New York Welfare Rolls at Lowest Level in Years

The number of people on welfare in New York City is the lowest since the 1960s. City officials are claiming a huge victory but researchers and advocates say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

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In New York City there are about 402,000 people on welfare. That's the lowest number since 1964. City officials credit stricter welfare policies.

But critics say it's hard to know if New Yorkers who leave the welfare rolls are doing better or barely scraping by. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

For 43-year-old Kevin Welsh(ph), the walk from LaSalle Street Seaport to a Manhattan subway station is a victory in itself.

Mr. KEVIN WELSH (New York): We can get on at Wall Street.

JONES: Oh, is that right?

Mr. WELSH: Yeah, for the 4 and 5.

JONES: Seven years ago, both of Welsh's knees blew out. Asthma medication he'd taken as a child had eroded the cartilage over time, and bones crunched together with each step.

Mr. WELSH: I had this weird walk. If you were my friend you could tell it was me from two, three blocks away.

JONES: Welsh swipes his Metrocard and heads down to the train platform. He's on the way to his night shift job, cleaning brokerage offices on Fifth Avenue.

Bad knees were just one of his problems back then. About the same time, Welsh, his wife and their four children were evicted from their home in Brooklyn. Homeless and out of a job for the first time in his life, Welsh had to apply for welfare.

Mr. WELSH: It was hard. It was something I didn't want to do. It made me depressed. It made me feel down, because I had taken care of myself.

JONES: If walking is a victory, so is finding work. Welsh is one of the success stories New York officials point to as they promote the City's historic drop in it s welfare caseload.

That drop of 63 percent is roughly comparable to the decline nationwide. It's significant, though, because of New York City's demographics. In many ways, the clash between who needs welfare and who gets it is lost is the shuffle of soaring rents, unemployment and other issues related to the high cost of living in the city.

Welsh found work in December through the city's We Care Program. It was designed to analyze what keeps some welfare recipients from being employed. It's the latest step in an overall shift in welfare policies that toughened under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and continue under current Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Ms. VERNA EGGLESTON (Commissioner, New York City Human Resource Administration): I think the assumption about the Bloomberg Administration was that the welfare numbers would go through the roof.

JONES: But Verna Eggleston says that didn't happen. She's Commissioner of New York City's Human Resources Administration.

Eggleston says her agency's philosophy about public assistance is simple. Cut the paperwork and get up close and personal. Some people may not need to go on welfare.

Ms. EGGLESTON: If I have a conversation with you when you first walk in the door, I might discover that you in fact know what you want. And if I can meet you there and I can say, okay, you just lost your job and maybe just need a little small benefit, you know, to keep you up, and maybe I don't have to open up a whole case and maybe I don't have to send you down the road where you have to prove to me that you deserve these other small benefits.

JONES: In a city where housing costs make it almost impossible for poor people to pay rent, critics say steering people out of welfare towards low-wage jobs is hardly a solution.

Professor BETH WHITESMAN(ph) (Health and Public Policy, New York University): New York City has an enormous number of people in poverty.

JONES: Beth Whitesman is a professor of health and public policy at New York University. She says it's impossible to call New York City's welfare policy a success when you consider other numbers.

Professor WHITESMAN: Probably about 30 percent of the households in New York City are living in real poverty.

JONES: That's about three million people, many of them children and people of color. Community activists say a significant percentage are working poor families who are most vulnerable to winding up back on public assistance.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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