Big Apple has little mercy for sick women on welfare

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Sun, 19 Jul 1998 11:22:17 -0700


July 19, 1998=20
Big Apple has little mercy for sick women on welfare=20

New York City's most vulnerable feel the might of the mayor - those who are
disabled must work, no exceptions=20

By Kathleen Kenna=20
Toronto Star Washington Bureau

NEW YORK - TANEESHA'S SCARRED and swollen legs draw stares of pity from
strangers waiting at a food line for the city's poorest.=20

Her hobbling is so painful to watch that a few turn away.=20

The 36-year-old says botched surgery intended to correct bad circulation
left her bow-legged and in chronic pain.=20

She was forced to leave a maintenance job - ``The pay wasn't great but I
really liked the people'' - and seek welfare.=20

Taneesha and her 5-year-old daughter, whom she doesn't want identified,
became regulars at the grocery giveaway Saturday mornings at the Open Door
Church of God in Christ.=20

They couldn't survive on a welfare cheque that was only $294 every two=
 weeks.=20

And now it has been cut to a miserly $229.=20

That is the latest punishment for people who balk at workfare in America's
largest city, home of a record Wall Street boom.=20

Able-bodied welfare recipients already work for their cheques in such
workfare jobs as street and park cleaners, or as entry-level clerks at city
offices.=20

But Mayor Rudy Giuliani, riding a welfare reform machine that is bulldozing
the poor across the United States, has decreed that every New Yorker,
regardless of physical and/or mental disability, must work in exchange for
city aid.=20

It's a controversial move, but every state is watching New York City.
That's because federal law has set new limits on welfare for almost
everyone, with a limited number of exemptions. Giuliani's program is
testing just how those exemptions could work.=20

So, under a new welfare-to-work program, Taneesha and about 35,000 other
disabled people risk having their benefits slashed or stopped if they
refuse to accept a city-ordered job - even if they believe they are
incapable of doing the work or fear it could worsen their health.=20

``A program aimed at the disabled should reflect the nature of their
disability,'' says legal aid lawyer Kathleen Kelleher.=20

``This is a service program with the death penalty attached to it.''=20

Taneesha isn't even certain why her welfare was cut; only that she tried to
explain to welfare officials that pain - and difficulty getting the right
medication - prevents her from working until she can get corrective surgery.=
=20

``I don't mind working,'' she says. ``People need to work. I just can't
right now.''=20

Mother clutches daughter in the straggle of more than 200 waiting for bread
and vegetables: ``Does anyone think we like living like this?''=20

There is a horrible irony in New York's latest work-or-else campaign: Most
of those targeted are sole-support mothers who already have been declared
unemployable by city-contracted doctors.=20

Of the 35,000 disabled New Yorkers targeted by the program, an estimated
30,000 are labelled ``E-3.'' They are deemed temporarily unemployable until
their health improves. The reprieve is limited to no longer than six
months, when their cases are reviewed. Taneesha falls into this category.=20

SOCIAL SECURITY ALTERNATIVE

Another 5,000 are classed ``E-4'' - permanently unemployable. Many in this
category are waiting to move from the city's welfare budget to federal
relief.=20

Taneesha already has applied for Social Security, a long-standing federal
program that gives the permanently disabled a modest income and extra funds
for medical equipment and certain other expenses not covered by health
insurance.=20

Until this summer, welfare officials would rarely have bothered a frail
woman like Taneesha, who appears certain to be accepted for Social Security.=
=20

But in the past few weeks, welfare officials have hauled in hundreds of
sick and ailing women to tell them they will soon be assigned to one of
four non-profit groups, such as Goodwill Industries, that specialize in
training and work for the disabled.=20

On welfare with crippling arthritis, severe migraines and constant pain?
Stuff envelopes. Sew buttons on used clothing. Answer phones.=20

The program is so new and so controversial that Goodwill officials and
others declined interviews, explaining they haven't yet figured how to
comply with city directives.=20

``The mayor says he wants to move to a system of universal employment, so
all individuals of all capabilities should be engaged to the highest
degree,'' pronounces Human Resources Commissioner Jason Turner, chief of
the city's annual $5 billion welfare program. ``We can't afford to exclude
people any more and let them sit on the sidelines. We want to bring them
back into the fold.''=20

LARGEST PROGRAM

Turner was wooed here recently from Wisconsin, where he helped Governor
Tommy Thompson gain an international reputation for a state that is the
most successful in America at paring people from welfare.=20

New York City, already operating the largest workfare program in the United
States, wants a more dramatic reduction in its welfare load, although the
number of recipients has declined steadily since the start of Giuliani's
first term, in early 1995.=20

There are 790,000 New Yorkers collecting welfare now compared to 1.16
million then - an almost 32 per cent drop.=20

``We treat all individuals as on the way to private employment,'' Turner
says. ``We want to make certain that everyone (collecting welfare) makes
the maximum effort towards maximizing the degree to which they're
self-sufficient and free of dependency.=20

``That's not unreasonable. That's what society wants. It's what New Yorkers
want and it's what most individuals who apply for benefits themselves=
 want.''=20

What is pushing New York and other governments to ruthlessly pare their
welfare rolls is the spectre of having no way to help people when they are
even worse off. Propelling this movement is President Bill Clinton's
welfare reform law, which allows only five years of welfare in a person's
lifetime. Getting people off public aid now means there is a possibility
they will qualify when they are destitute.=20

But the city faces anti-workfare lawsuits as welfare recipients argue they
have a right to get welfare for however long they need it.=20

A state Supreme Court judge has just issued a preliminary injunction
against the city in a class action suit brought by disabled women whose
welfare was cut or ended.=20

Their benefits were ordered restored after the judge declared the city had
contravened the Federal Disabilities Act. The city has been ordered to
create a more health-and-safety conscious workfare program after welfare
advocates sued. The cases include:=20

=95 A woman who lost her benefits, including food stamps, after street
cleaning worsened her arthritis and she became too ill to return to work.=20

=95 Another who lost all benefits because she needed time from work to get t=
o
doctors' appointments for treatment for a long-term mental disability.=20

=95 A severe asthmatic who had her welfare trimmed because she requested an
exemption from maintenance work. The woman relies on a portable oxygen
tank, and a city doctor already approved an exemption from such work,
insisting she not be exposed to dust and fumes.=20

=95 A woman, recovering from cancer surgery and several severe ailments, who
was ordered to work at the sanitation department despite an exemption by a
city doctor.=20

``This proves that the purpose of this is to get people off welfare and not
at all to help them,'' says legal aid's Kelleher, who is helping represent
the women. ``By definition, these are people who are not ready for work
because they have disabilities. The city's own doctors agree.''=20

Noting the widespread public support for welfare reform across the country,
Turner says workfare can be tailored to everyone from the physically
disabled to Giuliani's next target group - drug addicts on welfare.=20

MAYOR'S ATTITUDE

``These obligations that have become part of the new welfare system are not
only understood and well received by the general public, but the notion
that everybody has an obligation to work and everybody ought to be
participating is so well-established and well-ingrained in American culture
that even welfare recipients accept that and feel good about it,'' he says.=
=20

Kelleher retorts: ``What makes me really angry is that this is really based
on the mayor's attitude that people lie about their disabilities. It's
really insulting. A lot of these people would do anything to work.''=20

Contents copyright =A9 1996-1998, The=A0Toronto=A0Star.
User interface, selection and arrangement copyright =A9 1996-1998,
Torstar=A0Electronic=A0Publishing=A0Ltd.=20