Calendar of Events
The Final Phase of the Welfare Grant Increase
April 24, 2012
Author: Don Friedman
In 2009, the Legislature passed, and Governor Paterson signed, the first increase in the basic welfare grant in over 18 years. Under the agreement that was reached, this “basic allowance” would be increased by 30%, to be phased in over three years in three equal steps of 10%. The first two steps were implemented in 2009 and 2010, but in 2011, in the depths of the recession, the third step was postponed. For the 2012-13 budget, Governor Cuomo proposed dividing the last step of the increase in half, and raising the grant by 5% in 2012 and by another 5% in 2013. The Legislature was thus compelled to revisit the grant, and to consider yet another delay in completing the increase adopted in 2009.
In the 22 years since 1990, the cost of living in New York has risen by more than 70%. During this period, the welfare grant in New York increased by 20%. For many years, the grant had thereby ensured that poor New York families would have increasingly greater difficulty in meeting their most basic needs, forcing them to focus more on survival than on doing what needed to be done to improve their lives.
Advocates, with active support from the Assembly, strenuously opposed the delay, arguing that the poorest New Yorkers had suffered for too long trying to make ends meet on a grant that amounted to less than half of the federal poverty level (FPL). It was also pointed out that the savings realized by delaying the final phase of the grant increase would be minimal, at best. Finally, advocates emphasized that while an additional $30 per month might not seem particularly meaningful to many New Yorkers, to a family subsisting on a public assistance grant it could make a real difference.
Under the compromise reached in the newly adopted budget, the first half of the increase will go into effect in July of this year, and the second half will be provided in October. Given the State’s fragile budget climate, this resolution represents an important victory for the neediest New Yorkers.
While pleased that the increase was restored, we nevertheless must bear in mind the sobering fact that even when fully implemented, the public assistance grant will still bring families to an income level that is less than half of the federal poverty level. The final phase of the grant increase amounts to $35 per month for a family of three. In Monroe County, the maximum grant for that family of three will rise from $696 per month to $731, or 48% of the FPL. In Erie County, the grant for that family of three will increase from $654 to $688, or 44% of the FPL. Even with food stamps added in, the income for these households will fall well under 75% of the FPL. This grant plus food stamps theoretically enables families to meet their essential needs, including basics such as rent, food, utilities, clothing, transportation and school supplies. The reality is that these benefits do not come close to achieving that objective.
Much of the opposition to an increase in the public assistance grant is the result of decades of stereotyping welfare recipients as lazy, unmotivated and undeserving. The falsity of that image is driven home with particular force during this deep and prolonged recession, in which half of unemployed New Yorkers – though often desperate for a job – have been out of work for more than six months. A large majority of those who receive welfare remain on the rolls for relatively short periods of time, many have been employed before receiving assistance, many will leave welfare for employment, and, indeed, many are working while receiving aid. Many of those who are not as firmly linked with the labor market have a range of serious limitations, struggling with mental or physical disabilities, limited levels of literacy and educational attainment, or domestic violence. The public assistance grant should afford these people the capacity to meet their most basic needs with their dignity intact.
The inability to make ends meet is, not surprisingly, incredibly disruptive to the lives of poor families. Families facing eviction or utility shut-offs, homelessness or hunger, must devote substantial time and energy to coping with crises, limiting available time for focusing on pursuing education, developing skills, overcoming a disability or addressing a domestic violence situation. The public assistance piece of New York’s safety net for the poor is simply not adequately performing its critical role in this state. The completion of the grant increase adopted in 2009 is a noteworthy achievement, but efforts to maintain and strengthen the safety net must continue to be vigorously pursued.
Copyright © Empire Justice Center. All rights reserved. Articles may be reprinted only with permission of the authors.