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Struggling to get ahead: Andrea Caldwell sees her children off to school.

 Still Here, Still Poor

Ten years ago, we reformed welfare—we just didn’t reform poverty

By Nicole Klaas

Photos by Chris Shields


Crystal Boykin’s face is expressionless. Her glazed eyes are fixed on a single speck of wall above the check-in desk that’s a few feet from where the toes of her shoes rest on the carpet. When a woman crosses in front of Boykin’s line of vision, it’s as though Boykin is awakened from slumber. Her eyes become lively and scan the small room as if suddenly she realizes she’s not alone.

It’s Tuesday, one of the busiest days at Albany United Methodist Society’s food pantry in Arbor Hill. As many as 60 neighborhood families will be served today alone.

Boykin is one of several women filling a row of eight or so seats that line the wall across from the waiting-room desk. Just as many women stand along the side wall and near the metal double doors. Every time one of the doors is pulled open by a newcomer, throwing sunlight into the windowless quarters, another pushes out into the daylight, arms weighed down by bulging plastic bags.

“Once I had my son, a lot of things changed, and I needed help,” Boykin says of the chain of events that ultimately led the 32-year-old mother of two to this pantry. “I hadn’t had a baby in 10 years, and I didn’t know how much day care was. It was so much higher than what I was expecting.”

Even after she returned to work at a linen business when her son turned 7 months old, making ends meet became increasingly difficult. Boykin turned to the Albany County Department of Social Services for assistance, and entered a system she says is characterized by irregularities, mistreatment of applicants and unfairly punitive tactics.

For example, when she began noticing marks and bruises on her young son’s body, Boykin refused to continue taking him to the child-care facility the county had specified as a condition of receiving assistance with her day-care bills. That decision, Boykin says, resulted in the county cutting off her benefits.

“I didn’t know what was going on, and he was too young to tell me what was going on,” she says. “I don’t feel right sending my son [there]. How am I going to be productive at work? How am I going to do anything if I’m still worrying about my son?”

Without the county’s financial support, Boykin has had to tap into the $4,000 she had stashed away in order to put food on the table. It was money she was saving in hopes that she someday might be able to move her family out of Arbor Hill.

“Couldn’t they at least given me six weeks to be able to put some money away [before they cut off my benefits]?” she says. “They don’t give me the leeway to get established. You can’t do it. That’s how you fall right back down. They don’t give you time to just set aside a couple dollars so you won’t be back to them asking for help.”

Boykin’s story is all too common, according to anti-poverty advocates and DSS employees, who have witnessed firsthand how recipients cycle on and off the welfare system. Often they are pushed out of the system when a new job provides income above the threshold to qualify for benefits—even if those earnings realistically are not enough for a family to survive without assistance.

“We call these welfare cliffs,” says Virginia Eubanks, a professor in the women’s-studies department at the University at Albany and cofounder of a participatory research-workshop series called Our Knowledge, Our Power: Surviving Welfare, which is designed to identify and address the problems women face while interacting with the welfare system. “You reach a point where you make enough money to lose benefits, but you’re not making enough money to be self-sufficient.”

Other times families are cut off as a form of punishment. DSS routinely sanctions clients even for relatively minor infractions, freezing their benefits, often completely, for a specified time period that usually ranges from 30 to 90 days.

“The fact is that it’s so hard to stay on welfare,” Eubanks says. “It’s so hard not to get sanctioned that nobody stays on it for more than a couple of months to a year at a time. Things like being late for an appointment, not having all your paperwork, missing work because your kid’s sick, all of these things are reasons that you can be sanctioned.”

New York has one of the highest rates of sanctioning in the country, according to Mark Dunlea, associate director for the Hunger Action Network of New York State.

On one occasion, Boykin was sanctioned when she couldn’t attend a required program because it was scheduled during her work shift. Faced with a choice between losing her job or losing her benefits, Boykin says choosing work was a no-brainer.

When her benefits were frozen, Boykin filed for a fair hearing, an option available to any applicant or recipient who wants to contest an action taken by the DSS. By the time reviewers determined she was unfairly sanctioned, Boykin had been without benefits for two months.

In the weeks surrounding Aug. 22, 2006, media sources from Los Angeles to New York City documented the 10-year anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more commonly referred to as welfare reform. Most reports touted the act as having achieved some level of success. Many news stories and editorials credited the bill, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and considered to be a dramatic overhaul of the then-61-year-old welfare program, for reducing caseloads and increasing the number of welfare recipients who hold jobs.

“I’ve read all the articles in celebration of the 10 years of welfare reform. I really found those articles very distressing because it was a numbers game,” says Sister Maureen Joyce, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany. “If there were 1,000 people on welfare in X county or X community, and they’re down to 400, [the reforms] have been seen as a success. I think other questions are much more important. What has happened to these people? Are they self-sufficient?”

Too often the answer is “no,” according to Joyce, Eubanks and other anti-poverty advocates. This is despite the fact that promoting self-sufficiency was identified as one of the primary goals of the 1996 reforms, along with plans for reducing welfare dependency and emphasizing work.

Andrea Caldwell first applied for welfare assistance while she was pregnant with her first child during the early ’90s, before the welfare-reform bill. About 15 years since she first engaged with the welfare system and 10 years after the reforms, her circumstance remains relatively unchanged.

“It’s just been too long for me. I’m really trying to get out,” says the 35-year-old. Caldwell stopped working in March before giving birth to her sixth child. She currently has a full public-assistance case, which entitles her family to full benefits: food stamps, cash benefits and Medicaid. She expects her full-benefits case to dry up once she returns to work, which she hopes will be sometime this month.

Before the 1996 reform bill, single, low-income mothers such as Caldwell were eligible for relatively unconditional financial assistance. Welfare reform was the federal government’s response to criticisms that arose during the ’80s and ’90s about how easy it was to cheat the system, which originally was created as part of the Social Security Act in 1935 and operated as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Critics were fueled, in part, by stories of “welfare queens,” women who collected multiple welfare checks each month and became prosperous even though they never held a job. Politicians argued that the system created a poor work ethic and welfare dependency, and wrongly rewarded women for out-of-wedlock births.

The 1996 welfare overhaul scrapped AFDC and replaced it with a new system called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF aimed to limit exploitation of the system by setting stricter eligibility rules. In addition to establishing work requirements, the reforms set a five-year time limit for receiving federally funded benefits.

Even critics of today’s TANF welfare program often agree that AFDC needed to be reformed. However, they contend that the 1996 bill didn’t go far enough and that the rhetoric surrounding the reforms never came to fruition. Instead, they allege, government officials have been overly concerned with reducing caseload statistics.

Nationally, caseloads have been more than cut in half. In New York, the number of people on welfare dropped by nearly 1.1 million since 1995, according to an Aug. 22 press release from the governor’s office.

“We got caseloads down, but that doesn’t mean people are escaping poverty,” Eubanks says. “It doesn’t even mean that people are escaping the social-service system. They’re just being forced into other, I think, even more precarious situations.”

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany operates about 15 food pantries and five soup kitchens in the Capital Region. During the past three to five years, the number of requests for services from these locations increased about 40 percent, according to Joyce. The organization’s emergency-assistance program, which provides cash aid to individuals seeking help with payments from prescription drugs to utility bills, also received increased requests.

Even the usual stereotypes about who uses food banks and soup kitchens—the homeless or the jobless—have become antiquated, Joyce says.

“More and more they’re families. More and more they are people who might not be homeless, but they can’t pay rent and also buy food,” she says. “We have a marked increase of the number of people who came to our soup kitchens who were employed—the working poor.”

Part of the problem, according to anti-poverty advocates, is that the minimum wage is unable to support the inflated costs of today’s society. The federal minimum wage has remained unchanged at $5.15 since 1997. In New York, the minimum wage is $6.75, and will increase to $7.15 on Jan. 1.

“The minimum wage is not a living wage,” says Joyce. “And therefore people who are living with the minimum wage have to either get a second job, a third job or go someplace for assistance to really be able to provide for themselves and their families.”

The minimum wage also can limit welfare recipients’ ability to grasp at the next rung on the social ladder, according to Eubanks.

“There’s very little focus on attaining jobs that have a self-sufficiency wage,” Eubanks says. “So, basically what will happen is recipients will be shuttled through the office into the first available job, which is generally minimum-wage work. It can be the only thing they’re prepared for, and as soon as they make a certain amount of money, they get cut off.”

Although Caldwell hasn’t been working since March, she says unemployment has been the exception, not the rule, during most of her adult life. For years she worked as a hairdresser, and later, in a bakery.

“I appreciate the help that I get from social service, but I’m one of those parents who really want to get ahead, who really want to get off, who is always working, and I just can’t seem to get ahead,” she says.

As she sees it, the system doesn’t give recipients time to get on their feet before cutting them off. “They put people in a spot to say, ‘I might as well quit my job and go back on welfare because I can’t make a living like this.’ ”

Place of crisis: Joanne DeSarbo stands outside the Department of Social Services in Schenectady.

‘People don’t want to come to the Department of Social Services,” says Susan Iona, staff development coordinator for the Schenectady County DSS and a former caseworker. “It’s not fun, and it’s humiliating to people. You have to be in crisis, or desperate, or just not know any other way to get your needs met, to walk through the doors of a department of social services and start telling a complete stranger everything that there is to know about your business.”

The shedding of privacy begins at the door at the DSS building in Schenectady. It is here that clients—as many as 400 adults in one day—are required to pass through a metal detector where it’s not uncommon, Iona says, for the security operator to uncover weapons or drugs.

Once cleared, clients sit shoulder-to-shoulder on benches that line the hallway. Many of them will be turned away, even after hours of waiting. There isn’t enough time or personnel to keep up with the demand for services.

Tina, a 25-year-old who agreed to talk only if her real name wasn’t used (partly out of fear that speaking critically of the DSS could result in her being refused services or sanctioned), first applied for public assistance in February at the DSS office in Troy. She was turned away on at least four occasions, most frequently because she didn’t have the proper paperwork or financial information.

“Filling out the application for food stamps can be more difficult than filling out your IRS tax returns,” says Dunlea. Income verification and proofs of identity are among the several documents applicants must present in order to apply for food stamps and any other DSS services.

Tina’s circumstance was exacerbated by a disagreement between her and her landlord that resulted in the landlord confiscating and disposing of all the property in Tina’s apartment, including financial and identity documentation. Despite the fact that she was left with nothing, Tina says DSS workers were unsympathetic and uncompromising. It took weeks for her to track down and order duplicates of the documents, and it was nearly two months after her first visit that she finally began receiving the benefits for which she had applied.

Tina lived independently for five years before she first considered asking for help making ends meet. “I had worked my whole life,” she says, “sometimes two jobs.”

Losing all her worldly possessions during the dispute with her landlord wasn’t even the last straw, she says. When she walked into the Troy DSS office in February, she says it was for one purpose only: to apply for Medicaid for her and the son she was carrying in her belly.

Tina says recognizing that she would have to ask for help required humility. “It was hard because my mother always told me I was going to be the only one of all four kids that never asked for help, never, and I’m the one who’s asking for help.”

The fact that she was treated poorly by DSS workers worsened the dent to her pride, Tina says. Trips to the DSS office often resulted in her breaking down in tears.

Boykin describes waiting in the DSS office for hours, or placing phone calls that never were returned. “You’ve got to be strong to deal with them people,” she says. “If I was a weak-minded person I probably wouldn’t be able to go get help from them.”

You have to be mentally tough to sit on the other side of the desk, too, says Iona.

“Do people really want to be in people’s lives like that?” she says. “No, but that’s what you have to do in order to help people get help. You learn things about people that you really don’t want to know, and you tap into people’s pain, and you tap into people’s sorrow. You tap into their frustration, their anger, all of the things that are wrong that have led them to be sitting at your desk, and you don’t want to be there, you really don’t, but you have to be there in order to help them get assistance.”

While DSS workers commonly are referred to as “caseworkers,” the term caseworker refers exclusively to DSS employees in the Office of Children and Family Services. It is the social-welfare examiners who determine eligibility for financial- assistance programs, including temporary assistance, food stamps and Medicaid.

“They’re often not very popular people with the client population because, number one, a lot of times they have to say no,” Iona says. The social welfare examiner plays no role in determining who’s eligible and who’s not. Instead, they simply apply the regulations to a particular case and deliver the news to the applicant.

Delivering a “no” can prove traumatic for both the applicant and the employee, Iona says. “Most of the time it’s to people who really need the help, but if they don’t meet the eligibility requirements, examiners don’t have any choice.”

This circumstance can make social-service employees susceptible to a medically diagnosed syndrome called secondary, or vicarious, trauma. “It’s something that happens to social-service workers who are constantly dealing with people who are in crisis, constantly dealing with people who are in very bad, tragic situations, people who need help and sometimes can’t get help, and they’re responsible for delivering the bad news,” Iona says. “The trauma on the worker can be just as severe as the trauma on the family because of that situation.”

Joanne DeSarbo says she experienced this trauma on her first day as a social examiner in the Schenectady office. It was 1981, and she was assigned a case involving a man who recently had lost his job at General Electric. His wife was dying and his kids temporarily had been placed in foster care, but his financial assets put him above the income requirement. When she broke the news that he did not qualify for assistance, she says he became hysterical, crying at her desk and questioning how he would make ends meet.

“I’ll never forget that,” says DeSarbo, now president of the Schenectady chapter of the Civil Services Employee Association. “It was the most horrifying experience that I’ve ever had on the job. I’ve even been used as a human shield because somebody was going to shoot somebody else, and that didn’t bother me as much as that situation.”

While welfare applicants and recipients had few, if any, kind words about their experiences at the DSS office, DeSarbo and Iona say the blame usually is unfairly placed on the employees rather than the system or the lawmakers who create that system.

“People want to conjure up a picture of examiners sitting behind these doors that they can’t see into, sitting there blowing bubble-gum bubbles and chatting about Desperate Housewives,” but that’s far from the reality, Iona says. “There’s no downtime. There’s no standing around the watercooler chatting.”

The regulations that examiners must know in order to determine eligibility are constantly in flux. Currently there are somewhere between 800 and 900 regulations that employees need to be familiar with to process an application, Iona says, and new ones keep coming.

“It’s not like you can learn [the job] and do it for 20 years—or do it even for two years—and get really good at it, because it’s constantly changing,” she says.

The fact that there’s widespread policy variance from state to state and county to county also adds to the complexity of the welfare system.

When the 1996 welfare-reform bill passed, it was enacted through a block-grant program, which decentralized the welfare system and allowed each state to distribute the lump-sum money per its own legislation and criteria. This decentralization resulted in discrepancies in how each state operates its TANF program. While some states tinkered only slightly with their public-assistance policies, New York used the opportunity to implement several administrative and social changes. It also is among a minority of states that opted to transfer the administration of its TANF program from the state to the county level, allowing for variation in how DSS offices operate from one county to the next.

“Part of the problem is the counties are struggling to pay their bills, and providing help to poor people usually isn’t at the top of any politician’s agenda,” Dunlea says. “When times are tough, the cuts are made at the county social-services department, and then the county caseworkers become overloaded. They have too many cases they’re trying to handle.”

Thousands of cases are divided among about 45 social-welfare examiners in the Schenectady DSS office. In addition to continually interviewing new applicants, each employee is required to perform ongoing maintenance on between 500 and 900 previously approved cases.

CSEA advocates for examiner caseloads to be dropped to about 250 per employee, according to DeSarbo.

While she isn’t sure 250 is the magic number, Iona says local DSS offices have been “begging for years for the federal government to establish caseload mandates.” Such regulation would establish a cap for the number of cases an individual worker would be allowed to manage. Once workers hit the specified threshold, local district commissioners would be able to hire more examiners without county legislatures second-guessing how increasing payrolls would affect the bottom line.

In February 1993, Clinton stood before members of both houses of Congress during his State of the Union Address and vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” That promise earned him bipartisan applause. Three years later, Clinton signed his name to the historical welfare-reform bill. Today, many anti-poverty advocates question whether these reforms have gone far enough and in the right direction.

“The issue is not welfare,” says Joyce. “The issue is poverty, and we’ve done nothing to change poverty. That’s separate and distinct from whether or not welfare reform worked or didn’t work. We’ve done nothing to address poverty in our area.”

Truly valuable reform must consider welfare and poverty in tandem, she says. “The reality is if you really are working with someone to have long-term alleviation of poverty, you need to give them the opportunity for self-sufficiency,” she says. That will require lawmakers to ensure welfare recipients and low-income citizens have access to four vital supports: a job that has the opportunity for advancement and salary increase, reliable transportation, safe child care and quality housing.

Until the government agrees to make these four supports the goal of social-welfare policy, low-income families will continue to live “from crisis to crisis,” Joyce says.

While many anti-poverty advocates insist raising the minimum wage will help to reduce the plight of low-income families, Dunlea suggested also increasing welfare benefits. The monetary value of the benefits welfare recipients receive hasn’t been increased since 1990, and the value of these benefits is about 50 percent below the federal poverty level, he says.

Also necessary, says Eubanks, is improving recipients’ earning potential by increasing access to education.

“The one thing we know for sure gets people out of poverty is a college education, almost 100 percent of the time,” she says. “Post-1996, the availability of college to people who are on social services has been greatly reduced. In fact, most people believe that the system won’t support it at all, which isn’t entirely true, but you do have to really, really fight to get it.”

That’s because along with welfare reform’s new emphasis on work, the definition of what constitutes “work activities” has been tightened over the years. During the infancy of welfare reform, several education and vocational training programs, as well as self-help counseling, counted as “work” hours. Since then the federal government has limited the definition of “work activity” so much that few recipients are able to take advantage of educational programs because they don’t count toward the work requirement that’s a condition of receiving benefits.

Boykin would like to go back to school. She’s currently considering a profession in the health field, perhaps nursing. “I see there’s a lot of money there,” she says. She views such a career as an opportunity for her to earn enough income to move her family out of Arbor Hill and, hopefully, into self-sufficiency.

“I don’t want to stay, and I don’t even want my daughter growing up around here,” she says. “I’m doing worse than what my mother was doing and my father was doing, but I want her to be better than me. I want her to be better than my mother. I want her to be better than my whole family. I want her to enjoy her life, and I don’t want her to be scrimping and saving and scratching up money.”

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