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Know Your Rights
Source: City Hall
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Ensure Eligible People Access to Benefits They Need

When Irania Sanchez’s marriage broke up, she was given sole custody of her two daughters, both of whom had a variety of bronchial problems and asthma. One of her daughters, Gabriela, had to be hooked up to a machine every six hours to clean her lungs. Irania, a hard-working immigrant, was simply overwhelmed by her daughters’ health care costs.

Fortunately, our state and local governments have programs in place to ensure that our city’s children can stay healthy no matter how much money their parents make. Unfortunately, those programs are needlessly difficult to access.

Irania’s two daughters—both citizens—went without the emergency Medicaid they needed simply because there were no Spanish speaking social workers at the New York City Welfare Center. This in a city where one in four New Yorkers are in the process of learning English. Irania was only able to navigate the system when she met an advocate whose job is to understand the benefits system in New York City. This advocate helped her to resolve her communication problems with the city, better understand the services that the city provides, and ensure her children’s access to these services. Her daughters now have the health insurance and medical treatment they need.

Irania overcame the odds to do so, because the city currently excludes advocates, who usually work for non-profit organizations that serve poor communities, from the public areas of welfare offices, such as waiting rooms and hallways. Because of this policy, advocates can’t easily clarify program requirements for individuals struggling to get the benefits they need.

So many more people could be hooked up with the benefits the city already provides if the city made just one small policy change: allow applicants to meet with volunteers from experienced welfare advocacy organizations within the city’s public benefits offices.

Barring advocates from city benefits offices only makes the already difficult task of administering public benefits more strained. Employees in benefits offices must provide eligibility information about many different complicated benefits programs, to hundreds of people each day, in more than one hundred different languages. This is nearly impossible to do with one hundred percent accuracy, as Verna Eggleston, the former Commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, admitted at a recent City Council hearing. She described a welfare worker ignoring an agency policy even though a copy of it “was literally dangling above a worker’s head.”

The result is that some families go hungry, even though they are eligible to receive food stamps. In fact, more than 1 in 10 New Yorkers are not sure where their next meal will come from. Others go without medical treatment, even though they are eligible for Medicaid. And some are homeless, even though they are eligible for housing subsidies.

Allowing advocates inside benefit centers is a no-cost policy solution that will increase the accuracy of the city’s eligibility determinations, and reduce the burdens on both the city’s workers and on the people seeking benefits.

Fortunately, last spring, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and City Council Members Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia introduced the Ready Access to Assistance Act, known as REAACT. This bill would require the city to allow non-profit organizations into the public areas of the offices at which the city accepts applications for and distributes Food Stamps, Medicaid, and other public benefits.

And in other good news: Robert Doar, former Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), is the new head of New York City’s Human Resources Administration.

Commissioner Doar has a critically important opportunity to make the city’s bureaucracy more people friendly and to ensure that low-income people have access to the benefits for which they qualify by pressing the City Council to pass REAACT.

REAACT is a no-cost, common sense way to enlist private partners in the government’s mission to ensure that low-income families get the help they need to obtain the benefits they are due. It’s time to pass REAACT.

Andrew Friedman is a Fellow at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and the founding Co-Director of Make the Road by Walking, a not-for-profit, membership-led organization in Bushwick, Brooklyn. David Pedulla is a Research Associate at the Brennan Center Strategic Fund.