The Big Idea: TANF Taketh Away

City Limits • January/February 2005

It’s been a while since welfare reform was news. When the federal law backing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) expired in 2001, the chatter about what to change petered out as legislators merely extended the legislation for a few months. Since then, the same process–anxious expectation, legislative wrangling, stalling and ultimately a simple extension–has been repeated eight times. In the meantime, the subject of welfare has all but vanished from public debate.

Welfare will be back on the Washington agenda as early as March, when the current extension will expire. Freed from election-year concerns, an emboldened White House and Congress are poised to push through a Republican remake of the Clinton-era welfare law.

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The Big Idea: The Poverty Paradox

City Limits • December 2004

When the latest poverty statistics came out in August, the numbers didn’t make very big waves. With the Republican Party roaring into New York, the fact that poverty had gone up nationally–no surprise for an economy just creeping out of a recession–barely made it to the local news at all. But a close look at New York City’s share of the numbers showed a quirk: Poverty here didn’t go up. It stayed flat.

Even more curious were the unemployment numbers. Though poverty didn’t go up in the Big Apple, unemployment plowed steadily upward; in September, it was 6.9 percent. Nationally, unemployment also rose, but on a much smaller scale. Nothing like what one would expect. After all, the more people lose jobs, the more people should be poor; and if fewer people are losing jobs, then fewer people should fall into poverty–right?

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Big Idea: Work Details

City Limits • November 2004

New Yorkers always want the best. And usually, we get it. We’ve got the tallest buildings, the tastiest street food, the lowest crime, the hottest ball teams. But when it comes to making sure poor people can stay afloat on meager paychecks, New York is not always at the top of the heap.

Our poor can get job training, tax breaks, health insurance and other resources to help them get by. We offer one of the nation’s most generous state tax credits for the working poor, and New York City just upped the ante by adding its own. We offer high-quality public child care. And two-thirds of qualified adults are enrolled in public health care programs–well above the national average.

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Market Babies

Finalist, 2004 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism


City Limits • January 2003

Kwame Boame is only 6 years old, but he’s already got a helluva commute. Every Monday morning, Kwame’s mother, Kimberly Paul, rustles him out the door at 6:30 to take the A train from their apartment in the Dyckman Houses, at the northern tip of Manhattan, to the island’s southern border. In the Broadway-Nassau station, next to the magazine stand on the A platform, they meet Kwame’s great-grandmother, who shepherds Kwame onto the train to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he goes to school. For the next five days, he’ll stay with his grandmother and great-grandmother. Kwame won’t see his mother again until Friday.

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The Great Training Robbery

Finalist, 2002 Harry Chapin Media Award


City Limits • May 2001

Five years ago, Joseph Cruz enlisted in New York’s welfare army. He spent a year doing clerical work in a city office in exchange for a public assistance check. Then he hit the streets for the Sanitation Department in Coney Island. Cruz donned an orange vest five mornings a week before clearing refuse, shoveling snow and riding the garbage trucks.

Six months ago, Cruz was pulled off the Work Experience Program trucks for a new welfare experience, this time in the shadow of Williamsburg’s elevated subway tracks. Here, at the St. Nicholas Job Center, welfare recipients double-click their way to employment. Aslee Williams, the center’s job specialist, leads a room of welfare recipients in an afternoon class that is supposed to prepare them for employment. “Okay,” she begins, peering over wire-rimmed glasses. “When you go in for a job interview, do you sit there like this?” Williams lolls about in her chair, slouches, dangles her arms, and rolls her eyes upward, garnering a few chuckles. “Or do you cross your legs and sit up straight?”

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