SNAP (Food Stamps)
Center and Colleagues Stop New York City from Unlawfully Preventing Access to Benefits
Welfare Law Center Claims That NYC Job Centers Deter Food Stamps, Medicaid and Cash Assistance Applicants: Court Grants TRO
From Dec. 1998 Welfare News
Introduction On December 16th, needy individuals, represented by the Welfare Law Center, the Legal Aid Society, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., filed a federal class action lawsuit claiming that New York City is illegally deterring and discouraging thousands of needy individuals from applying for Food Stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance. As a result of the city's practices, individuals and families are going without desperately needed food, medical care, and benefits to meet emergency needs. The named plaintiffs include pregnant, disabled, and homeless individuals, some with children, who have no money for food and who are relying on friends and charities for food. Some face eviction, and some need medical care. At a hearing on December 16th U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley ordered the city to provide food stamps and emergency cash assistance to meet nutritional needs to the named plaintiffs and ordered an expedited hearing for December 30th. The case is Reynolds v. Giuliani.
The deterrence results from Mayor Giuliani's ongoing conversion of Income Support Centers into Job Centers. Plaintiffs claim that in furtherance of the Mayor's goal of diverting people from public assistance, Job Centers staff routinely mislead prospective applicants, deny individuals the opportunity to apply when they first visit a Center, pressure them into withdrawing applications, wrongfully deny Food Stamps and Medicaid when cash aid is denied, and fail to provide notices of denial and hearing rights.
Plaintiffs' claim violations of federal and state law and due process. They seek a court order requiring the City to stop the illegal practices and to accept applications on a person's first visit and barring the City from converting more Income Support Centers until the violations are remedied.
Plaintiffs claim that the City is violating various federal Food Stamp and Medicaid laws, including those protecting individuals' rights to apply without delay and receive prompt determinations, to receive expedited food stamps and emergency Medicaid; and to have Food Stamps and Medicaid eligibility determinations made separately from cash assistance eligibility determinations; state laws regarding the right to apply for cash assistance and receive prompt determinations; and due process. The lawsuit comes in the wake of an investigation into the Food Stamp and Medicaid allegations begun last month by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS).
Background on Job Centers. As part of his announced goal of ending welfare in New York City by 2000, in April 1998 Mayor Giuliani began to convert all thirty-one Income Support Centers into Job Centers. Income Support Centers and the new Job Centers are where needy individuals and families apply for Food Stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance. In New York, applications for these benefits are filed jointly. By December eleven centers had been converted, and the process is expected to be completed next Spring.
Job Centers do not provide needy individuals with jobs. Instead they subject prospective public assistance applicants to a series of hurdles that are designed to discourage them from applying for public assistance. Available data confirms that the approach has indeed worked. The percentage of applications that are approved has dropped dramatically, and most who go to the Centers leave without filing an application. For example, as of July 1998 only 19% of those who applied for assistance each month at Job Centers were approved, whereas 54% of those who applied at Income Support Centers were approved between March 1997 and April 1998. Few even get as far as filing an application. For example, during the early weeks of operation 84% of prospective applicants at one Job Center and 69% at another left without filing a formal application. A mere handful of these were people who actually got jobs.
The Job Center Process. Under the Job Center system, a person cannot even get an application form on his or her first visit to the Center. Instead, he or she must first survive several steps in addition to the usual application process and make at least one repeat visit before an application is given out. This process involves numerous violations of law. The following general description conveys some of the difficulties that individuals encounter.
Prospective applicants initially see a receptionist. Receptionists routinely misinform and deter clients by telling them, for example, that there is no more welfare; that the Job Center's purpose is to get them jobs; that if they miss any appointments the application will be denied and they must begin the process anew; that expedited food stamps and immediate needs cash grants no longer exist; and that assistance is time-limited without explaining that Food Stamps and Medicaid are not. Receptionists also tell people who arrive after 9:30 a.m. that they must return another day.
Individuals who are not deterred must then complete a five page job profile form. Some are told to get documents from other sources before they can complete this form. The job profile form is not an application. However, the form has two signature lines, one of which is for the person's consent to withdraw the form. Some mistakenly sign the wrong line and inadvertently withdraw from the process. Individuals are told that they cannot get an application until the end of the employment process which is not completed before the second day. After individuals receive the job profile from they are directed to a waiting room where agency staff provide more misinformation. For example, people have been told that no emergency assistance is available and that they must appear every day during the approval process, even if they are employed.
Individuals who complete the job profile then meet with a Financial Planner and an Employment Planner, in addition to completing the other usual steps of the applications process, such as fingerprinting and the eligibility verification review process. Financial Planners and Employment Planners do not have the skills the titles might suggest. They are simply agency staff who have been given new titles after two days of training. The Financial Planner tries to deter people from applying by seeking to identify other sources of support, such as family, charities, and food pantries. Emergencies are not assessed, or individuals are told that the agency cannot do anything until the application is approved.
During the meeting with the Employment Planner, applicants receive a blank 35/50 day employment plan and are told that failure to keep any appointment, even for good cause, will result in denial. After this meeting individuals receive an application form or are told to return the next day for the form. They are also told to report for orientation and job search every day from 9:30 until 4:30 for a total of 35 to 50 days. They are not told that job search does not apply to Medicaid and generally to food stamps.
At various stages of the process individuals are orally denied or told that they are not eligible, but they receive no written notice of denial and hearing rights.
Rebecca Scharf and Marc Cohan of the Welfare Law Center represent the plaintiffs.