hunger in America in 2011, examining the insidious growth in senior hunger over the past decade.   Its findings include some alarming statistics:


          -     In 2011, 8.8 million seniors nationally faced the threat of hunger.

          -     This figure represents an 88% increase in the number of seniors affected since 2001 and a 42% increase since the start of the Great Recession in 2007.

          -     Seniors who are most vulnerable include baby boomers (e.g. the “young old”), grandparents living with grandchildren, women, Hispanics and African Americans, and those who are poor or near poor.


New York’s senior hunger rate (14.78%) was slightly better than the national average of 15.2%.


The report also includes a senior hunger report card evaluating the nation’s progress in reducing senior hunger.   The overall grade is an F “due to the nation’s stunning failure in addressing a serious and growing crisis …”


What makes NFESH’s findings especially troubling are the upcoming cuts to SNAP benefits that will affect all SNAP recipients in November, due to the expiration of the 2009 Recovery Act (ARRA) benefit boost.  (For more information about the benefit cuts, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ article  SNAP Benefits Will Be Cut for All Participants in November 2013.)    These cuts will only worsen the hunger crisis facing America’s senior population. 


In New York State, the SNAP benefit reduction directly impacts half a million seniors; they will likely find it even more difficult to stretch their limited budgets to cover essentials like food, medicine and utilities.  So will the thousands of working adults, people with disabilities and the recently unemployed who rely on SNAP to put food on their table for themselves and their children.  


Unfortunately, there may be even worse news coming down the pike.   Both the Senate and House are proposing further cuts to SNAP as part of the Farm Bill reauthorization – cuts which would once again hit our seniors and other households who are already struggling financially.   


Let’s hope our NY Congressional members do the right thing, and vote to preserve, rather than cut, SNAP.   Our most vulnerable residents are depending on them.


Want to help?  Go to


Tags: SNAP | Senior Hunger | Food Insecurity | Stop the Hunger Clock | Farm Bill

What’s New in Medicaid: Breaking it Down for You

Are you feeling overwhelmed trying to comprehend all the changes that are happening to New York’s Medicaid program?  We can help!

Trilby de Jung, our Senior Health Law Attorney, and her Health Team colleagues here at Empire Justice have been hard at work analyzing and monitoring the upcoming changes to Medicaid and public health insurance coverage in New York State as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and how these changes will affect low income consumers.  We are also busy keeping abreast of MRT (Medicaid Redesign Team) implementation.

We wanted to alert you to two new resources we’ve developed for health care advocates, policymakers, community based organizations and government partners working with Medicaid-eligible households:

  1. A comprehensive report on immigrants and the Health Insurance Exchange.  New York’s Exchange Portal:  A Gateway to Coverage for Immigrants is a report written by Trilby de Jung and Barbara Weiner.  The report includes an Immigrant Eligibility Crosswalk, which is a new tool to help navigate the complex intersections of immigration status and eligibility for Exchange related subsidies, Medicaid programs and emergency health care coverage options.
  2. A new cycle of free “lunch and learn” health access webinars.  The first webinar, held June 24th, was Immigrant Access to Health Care; the topic for our July 8th webinar was Medicaid Eligibility in 2014.  Both webinars were filled to capacity!  If you missed them, the sessions were recorded and will soon be posted on our website. 
  • Upcoming lunch and learn topics will include Changes to Medicaid Home Care Options and Medicaid Eligibility in 2014 for the Elderly and Disabled.  Stay tuned for announcements about dates and registration information!

Another great place to get timely and helpful information about Medicaid is by visiting, our collaborative website with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and the Legal Aid Society.  Be sure to check Empire Justice’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages for updates.

Tags: immigrants | health care | Medicaid | Affordable Care Act | health insurance exchange

Empire Justice Center Plays an active role in training advocates across New York on foreclosure prevention

On May 30, 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an extension of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which was set to expire on December 31, 2013.The program has now been extended through December 31, 2015. In doing so, the hope is that the millions of homeowners who are still struggling and hoping to avoid foreclosure will be able to take advantage of the benefits afforded by HAMP.


In March 2009, the Treasury Department and Obama Administration announced the launch of its Making Home Affordable (MHA) Program.  HAMP, part of the MHA Program, was, designed to enable homeowners to modify their mortgages in order to prevent foreclosure.  HAMP also created standards for the mortgage servicing industry, which before that time varied widely amongst mortgage servicers.  Homeowners whose loans are owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are eligible.  Additionally, many servicers of loans not owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac also participate in HAMP. 


Although MHA, and specifically HAMP, have helped many homeowners in the loan modification process, the process itself can be an intimidating and daunting one.  As part of Empire Justice Center’s mission in educating both the public and fellow advocates in matters of assisting the disenfranchised, we have taken an active role in educating both attorneys and housing counselors on the MHA Programs, including HAMP.  Empire Justice Center conducted two day trainings in foreclosure prevention for both attorneys and housing counselors in April in Syracuse and earlier this month on Long Island.  A good portion of these trainings involved navigating the HAMP process.  In addition, Empire Justice Center continues to provide two webinars a month related to relevant foreclosure issues, including several that relate directly to MHA and HAMP.  Among the Empire Justice Center attorneys presenting at these trainings and webinars are Kevin Purcell, Maria DeGennaro, and Rebecca Case Caico.


The MHA Program and HAMP continue to help homeowners stay out of foreclosure, and Empire Justice Center will continue to educate people across New York State on how to best utilize these programs.


To learn more about the programs, homeowners can visit   To learn more Empire Justice Center’s trainings and webinars, and who is eligible, attorneys and housing counselors can email

Tags: Frannie Mae | Freddie Mac | Foreclosure | Loan Modification | Training

C.A.S.H. Volunteers Claim $25 Million for Working Families in Monroe County

Issue Area: Consumer

Last week, I had the privilege of celebrating another successful tax season with C.A.S.H. [1] volunteers.  This was our 11th year of providing free tax prep services to working families in Monroe County. 

From January through April, nearly 500 volunteers helped complete more than 13,000 federal and NYS tax returns, claiming more than $25 million in tax refunds and credits.  In addition to having tax returns prepared, people who came to C.A.S.H. learned about community resources that can improve their families’ economic security and financial future - programs for saving, home buying, credit repair, affordable health care, banking and more!

People who come to C.A.S.H. for help at tax time save on average $250 – the fee that typical paid preparers charge.  That means more than $3 million stayed in the pockets of hard working families – money they can use to put food on the table, pay rent, and take care of their kids. 

About half of the families who come to C.A.S.H. are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  This is a special tax benefit offered by the Federal government and New York State for working people who earn low or moderate incomes that helps lift them out of poverty.  Hard working families use this money to meet basic needs like rent, medical bills, transportation to get to work, and clothes for their kids.  Only families who work can claim these credits.

Every year, our volunteers tell me how much satisfaction they get from working at C.A.S.H.  Many have said it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, but not every volunteer prepares taxes.  Some work at the front desk, welcoming people as they arrive and helping them with paperwork.  Others share information about the many resources our community has for helping people make the most of their money.  C.A.S.H. provides all the training volunteers need to have a rewarding experience helping others in our community.

To learn more about C.A.S.H., go to

End Notes

 [1] C.A.S.H. (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) is a community coalition led by Empire Justice Center and United Way of Greater Rochester.  Our mission is creating opportunities for low income workers in Monroe County to “get, keep, and grow” their money.

Tags: EITC | earned income tax credit | free tax prep | C.A.S.H. | United Way of Greater Rocester

Simplifying the Complexities Surrounding Immigrant Access to Health Care

Last week we released a two part report about immigrant access to health care in New York.  The first part describes the evolution of the patchwork of laws passed by Congress that impact immigrant access to health care, including the federal Affordable Care Act, and how this complicates determining immigrant access to existing and emerging health care coverage options in New York State.

At the end of this section we discuss New York’s proposed online Health Insurance Exchange application, and how New York could fine tune it.  Our biggest recommendation is to fully incorporate the Department of Health’s ground breaking process for pre-certifying undocumented immigrants for Emergency Medicaid through the online Exchange application.  Why?  We believe pre-certification will encourage immigrant families to apply for health care coverage through the Exchange, and it will help the hospitals that serve as safety nets for the uninsured maximize their revenues.

The second part of our report is a detailed “Immigrant Eligibility Crosswalk” and a glossary of status related terms.  This crosswalk, which lists New York’s health insurance programs along the top and noncitizen statuses along the left hand side, allows users to easily locate the particular health insurance programs for which a noncitizen in a specific status will be eligible.  This new tool will help policymakers, health care staff and advocates navigate the complex intersections of immigration status and health care coverage eligibility that we described in part one of the report.

Empire Justice will be scheduling a webinar to familiarize people with the report and to get the word out about the crosswalk and the Health Department’s approach to pre-certifying immigrants for Emergency Medicaid.

In the meantime, please take a look at our report and the crosswalk and let us know what you think.

Tags: immigrants | health care | Medicaid | Affordable Care Act | health insurance | access to health care | health insurance exchange

It Looks Like Payday Lending Bill Is Off the Table in New York; Consumers Can Breathe a Sigh of Relief…For Now

Issue Area: Consumer

Last week I drafted a piece on the mounting evidence that payday lending is bad for consumers.  I am happy to say that I had to throw that piece in the recycle bin.

On Monday, Superintendent Ben Lawsky sent a letter to NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver saying that the NYS Department of Financial Services opposes the “short-term financial services loan act” (A.1113-A/S.3999-A), legislation that would permit licensed check cashers in New York to make small dollar loans. 

Lawsky’s letter states, “The bill creates an exception to New York's criminal usury law for licensed check cashers.  By setting a 25 percent cap on interest rates, the bill obscures the true impact of these loans.  In fact, when taking into account all of the fees permitted by the bill, the actual annualized interest rates consumers would pay balloon into the triple digits.  The payday loans envisioned by the bill are the types of loans that the current 25% criminal usury cap was designed to keep out of New York.”

The Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News suggest that this strong stance taken by the Cuomo administration has essentially killed the legislation.

This comes on top of actions taken last week by federal regulators in proposing stronger guidance around deposit advance products.  The standards proposed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) would, among other things, require the banks they regulate to take into account the borrower’s ability to repay the loan and to limit the number of loans made to a borrower to six per year.

Also last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a study showing that payday or deposit advance loans trap consumers into a cycle of debt, leading to ruined credit for the borrower and billions of dollars in wealth being stripped from low and moderate income communities and neighborhoods of color.

According to the CFPB, “Lenders often do not take a borrower’s ability to repay into consideration when making a loan.  Instead, they may rely on ensuring they are one of the first in line to be repaid from a borrower’s income.  For the consumer, this means there may not be sufficient funds after paying off the loan for expenses such as for their rent or groceries – leading them to return to the bank or payday lender for more money.”

This likely defeat of New York’s Short Term Financial Services Loan Act is a huge victory for consumers in New York.  Nevertheless, as noted in a NY Daily News editorial, we need to continue to be vigilant in keeping usurious payday lending and deposit advance products out of New York.

To see the most recent news and articles on payday lending, click here.

Tags: payday lending | check cashers | usury | CFPB | deposit advance loans | DFS | small dollar loans | OCC | FDIC

This American Life and NPR Unfair and Inaccurate in Portrayal of Social Security Disability Recipients and Programs

National Public Radio (NPR) recently joined the chorus of media mis-portrayals of our country’s Social Security disability programs. In a one hour segment broadcast on This American Life and rebroadcast in shorter segments on All Things Considered, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of these critical programs.

Ms. Joffe-Walt mistakenly claims that the standards for disability have changed dramatically since 1984, opening the floodgates for seemingly specious claims. This simply isn’t true. The standard remains very stringent. In fact, less than 40 percent of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

She also makes much of the so-called “Disability Industrial Complex,” as she calls the community of lawyers who represent disability claimants before the Social Security Administration. While many may find the lawyer advertising cited in the report distasteful, Ms. Joffe-Walt gives short shrift to the fact that claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  In fact, that is one of our key roles here at Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of applying for federal disability benefits. We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  Our success rate of over 80% - in a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining - underscores how necessary our services are to our clients.

For a more detailed analysis of the misinformation in the NPR report, read the March 27, 2013 letter of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities to which Empire Justice is a signatory.

And if you want to let NPR know how you feel about the story, here are some suggested critiques developed by our national colleagues:

NPR can do better -- Take Action on Twitter, Facebook, & by phone!

Twitter: Please use the hashtag #unfittoair and tweet @NPRnews. Sample tweets:

@NPRnews “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Full of errors & stereotypes abt people w/disabilities. Contact @ccd4pwd & cover the real story!

@NPRnews #SocialSecurity #SSI are lifelines 4 ppl w/severe disabilities. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story!

@NPRnews The #disability standard is strict & most apps are denied. 1 in 5 male #SSDI recips die w/in 5 yrs of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@NPRnews 1 in 5 male #SSDI recipients die w/in 5yr of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story

@NPRnews #SSDI growth due to boomers in hi-disability yrs & women going 2 work in ‘70s/‘80s so more qualify.“Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair

@NPRnews #SSI is a lifeline 4 kids w/severe disabilities. Helps meet costs of care & encourages education. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@CenterOnBudget has the facts on #disability after @nprnews got it wrong:

Facebook: post a comment on NPR’s wall. Sample posts:

“Unfit for Work” was unfit to air – full of errors & stereotypes about people with disabilities. Please contact and cover the real story! “Unfit to Work” missed half the story. No mention of how hard it is to qualify for disability benefits, or how severely impaired SSDI and SSI beneficiaries are. Please contact and cover the real story!

“Unfit to Work” was unfit to air – missing key facts. Demographics explain the growth in SSDI – boomers aging into their high-disability years and women entering the workforce in the ‘70s and ‘80s so they’re now insured for benefits. Please contact and cover the real story!

By Phone - Call your local NPR station!

To find your local station, visit:

Call the station and ask to leave a message for the Station Manager. Tell them: I am outraged by NPR’s poor coverage of the Social Security disability programs. NPR’s recent story, “Unfit for Work,” was slanted, misleading, and full of errors and stereotypes of people with disabilities. NPR can do better. I urge NPR to retract this story.”

If you speak with anyone at your local NPR station who wants to do a story, please have them contact or

Tags: disability | NPR | National Public Radio | This American Life | Social Security | All Things Considered | Chana Joffe-Walt | Social Security Administration | Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities

D-SNAP update – New York City and Long Island

Issue Area: Public Benefits

New York City:  The Human Resources Administration (HRA) has gotten approval to operate a Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), for one week beginning on Wednesday, December 12th.    D-SNAP will help thousands of New York City’s Hurricane Sandy survivors buy food.  However, due to limitations in the program, not all needy disaster victims will have access to this 100% federally funded food assistance benefit.  Advocates are calling on HRA, OTDA and USDA to expand New York City’s D-SNAP

Long Island:   To date, neither Nassau nor Suffolk County DSS has made a formal request to operate D-SNAP.  Don Friedman from our Central Islip office is part of an ad hoc coalition of advocates aiming to make D-SNAP a reality on Long Island.  The coalition sent letters, signed by 40 organizations, to the Nassau and Suffolk County social services  commissioners  asking them to request D-SNAP immediately, and developed a fact sheet outlining the benefits of D-SNAP.  The coalition estimates that D-SNAP could bring over $13 million in federal funds to local food retailers across Long Island, and help put food on the table for 100,000 low-income households recovering from Hurricane Sandy.  For more information, contact Don Friedman at

Tags: HRA | Superstorm Sandy | D-SNAP | food stamps | Hurricane Sandy | OTDA

Volunteer to Help Hardworking Families!!

Issue Area: Consumer

The holiday season brings out the volunteer spirit in all of us. But for most of us it’s also an extremely busy time of year. So why not make a commitment today to volunteer during tax season after the holidays!


C.A.S.H. [Creating Assets, Savings and Hope] is a community coalition that helps working families in Monroe County, GET, KEEP, and GROW their money.  One of the ways we are able to do this is by offering free income tax preparation to income eligible households and connecting them to community resources.  In 2012, over 500 volunteers helped 13,000 families resulting in tax refunds of $24 million going back into their pockets and this community.


We are about more than just preparing tax returns, so there is an opportunity for everyone!!  Click HERE for a list of volunteer opportunities that are available.


Top Reasons to become a C.A.S.H. Volunteer:

  • Ability to help hundreds of low income families
  • No experience necessary, flexible training schedule provided for all roles
  • Great resume builder
  • Opportunity to network with hundreds of volunteers
  • Flexible enough for any schedule - volunteer days, nights or weekends for 3-4 hours per week at a site of your choice.


Bring a coworker, family member, or friend with you to a Volunteer Information Meeting* to learn more about how you can get involved.  Join us on Sat Dec 15 11am-1pm or Mon, Dec 17, 5–7pm or Sat Jan 5, 9–11am. Contact me to reserve your spot at 585-295-5733 or


* Meetings are held at the United Way of Greater Rochester on 75 College Avenue, 14607.

Tags: Income Tax Prepration | Volunteer | VITA | Coalition | CASH

When it Comes to Foreclosures, the FHFA Should Lay Blame Where it Belongs - On Mortgage Servicers, Not State Consumer Protection Laws

Issue Area: Consumer

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s overseer, wrongly, and egregiously is attacking state consumer protection laws.  The Agency published a proposal [] in September with a comment period that ended this past Monday (Nov. 26th), in which Acting Director Edward DeMarco blames consumer protections for long delays in the foreclosure process in five states:  New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Florida.  The penalty?  A substantial charge to future borrowers in those states. In NY, that fee would be $2,520 on a $200,000 loan.  


The proposal is no veiled attack on states’ rights.  FHFA boldly claims, "If those states were to adjust their laws and requirements sufficiently to move their foreclosure timelines and costs more in line with the national average, the state-level, risk-based fees imposed under the planned approach would be lowered or eliminated." And a threat to states which may be thinking about implementing consumer protections:  “The agency may include the impact of newly-enacted laws if they clearly affect foreclosure timelines or costs, where such costs may be reasonably estimated based on relevant experience.” 


Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) submitted a comment in strong opposition to the proposal and has collected at least 16 letters on its website from others including the New York, Connecticut and Illinois Attorneys General, 18 US Senators and House members from NY, a Connecticut congressional delegation, NYS Assemblywomen Helene Weinstein and Annette Robinson, New Yorkers for Responsible Lending (NYRL), the Brennan Center, three professors and more.  The letters can be found here. [].].


What are the consumer protections at issue?  In NY, they include a notice sent 90 days prior to a filing with referrals to reputable non-profit housing counseling agencies in the borrower’s area, mandatory settlement conferences to see if the home can be saved, and a requirement that lawyers affirm that their foreclosure pleadings are accurate.  It would be tough to argue that any of these protections are over the top.  Actually, they set a pretty basic standard which should exist in all states. 


As simple as these requirements are, however, mortgage servicers just can’t comply with them – that is what is causing the long delays.  First is their failure to file the required paperwork and attorney affirmation with the court to move the case into the settlement conference process.  Thousands of foreclosure cases have been initiated and are just sitting in what has become known as our “shadow docket” with no forward movement, some for upwards of two years. 


The delays do not end there.  Once a case reaches the settlement conference process, it is the norm for the servicer’s representative to appear without authority to settle the case, or with any real knowledge of the status of the loss mitigation application made by the homeowner.  This ill-preparedness, on top of the general failure of servicers to adhere to HAMP (the Home Affordable Modification Program) or other guidelines for making determinations, typically means that 4 to 8 conferences have to be held until a breaking point is reached and the servicer has to make a determination.  And even in cases which have moved out of the settlement conference process and are supposed to go forward with litigation, advocates across the state report that the big servicers are not seeking judgments in too many cases. 


FHFA misses the boat in their cost calculation of defaults in states with longer timelines, as well.  First, there is no consideration for the number of foreclosures.  A state with a lower foreclosure rate but a longer time frame, such as NY, is costlier according to FHFA than a state such as Arizona or Nevada which have huge volumes but shorter timelines.  More so, though, the equation completely fails to factor in costs saved as a result of consumer protections.  There is no question that the settlement conferences in NY mean more people are getting loan modifications and staying in their homes.  While estimates vary regarding the “cost” of a foreclosure (I’ve seen estimates from $40,000 to over $100,000), preserving homeownership is generally a cost-saving measure for investors in many respects.   


At the very least, FHFA’s imposition of new costs on future borrowers is unfair to prospective borrowers who had nothing to do with driving the reckless lending frenzy of the subprime era, nor the resulting financial crisis.  The proposal also will likely slow the already too-slow U.S. housing recovery by increasing the cost of lending in a state like Florida, which, frankly, needs all the help it can get.  Not that coastal communities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are faring too well lately.  If enacted, this proposal would be the proverbial, “kicking someone when they’re down.”  The comments collected by AFR urge the FHFA to abandon the proposal.  

Tags: FHFA | Foreclosure | Edward DeMarco | Mortgage Services

SNAP Disaster Update: D-SNAP Approved for Westchester County!

Issue Area: Public Benefits

The USDA has approved a disaster supplemental nutrition assistance program (D-SNAP) for Westchester County low income residents who were severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Westchester is the first county to seek D-SNAP for struggling residents.

Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino made the announcement on Wednesday, November 14th.

Who is eligible?  Households who would not normally qualify for SNAP may be eligible for D-SNAP if they lived in Westchester County on October 27th and suffered disaster related damage, material losses or loss of income due to Hurricane Sandy.  Food loss alone is not an allowable qualifying circumstance.  Current SNAP recipients in Westchester County are not eligible to apply for D-SNAP, but will have their November monthly benefit automatically supplemented up to the D-SNAP benefit level (the maximum monthly allotment).  

How and When to Apply:  D-SNAP will begin on Friday, November 16th, and run until Friday, November 23rd.  D-SNAP applications can be filed at the local social services district offices in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains and Peekskill during normal business hours (Monday through Friday, excluding Thanksgiving Day), as well as at the Disaster Recovery Center in White Plains every day except Thanksgiving from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The USDA’s D-SNAP approval letter to OTDA on Tuesday, November 13th, indicated that Westchester was the only county who had, to date, requested permission to operate a D-SNAP. 

Kudos to Westchester County for taking the lead in New York State by ensuring that needy disaster victims have access to food assistance while they are putting their lives back in order.  D-SNAP should also help ease some of the burden on the emergency food system (food pantries and soup kitchens) and will help pump additional SNAP dollars (100% federally funded) into local food retailers in Westchester County. 

Let’s hope that public officials in other disaster designated counties follow Westchester’s lead and make sure that some of their most vulnerable residents recovering from Hurricane Sandy have access to federal D-SNAP benefits!

For more information about D-SNAP, please contact Cathy Roberts at or (518) 462-6831 x 112.

Tags: SNAP | Food Stamps | Sandy | USDA | Westchester | County Executive Astorino

Checking in after Sandy- New Developments

Issue Area: Public Benefits

USDA approves waiver to help SNAP recipients devastated by Hurricane Sandy

Between Friday afternoon, November 2nd, and Sunday evening, November 4th, the Governor’s office announced that:

  1. Individual SNAP recipients have an extended period of time to request replacement benefits.  Instead of 10 days, they now have 30 days.
  2. SNAP recipients living in the hardest hit areas of the state will automatically get a replacement benefit without having to request it.  The replacement benefit amount will be 50% of the household’s normal monthly benefit.   The areas include Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan and Westchester counties; all of Staten Island, and other sections of New York City.  Additional zip codes in New York City that experienced extended power loss may be added as more details about the number of households affected becomes available
  3. SNAP recipients in New York City and Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan and Westchester counties can use their benefits to purchase hot and prepared foods at EBT retailers until November 30th

OTDA issued a Q&A to help educate clients about these developments.

Tags: hurricane sandy | superstorm sandy | snap | food stamps | d-snap | usda

Checking in after Hurricane Sandy

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Feeding the hungry after Hurricane Sandy – the role of SNAP

Day 4 after Hurricane Sandy.  So many of our relatives, friends and colleagues along the tri-state coastal area are facing hardship … some still lacking basic necessities like water and food.    And many of our community partners in NYC, Long Island and the Hudson Valley region have been without power, internet or phone service.

We at Empire Justice are collaborating with our partners during the post-Sandy relief efforts, to help connect disaster victims, and agencies working with them, with legal resources to assist them during their recovery. 

Please check our webpage frequently for updates.

Today we wanted to address the role of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) in meeting the needs of disaster victims. 

What’s in place right now

Current SNAP recipients who have experienced food loss or spoilage due to the disaster can request a replacement SNAP benefit through their local department of social services, through regular replacement procedures. 
Our friends at Hunger Solutions NY have issued a great memo and flyer explaining the replacement SNAP benefit process, and they’ve posted the replacement benefits request form on their website. 

You can also get the replacement request form in 7 languages on OTDA’s website.  Outside of New York City, the completed form should be sent to the local SNAP office.  In New York City, please fax it to 917-639-1111 (this is a dedicated fax line); HRA has asked that requesters include their address, SSN and contact phone number on the form.

OTDA has reminded districts that emergency temporary assistance (”emergency assistance”) is available to meet the emergency food needs of households who aren’t eligible for SNAP replacement but in immediate need.  The usual income limits for emergency assistance do not apply for occurrences related to a catastrophe.  Emergency assistance can help pay for other immediate needs, such as shelter or clothing.

While replacement benefits and emergency assistance are an important way to help households hit by Hurricane Sandy, they may not meet the immediate food needs of many households for a myriad of reasons.  

As a practical matter, many SNAP households and other disaster victims will need to rely in the short term on life-saving emergency feeding programs run by FEMA, the Red Cross, local food banks (soup kitchens and food pantries) and other charitable organizations. 

What may be in the works

The Governor’s office and OTDA are looking at all available options.  There is a strong likelihood that New York and other states will get permission from USDA to provide broader relief than what is available through the regular replacement benefits process.  The possibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Granting an extension of time for recipients to request replacement benefits
  • Issuing “mass” or auto-replacements to recipients
  • Allowing SNAP recipients to purchase hot foods with SNAP benefits
  • Opening up a disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) in designated disaster counties. 

A D-SNAP would be able to serve households who do not ordinarily qualify for SNAP benefits, but have urgent food needs due to the disaster.  New York has run a D-SNAP three times in the past:  in NYC after the September 11, 2011 terrorist attack; in 2006, in upstate counties affected by severe flooding; and last year in upstate counties hit hard by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.

The steps that states must undertake to obtain approval from USDA for D-SNAP and/or waivers on replacement benefits are quite rigorous and time consuming.  Therefore, it may take several more days or even longer before we learn what sort of broader relief may be available to Sandy victims through SNAP.

We will certainly keep you posted with any news that we learn.  In the meantime, for more general information about disaster assistance and SNAP, read the Food Research and Action Center’s excellent An Advocate’s Guide to the Disaster Food Stamp Program and USDA’s Disaster SNAP Guidance handbook.     

If you have any specific questions about SNAP and disaster assistance, please feel free to contact Cathy Roberts here at Empire Justice ( or 518-462-6831 x 112).

Tags: hurrican sandy | snap | food stamps | d-snap | hunger solutions ny

Bravo to AG Schneiderman

Issue Area: Consumer

There has been much discussion about the lawsuit recently filed by New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, against JP Morgan for fraudulent activities committed by Bear Stearns before JP Morgan acquired it in March 2008.  For the record, Empire Justice Center is very supportive of these efforts and appreciative of the leadership role Attorney General Schneiderman has taken in pursuing accountability in the face of opposition.  It’s a matter of justice – those that do wrong should be held accountable for the harms they caused to both investors and homeowners.

It is absolutely critical that as a society we ensure that the predatory practices of the last decade are never repeated again.  Today, many of the failed predatory lenders have been acquired by the “Too Big to Fail Banks,” like Bank of America.  The price paid by the acquiring banks factored in the need to provide justice to those harmed by the predatory lenders and the litigation risks involved with the purchase. 

These failed companies were not bought by mom and pop banks.  Acquiring institutions bought them at fire sale prices.  The 52 week high for Bear Stearns’ stock before the crisis occurred was $133 a share.  JP Morgan ultimately purchased Bear Stearns for only $10 a share.  Having paid the fire sale rate, the acquiring banks must live by the rules of the free market.  Armies of well-paid lawyers and investment bankers reviewed the bank mergers.  Therefore, it is completely disingenuous for the banks to complain about being held accountable for the very bad practices that drove down the price they paid for the predatory lenders.  The litigation they now face was entirely predictable and was precisely why the predatory lenders were sold at the dramatically lower prices.  Again, the cost of losing litigation and having to make whole those harmed by the illegal conduct of the predatory lenders was factored into the sale price.

Many of those who now advocate giving the acquiring banks a free pass, have in the past actually opposed the need to provide financial relief to the victims of predatory lending.  They cited the risk of “moral hazard.”  While we don’t see any moral hazard in making the victims of predatory lending whole, we are a bit surprised by the inconsistency of those who fail to see the moral hazard in letting the acquiring backs off the hook.  To the contrary, there is a clear moral hazard in not holding predatory lenders and their acquiring institutions responsible for illegal acts that were wide-spread in the industry.  Litigation such as the NY Attorney General’s against these predatory practices will play an important role in ensuring these practices are not repeated in the future because those in the industry will know that a lender's sins will not be washed away with a sale.

Furthermore, the after effects of the financial crisis these perpetrators caused have directly resulted in hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers facing the loss of their homes.  Millions of families have seen a lifetime of savings wiped out.  Entire neighborhoods have seen price declines of 20- 40%.  Millions of homeowners have had to help bear the cost of the financial meltdown – shouldn't those harmed by illegal conduct be provided with compensation?

Despite the real suffering families are experiencing, our analysis of foreclosure data shows that the worst may still be ahead of us.  Foreclosures are still making their way through the courts.  The full impact of completed foreclosures and the consequences on hundreds of neighborhoods is still to be experienced.  Tens of thousands families who are unable to receive significant loan modifications will start facing eviction and potential homelessness.  Many minority communities will be impacted more than others.

Homeowners and their advocates have long been pushing State and Federal regulators to take legal action against these abusive practices.  We are proud of the New York Attorney General’s long history of protecting the rights of consumers and we applaud our Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his leadership and for continuing with the tradition.

Tags: foreclosure | predatory lending | Bear Sterns | too big to fail | JP Morgan

Still working on that sunlight

In my last post, I talked about the need for better data to increase transparency and accountability in the mortgage lending market.  This week I have a great opportunity to make my case.  I am one of several consumer advocates from across the country who will be talking with staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about what information would be most useful to the public, regulators and policy makers, and how this information can be efficiently collected from mortgage lenders and servicers.

We will be talking with the CFPB about data-related issues, all of which are part of Dodd-Frank [1] and are critical to shedding more light on mortgage lending and servicing in this country:

(1) data enhancements to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) dataset,
(2) the establishment of a default and foreclosure database and
(3) the public availability of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) loan modification data.

Maybe I’m just really curious, but when homeowners default on their mortgage loans, I want to understand what led these homeowners to default while other homeowners continue to pay and stay current on their loans.  Specifically, were borrowers with certain loan terms more likely to default than other borrowers?  And were the borrowers who defaulted able to get affordable loan modifications?  Using data from these databases, we should be able to point to the answers.

However, these datasets are three separate entities, collected at different points in time and often from two or more different reporting entities.  So we need a way to easily connect the data from one database to the other. This is why during our meeting with the CFPB this week I am going to be the champion of the “universal loan identifier,” or universal loan ID.  Are you still with me?  I hope so, because this is important.

The universal loan ID would first be used by the lender when it reports the loan under HMDA.  The ID would then follow the loan to the servicer and, if needed, be used when reporting any defaults, foreclosures or modifications related to that loan.  This relieves the servicer from collecting and reporting a variety of borrower and loan-related data pieces, including borrower income, race/ethnicity, gender, age and credit score, loan amount, term, APR and mortgage channel.  Regulators, policy makers and the public would already have access to this information in the HMDA data via the universal loan ID.

I believe the universal loan ID is the key to increased transparency and accountability, without sacrificing efficiency.

End Note:
 [1] See Sections 1094, 1447 and 1483 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act for the language pertaining to these datasets.

Tags: HMDA | Consumer Financial Protection Bureau | CFPB | mortgage lending | defaults | foreclosures | loan modifications

Free Legal Help for Monroe County Homeowners in Foreclosure

Did you know that if homeowners are struggling with their mortgage and facing foreclosure, there are professional and FREE services available from local attorneys to help them understand the foreclosure process? 


The possibility of losing a home can be incredibly frightening, and at times overwhelming.  The legal foreclosure process is a game with its own set of rules and regulations.  If a homeowner doesn’t know the rules of the game, it is much less likely she will keep her home in the end.  But there is help. Empire Justice Center offers two free legal clinics every month for anyone who wants to better understand the foreclosure process.  The clinics are developed to teach homeowners the rules and to enable them to take some control over a very stressful and confusing process. 


Under New York State law, most homeowners in foreclosure are entitled to a “Settlement Conference.”  This will occur early in the foreclosure process (once a homeowner has been served with a Summons and Complaint), and will involve the homeowner and an attorney for the bank appearing before a judge or judge’s law clerk.  The goal of the Settlement Conference is simple: to attempt to come to some alternative to foreclosure. 


The Settlement Conference is a relatively new process, having been created by the New York State Assembly three years ago.  It was created at the urging of housing counselors and legal advocates around the State, including Empire Justice, who saw that homeowners were not being treated fairly by their banks when they fell behind on their mortgages.  Paperwork was getting “lost,” questions were not being answered, and homeowners were growing increasingly frustrated.  The Settlement Conference is there to protect the homeowner and ensure that someone is watching out to make sure the banks are doing what they are required to do under New York and federal law.


There are several alternatives to foreclosure that may be possible for homeowners: entering some form of a loan modification (which would allow the owner to keep her home and have a revised mortgage payment), agreeing to a repayment plan (which would allow the owner to keep her home by paying back all missed payments to the Bank over a short period of time), or entering a “short sale” or “deed in lieu of foreclosure” (which would NOT allow the owner to keep her home, but would limit the negative consequences to her credit). 


We understand that it can be incredibly frightening for homeowners to receive the letter telling them have to attend the Settlement Conference.  And that makes sense – most of us try to avoid the courthouse if we can!  In this case, however, attending a Settlement Conference represents the best chance a homeowner has to save her home.  So if a homeowner wants to save her home (or even to just limit the impact of losing her home), it is vital that every homeowner attend their Settlement Conference.  


To learn more about the details of the foreclosure process, and what homeowners should be doing at any given stage of that process, we encourage struggling homeowners to attend the FREE clinics put on by Empire Justice Center.  Dates and times for upcoming clinics are listed below (for additional dates, see our calendar).





545 Hall of Justice, Room 25

99 Exchange Blvd.

Rochester, NY  14604


 12:30 - 1:30 pm Oct, 31, Nov, 28, Dec, 19

United Way Building

1st Floor Confrence Room

75 College Ave.

Rochester, NY  14607

 6:00 to 7:00 pm Oct, 11, Nov, 8, Dec, 13

Tags: foreclosure | mortgage | homeowner | legal clinic | settlement conference | loan modification

An Early Thanksgiving

Issue Area: Public Benefits

SNAP fingerprinting will end on November 1st

It’s finally here.  This week, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) published final regulations prohibiting the use of finger imaging in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP - the new name for the Food Stamp Program).  The prohibition becomes effective on November 1, 2012.

These regulations make good on Governor Cuomo’s promise earlier this year to end food stamp fingerprinting in New York State as part of his pledge to end childhood hunger.

The timing is opportune – November is when many emergency food programs kick off their holiday hunger appeals and it is also, of course, the month of Thanksgiving.

No longer will thousands of applicants be ensnared in the antiquated, inefficient finger imaging system.  No longer will the elderly, families with young children and disabled individuals go without nutritional assistance because of finger imaging. 

Truly something to be thankful for as New York heads into the holiday season.

Tags: Food Stamps | SNAP benefits | finger imaging | OTDA

Nurturing a Passion for Lawyering

Issue Area: Employment

It’s hard to believe it has been a year since I moved to Rochester to start my career as an attorney and the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow.  I can still remember getting the call from Kristi Hughes on the last day of my final exams, offering me the fellowship position.  It was exhilarating then and still is now.  I am so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to start off my legal career developing a project that integrates my passion for economic and racial justice and my practice values: community lawyering, law and organizing, and systems change.


Rochester has been so welcoming and warm to me. I have grown to love it here. The sense of community I have developed in a smaller city has been refreshing and nourishing, and has made it that much easier to build relationships with low wage workers, stakeholders, community members, and organizations who share my passion for worker justice and support the Wage Justice Project.


The work has been extremely challenging and rewarding, I’ve conducted wage theft outreach and trainings for workers and advocates, developed a wage theft survey, negotiated settlements for workers, filed Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law actions in federal court on behalf of low wage workers, and built the groundwork for the formation of a grassroots Worker Center here in Rochester.


I would like to encourage all third year law students who have a passion for justice, a thirst for adventure, and a vision for an innovative legal services project to apply for this fellowship. It has been an amazing adventure thus far and I can’t wait to see what the second year of my fellowship has in store for me!

Tags: Fellowship | Hanna Cohn | Community Lawyering | Wage Theft | Employment Law | Legal Services

Fall = Fellowship

Fall is my favorite time of the year.  Here in upstate New York, the sun shines brighter, the air smells cleaner and the leaves begin to turn their gorgeous shades of burnt orange, crimson and gold.  As a mom of three school-aged kids, fall also signifies a beginning to a new year and fresh outlook, when my kids can start with a clean slate full of new goals and opportunities.

At Empire Justice Center, fall also marks new beginnings because each fall we are either welcoming a new Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow as a member of our staff or we are accepting applications for a new round of applicants.  This year, we are accepting applications for our 2013-15 Fellow who will be our 7th since the Fellowship started in 2003.

I am fortunate to be the Cohn Fellowship coordinator – I handle the application and selection process from beginning to end - a highlight of my job at Empire Justice.  Not only do I get to interact with the most amazing law students and hear of their passion for public interest work, but also with Hanna’s family and friends who have established and continue to support this incredible Fellowship in her memory.

I met and worked with Hanna briefly when I first started at Empire Justice Center more than eleven years ago.  She and I both attended a development conference for legal services staff where I had the opportunity to hear Hanna speak and to watch her work a room full of people who obviously respected her and her work.

I can’t help but think that Hanna would be pleased with the individuals that have been chosen as Fellows bearing her name.  They have all mirrored her passion and enthusiasm for making the world a better place, for removing barriers so that all have equal access to the justice system.  Past Fellows have helped the deaf and hard-of-hearing population with their unique legal issues, removed barriers for people who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), assisted low-income working families with credit and consumer issues and improved and secured access to health care.

Our current Fellow, Reyna Ramolete Hayashi is focusing her two-year project on “wage theft” and is building the groundwork for the creation of a Worker Center in Rochester to empower low-wage workers to fight wage theft and workplace exploitation using grassroots organizing and education. You’ll hear from her soon…

If you know of any law students currently in their third year of law school who would be a potential candidate for the 2013-15 Hanna Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship, please have them visit our website to download the application.

The need for more sunlight on the mortgage lending marketplace

Why do borrowers and communities of color get FHA and other government-backed mortgage loans disproportionately more often than white borrowers and communities? This is the question I’ve been hearing and grappling with since the recent publication of our multi-state collaborative report “Paying More for the American Dream VI: Racial Disparities in FHA/VA Lending.” I, too, want to understand why this is happening. More specifically, why did FHA/VA loans make up over 86 percent of the home purchase loans in Rochester’s communities of color in 2010? And why were only 14 percent of the borrowers in these communities able to get conventional mortgages?


The data we have available, or the lack thereof, make it difficult to answer these questions. Other than borrower income, the public has little information about the borrower that might shed some light on how lenders make underwriting decisions. If I had information about the borrower’s credit history/credit score, her debt-to-income ratio, the property’s loan-to-value ratio, the loan’s APR, I might begin to know why a borrower obtained the loan she did. Right now, however, I am left wondering.


I don’t want to wonder or guess; I want to understand. That is why I am disappointed that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently published a delay in its rulemaking to implement enhancements, like those listed above, to the publicly available data. These enhancements were in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that became law two years ago. It now looks like the earliest we’ll have a rule is April 2013,[1] so we’ll probably have to keep guessing until at least the fall of 2015 when the 2014 data are released.


I want to trust that when a borrower walks through the doors of any lender, he or she has full choice of the range of conventional and government-backed mortgage products available from that lender. And I want to see that lenders are putting borrowers into the most affordable loan that fits their individual financial circumstances. Along with vigorous enforcement of our fair lending laws and other regulatory improvements, this increased transparency will improve our understanding of and trust in the process. As Justice Brandeis said, "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."[2] Too bad we have to wait a bit longer for the sun to shine.

[1] The CFPB’s regulatory schedule notes that the “CFPB expects further action” as of April, 2013. See p.7 of schedule at:

[2] As found at: under Louis D. Brandeis quotes.

Tags: mortgage lending | lending | HMDA | Dodd-Frank | FHA | lending disparities | redlining | discrimination | fair lending | paying more

Welfare Program Controversy is All Politics – Not Substance

Issue Area: Public Benefits

On July 12, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services presented states with an exciting opportunity by offering to waive some of the most restrictive federal welfare rules for states that propose programs that would more effectively accomplish the goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law that enacted Welfare Reform.


Without venturing  into the endless debate about whether the 1996 welfare reform was a success (I think accounts of its spectacular success are, at best, seriously overblown), the fact is that many states, red and blue, have told HHS that they could develop more effective programs if they had greater operational flexibility than current law permits.  For example, TANF law requires states to have specified percentages of TANF adults participating in a very short list of work-related activities, the activities are very narrowly defined, and there is little leeway to serve clients with disabilities.  In short, the law emphasizes compliance with a multitude of rules that have little to do with helping recipients move from welfare to decent-paying employment.


The HHS announcement ( demonstrated that they were in no way deviating from the mandates of the TANF law.  States seeking waivers must propose a pilot project that will be rigorously and regularly evaluated, and that will help parents “…successfully prepare for, find and retain employment…” States that fail to show adequate progress in achieving that goal will face termination of the waiver.


HHS offered some helpful examples of the kinds of programs they envision.  These might include state initiatives that would:


  • Measure success not by client participation in activities of often limited value, but rather by actual employment outcomes.  Remarkably, the current system pays scant attention to how and what recipients are doing after leaving the welfare system. 
  • Involve collaboration between state workforce or post-secondary education systems that would enable clients to “…combine learning and work…”  The rigid work-first philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reforms has meant that in an era where ever higher levels of education are required for most employment, the welfare system often makes it nearly impossible for recipients to pursue educational goals.
  • Explore more effective strategies for serving people with disabilities, including more appropriate ways to measure participation and outcomes.


Despite the careful crafting of this announcement, it nevertheless provoked an outraged response from some quarters.  Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation attacked the Obama administration for the “gutting” of welfare reform, and within days, Orrin Hatch in the Senate and Dave Camp in the House introduced legislation barring such waivers.  The issue quickly became a presidential campaign issue as the Romney team (erroneously) derided the administration for eliminating the welfare work rules.


The great irony is that the HHS action promotes two objectives that seem custom-tailored to conservative values:  (1) moving TANF recipients from welfare to work and (2) affording states greater flexibility in operating their welfare programs.  Instead, this has been characterized as an insidious undermining of welfare reform and its emphasis on work.


What comes next is not entirely certain.  I would hope that many states  (including New York), recognizing the potential for bold innovation, will come up with creative, robust proposals that will quiet the opposition and, more significantly, will enhance the lives of some of the poorest Americans.


More reading:  


A good summary of the arguments in favor, but also with food for thought about how states might craft their proposals, from LaDonna Pavetti at CBPP.   (link to)


Washington Post “WonkBlog” discussing Secy. Sebelius’s response to Orrin Hatch (Senate Finance) and Dave Camp (House Ways & Means), who had written angry letters to HHS about the waiver program, (link to)


Tags: Public Benefits | TANF


Welcome to Just Thoughts, Empire Justice Center’s new blog.  For the next several months, this blog will be a work in progress as Empire Justice staff and guest authors periodically blog about a variety of issues that matter to us.  Among other things, bloggers will be sharing their expertise and perspectives on timely issues, pointing out interesting news stories or events and, via client stories, putting a face on the work we do.

In addition to getting our voice out to our supporters and new audiences in a less formal way, we hope Just Thoughts will initiate conversations and build community.  Empire Justice is excited to see your comments, feedback and opinions about the various topics and about ways to improve our blog.  And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog and have our new posts delivered to you via RSS feed!