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New Clues Emerge on Mayor's Welfare Policy
By Nina Bernstein
With critics and champions of the last administration's brand of welfare reform watching closely for signs of policy change, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sent mixed signals yesterday.
First came the news that the mayor was shifting responsibility for tens of millions of dollars in federal job training money to the city's Department of Employment from the city's welfare agency, where it went largely unspent under the previous commissioner's work-first philosophy.
That move seemed to underscore Mr. Bloomberg's bottom-line approach to problems previously framed by ideological divisions.
But then Mr. Bloomberg's new welfare commissioner, Verna Eggleston, announced that like her predecessor, Jason Turner, she would not accept a federal waiver from food stamp rules. The waiver would have allowed jobless adults without children to receive food stamps beyond the current limit of three months in a three-year period.
"We can do more for our clients by declining the waiver and by identifying each individual's capacity and tailoring assistance to move them to the maximum possible level of self- sufficiency," Ms. Eggleston said in a written statement.
Directors of food banks said they were dismayed by the decision to decline the waiver, available to areas with insufficient jobs. Several said that Mr. Bloomberg in this case appeared to be deferring to the Republican Party's right wing, rather than seeking the practical benefits of additional dollars in federal food stamp sales at no local cost.
"He's definitely been sending mixed signals," said Joel Berg, director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents more than 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries in the city. "He made a very public show of visiting a soup kitchen around the holidays, and then he turns around and makes a policy decision that will hurt the very agency that he visited."
Mr. Berg added: "Bloomberg really did bow to a very small handful of very right-wing ideologues."
But David Neustadt, a spokesman for the Human Resources Administration, said refusing the waiver would have little practical effect. "No one who is willing to comply with the minimal 20-hour-a-week requirement for work-related activity will be cut off food stamps," he said.
Experts on food stamp policy, however, said the city administration had misunderstood the waiver, and that it would have added flexibility at a time of rising unemployment, rather than ending work requirements.
Kathy Goldman, executive director of the Community Food Resource Center, said 37 counties and 10 cities in New York State had taken the waiver. "Let's assume that somebody thought it was right before Sept. 11," she said. "How could you in all good conscience take that position in a city that lost 100,000 jobs?"
Ms. Goldman and Mr. Berg both attributed the unexpected decision to a column by Heather McDonald, an associate of the Manhattan Institute, strongly opposing the waiver. The column, which appeared last week in The New York Post, declared that the waiver would be "the test" of "where the Bloomberg-Eggleston administration stands on work and self-sufficiency."
"Even the state welfare bureaucracy urged the city to apply for a food-stamp work waiver," Ms. McDonald wrote. "This `soak the feds' view is dangerously short-sighted, however: the longer the dependency culture is nurtured, the greater and more perpetual the claims on state and city budgets."
Such philosophical arguments took a back seat yesterday when Ms. Eggleston testified before the City Council's General Welfare Committee about $67 million in federal job training money that the city must use by June 30 or lose forever.
She said working parents who earned too little to leave welfare would be offered a voucher for free job training to improve their earning power.
The federal law requires that a board dominated by private business help determine how the money will be spent and calls for one-stop centers offering training and education. Bill de Blasio, chairman of the committee, said the Giuliani administration had neglected the role of private industry. Los Angeles has 24 of the one-stop centers, but New York City has only one, he said. "We hope that a mayor who happens to be a businessman will actually train people for long-term jobs."
©2002 The New York Times
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