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Memorandum of Support

Empire Justice Memo of Support: Ensure that Welfare Recipients are Not Punished for Being Disabled

A.2669 (Wright)/S.4830 (Savino)

People who apply for or are receiving public assistance benefits must, to the extent they are able, engage in work-related activities to receive benefits.  However, because of disabilities, many of them either cannot participate at all or do so with certain limitations.  Unfortunately, the welfare system too often neglects to adequately assess work limitations, and then when individuals fail to comply the system fails to determine whether the non-compliance might be disability-related.  Empire Justice Center strongly supports A.2669/S.4830, which would ensure that clients are not improperly sanctioned for alleged non-compliance when the failure to comply is related to a disability that has not been adequately diagnosed or accommodated.  

The policies concerning the administration of public assistance in New York State too often punish thousands of innocent low income families with the hope of weeding out a hypothetical few who may be receiving benefits longer than they should.  While there is little conclusive information regarding the effectiveness of sanctions in achieving the state’s goals, we do know with some certainty which public assistance recipients are most likely to be sanctioned for alleged non-compliance with the welfare work rules.  They are disproportionally people with multiple barriers to employability, people with disabilities and personal challenges that make it much more difficult to find viable jobs and leave the welfare system.  These individuals tend to experience such “human capital barriers” at a higher and more pronounced degree than the overall welfare population. [1]

In New York State, when a social services district determines that a public assistance recipient has failed to comply with a work requirement, a sanction is imposed against the household.  A sanction is generally a reduction or termination of benefits for a designated period of time.  Three facts provide the impetus for this bill, which seeks to address the unacceptable number of inappropriate and unwarranted sanctions:

  1. People who are sanctioned are disproportionately people with disabilities who may well be unable to comply with rigorous work rules. [2]  As noted above, people with serious physical or mental health limitations that are neither identified nor accommodated within the welfare system are often less equipped to comply with work requirements and are therefore at greater risk of sanction.  Individuals with lower levels of literacy and education, domestic violence issues and limited English proficiency are also more often sanctioned.  
  2. Sanctions cause serious hardship. [3]  The amount of even the maximum welfare grant is so small that any reduction due to a sanction is likely to cause serious financial hardship.  Research shows that parents and children in sanctioned families are much more likely to experience hunger and food insecurity, declines in health, hospitalization, eviction, homelessness, loss of utility and telephone service, and the need for emergency services including emergency housing, food and clothing aid.
  3. Decisions to impose sanctions are often erroneous due to agency administrative errors, inadequate notice to the client or client disabilities. [4]  For a wide array of reasons, sanctions are often imposed in error.  Factors include a failure to duly record the client’s appearance at an assignment, a lack of clear explanation contained within the notice to the client to allow them to challenge the sanction, notices that are not timely sent or because the non-compliance was a result of a disability of which the agency was, through no fault of the client, unaware.

Sanctions are far too common in the welfare system.  In 2009, there were 67,594 work-related sanctions in New York State, with approximately 95% (or 64,258) in New York City.  In New York City, where a large majority of the state’s welfare recipients reside, at any given point in time nearly a quarter (25%) of the employable public assistance population is either being sanctioned or is in the midst of the sanction process. [5]  Indeed, being punished or threatened with punishment are among the most common “activities” in which clients are engaged in the welfare system.  There are also economic costs to sanctions for both the individual and government. [6]  The State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) informally estimates the cost of each fair hearing at approximately at $228 per hearing. [7]  In 2011, there were 57,704 hearings involving sanctions related to work activities, amounting to an estimated $18 million in administrative costs.  When clients requested and went to hearings, 75% of New York City’s actions on work-related sanctions were ultimately reversed. These statistics alone reveal a glaring issue regarding the overuse of punitive sanctions in situations where they are unwarranted or imposed in error.

A.2669/S.4830 would protect against inappropriate sanctions by requiring that:

  • Before imposing a sanction, districts must determine whether the alleged failure to comply was related to a disability, child care problem or transportation difficulties.
  • Mandatory durational sanctions, with inflexible punishment periods of reduced benefits, are eliminated.  Instead, sanctions can be avoided, or lifted if already in effect, if the client demonstrates a willingness to comply with the work requirements, or establishes that she or he is unable to do so.
  • A client who is otherwise satisfactorily participating in assigned work activities must not be sanctioned for a single infraction.

A crucial feature of this bill would reduce or eliminate unjustified work rule sanctions against people with disabilities.  It would also protect public assistance recipients who may be unable to comply with a work requirement for reasons beyond their control, such as loss of child care or transportation, or who simply fail, in an isolated instance, to meet every demand of a sometimes unfairly rigid and punitive system.
We believe that the recommended changes encompassed in this bill would ensure that public assistance recipients have the opportunity to participate in appropriate work activities and are not punished if their failure to participate is the result of disabilities or other circumstances beyond their control.  This, in turn, would make the welfare system more fair and functional for all in need of assistance, ensuring that people with disabilities are properly accommodated and engaged in a constructive manner.

End Notes:
 [1] LaDonna Pavetti, “Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies-Final Literature Review,” Submitted to Department of Health and Human Services by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., March 10, 2003.
 [2] See Nadel, Wamhoff and Wiseman, footnote 2; Dan Bloom and Don Winstead, “Sanctions and Welfare Reform,” Brookings Institution, Policy Brief No. 12, Jan. 2002,; Shawn Fremstad, “Recent Welfare Reform Research Findings:  Implications for TANF Reauthorization and State TANF Policies,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Jan. 2004.
 [3] Tim Casey, The Sanction Epidemic in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, Legal Momentum, August 2010,
 [4] See, for example, Public Advocate for the City of New York, “Hearing Problem: An Analysis of Human Resources Administrations Fair Hearing Outcomes in New York City,” October 2009; Brennan Center Strategic Fund, Inc., “Improving New York City’s Public Benefits System: A Key Role for Help Desks,” 2008,
 [5] New York City data is used here because the same statistic, the percentage of engagable recipients being sanctioned or threatened with a sanction, is not readily ascertainable for the state as a whole.  The source of the NYC data is the Caseload Engagement Status Report for the week of December 25, 2011, from the website of the Human Resources Administration,  
 [6] L. Accles, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Sanctions, Agency Error and Financial Punishment within New York State’s Welfare System,” Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, June 2012.
 [7] Id. at 6.

This memo was prepared by:

Don Friedman

Empire Justice Center
at the Public Advocacy Center
Touro Law School
225 Eastview Drive-Room 222
Central Islip, NY  11722

(631) 650-2316
(631) 348-3571