welfare bronx nyBRONX, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Maria Rivera said the process of sitting in a state Human Resources Administration office here, waiting to apply for welfare, is so grueling that she has watched other applicants get frustrated and "wild out."

She’s not one of those who has yelled at workers or thrown chairs, but said she understands the frustration.

In a recent phone interview, Rivera recalled days when she had little or no money to eat and was afraid to leave the office to get even a bag of chips, in case her name was called and she lost her turn.

"If you don’t get seen the day before, they tell you to come back the next morning at 9," she said, referring to staff members. "But they arrive at 11 and go to lunch at 12," added the 49-year-old, a welfare justice worker with Mothers On the Move, a welfare advocacy group based in the South Bronx.

Rivera said she would cry and be frustrated by the process, and then have to be docile when being interviewed. Her interaction with a caseworker–not objective criteria concerning her income and employment–meant the difference between getting approved or not, she said.

"They discourage you with the wait," said Rivera, whose organization is focused on sharing information about welfare rules.

The percentage of eligible U.S. families receiving assistance from the federal program for low-income families has declined by half, from 84 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 2005, Legal Momentum found in its June 2009 report "The Bitter Fruit of Welfare Reform." Legal Momentum is a New York-based legal advocacy organization. The group puts the current figure at less than 40 percent after factoring in the growth in eligible families since the start of the recession in December 2007.

Welfare Participants Dropped

The same report says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked states to examine closed cases of applicants for the program called TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Nearly 90 percent of the families eligible for the assistance are headed by women–either mothers or grandmothers.

Another 2009 study, entitled "The State of New York’s Social Safety Net For Today’s Times" and conducted by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, found that New York City families receiving federal assistance dropped by 24 percent between 2004 and 2007.

Champions of the controversial TANF overhaul of welfare, such as the CATO Institute and National Center for Policy Analysis, have interpreted the nationwide drop in welfare caseloads as a sign that single heads of households–in keeping with policymakers’ vision–were finding work and becoming more financially self-sufficient.

Five current applicants in the South Bronx offered a different view in recent interviews. In this community, 55.3-57 percent of the population is supported by public assistance, according to the Department of City Planning in 2007, and poverty rates for women are 35 percent higher than for men, according to the Census Bureau of 2008. The applicants all described a system that simply discouraged eligible people from applying for services.

But Amy Hartz, public relations manager for Human Resources Administration, paints a different picture of the essential services, including food stamps and temporary cash assistance, she says they provide to more than 3 million New Yorkers.

"HRA is committed to a strong work requirement for individuals and families who are in need and seek assistance. When people apply for cash assistance and work supports, the application process and eligibility requirements are set by federal and state guidelines. Our staff strives to provide quality service to our clients in courteous, efficient, and timely manner," she said in an email interview.

No Improvement in Application Process

Quality service, however, has not been the experience of Lovella Brown Bates, a 44-year-old single mother of three daughters and one son, who also has grandchildren. "If I come to you for help and get somebody who’s not a people person, then I don’t get the help I need," she said.

Bates first began to receive welfare in the early 1980s. She has experienced the process before and after TANF as she has used the services from time to time over the years–as many low-income mothers do. In all that time she has not seen any improvement in how the system processes applications.

"They tell you to comply, but they change so much stuff, the rules. And whether it’s your fault or not, you have to keep starting over," she said.

Bates said she has been struggling to make ends meet since her children, now young adults, were in elementary school.

She has been in a series of social service programs provided by local government and designed to offer work experience and training for her to gain a degree equivalent to a high school degree. "I was hired for a certain time with the Parks Department. I had back problems and wasn’t kept on," said Bates.

In addition, her food stamps fail to arrive and she has to reapply, which often means going without them for the 30-day processing period. To get by she uses her disability payments to pay the rent, which leaves her family (two daughters still live with her) at the doorstep of a food pantry.

Welfare Sustains Family

Nova Strachan, a long-time recipient of public assistance, was raised by her grandmother. "Welfare was a way for her to sustain us. She was disabled," said Strachan.

Strachan’s grandmother passed away when Strachan was 16. She was granted the right to lease their New York City Housing Authority apartment on her own because she was working and able to pay the unsubsidized portion of the rent. But when she lost her job, she applied for TANF.

Now 28, Strachan has been in a series of work programs run by the New York City Parks Department and the United Jewish Association of Philanthropic Societies.

"You work for the Parks Department for six months and when the assignment runs out, you’re eligible for unemployment. When unemployment runs out, then you’re back on public assistance," said Strachan.

She said job development counselors do nothing more than send participants to listings found in the daily newspapers. In other words, the system provides no special access to transitional work opportunities.

"My job developer sent me to a temp agency, Titan Temps. They sent me to a van that picks up people from Washington Heights to go to a factory in New Jersey," said Strachan.

She said people are packed into the vans, some sitting on the floor. "I was an outsider. All the people there, this was their regular way to make money," said Strachan.

Rivera took a similarly dim view of job-seeking through welfare. "The job developer will tell you if you don’t take the interview or accept the job, they will close your case, she said. "You then get an FTC, a failure to comply notice."

Anna Limontas-Salisbury is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her interest in welfare reform and poverty issues stem from experience as an adult literacy instructor in welfare-to-work programs in New York City. Her video segments can also be seen on Brooklyn Independent Television’s Caught In the Act and Brooklyn Review. She lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.

For more information:

Bitter Fruit of Welfare Reform: A Sharp Drop In The Percentage:

Mother’s on the Move: