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Cuomo’s veto snubs Monroe County’s poor


A few days before Christmas last year, a single mother of three young children in Rochester received notice from the Monroe County Department of Social Services that her public assistance and food stamps benefits would be reduced for two months.

Governor Andrew Cuomo - FILE PHOTO
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo
The agency was punishing her for not showing up at a scheduled “work experience program” appointment that was a condition of her benefits.

Although the woman had explained to her case worker that she was already working 20 hours a week and enrolled full-time at Monroe Community College — a situation that meant she had fulfilled the condition of her benefits and didn’t need to attend the appointment — her explanation was not enough to satisfy the agency.

The appointment was missed, and that was all that mattered. Her benefits were slashed.

The woman appealed the sanction, and five months later, a state-appointed adjudicator found Monroe County was wrong and ordered it to retroactively restore her benefits.

A few days before Christmas this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo rejected an opportunity to all but end scenarios like that one when he vetoed a bill that would have given public assistance recipients across the state the same protections already in law for those in New York City.

In his veto message, Cuomo said the bill was “laudable in purpose” but would create “financial obligations and operational challenges” the state wasn’t ready to assume. His message didn’t specify those obligations and challenges.

The law, which took effect in 2015, made it more difficult for New York City to impose so-called “employment-related” sanctions on public assistance recipients, such as those for failing to comply with a work requirement, like missing an appointment for a “work experience program.”

For instance, the city must now consider whether the infraction was due to a disability, a child care concern, or a transportation problem before imposing a sanction. The law also barred the city from issuing a sanction for a single infraction, like a missed appointment.

The result has been a sharp decrease in employment-related sanctions in New York City that has enabled public assistance recipients to focus on getting themselves on track to a better life — like finding a steady job that pays a livable wage — without the disruption of losing benefits.

While the law made it easier for people to keep their benefits, it was less about relaxing the conditions of those benefits than it was about recognizing the complexities of everyday life for impoverished people and factoring that into the sanction process.

Poor people often don’t have cars, access to day care, or flexibility in their schedules.

The law was put into place in New York City because several state audits over many years found that most employment-related sanctions there were overturned when challenged.

No such audit has been done of Monroe County. One should, though.

Data kept by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance show that hundreds of decisions by Monroe County to reduce or suspend benefits to public assistance recipients are reversed or modified on appeal every year.

In other words, the county was found to have been wrong to impose such sanctions in the first place, as it was in the case of the single mother.

The outcome of that mother’s appeal lives in an online database of thousands of such appeals from across the state. Each has been redacted to shield the identity of the affected public assistance recipients.

Her appeal didn’t mention how she managed to get by for those months in which her benefits were slashed. But chances are good that she and her children turned to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter for help. Many people under sanctions do.

Public assistance recipients can be sanctioned for a variety of reasons, but employment-related sanctions are among the most common.

State data show that in any given month 535 Monroe County residents are under employment-related sanctions for a set duration, typically 30 to 90 days.

By contrast, the same data show that just 15 people per month on average are under such sanctions in all of New York City, where the population receiving public assistance is 10 times that of Monroe County. Before the law, that number routinely topped 5,000.

Advocates for the poor in Monroe County have been waiting for years for the law to be extended here.

Maybe next Christmas.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at [email protected].