Administrative Closings of Public Assistance Cases: The Rise of Hunger and Homelessness in New York City


The administration of public assistance programs determines the extent to which the social welfare system achieves its goal of providing a minimum income to those in need. As the research by the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee (EHIWC) demonstrates, hunger, homelessness, and the other ills associated with poverty become inevitable when administrative complexities prevent the delivery of public benefits.

Each year, thousands of public assistance cases in New York City are closed for administrative reasons – reasons unrelated to changes in a family’s income. When a case is closed for an administrative reason, the reason always relates to a recipient’s failure to comply with certain administrative requirements for continued eligibility, such as the failure to complete a questionnaire or to appear for a face-to-face interview. According to many recipients surveyed by EHIWC, their failure to comply with administrative requirements was due to problems of communication, unworkable administrative procedures, and computer error. Those same recipients often then reapply to the system and regain their benefits. “Churning,” the practice of administrative closing and subsequent reopening of public assistance cases, leaves many recipients without income for food and shelter for weeks, sometimes months, at a time.

Data published by the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) document the rise in the number of administrative closings over the ten-year period from 1975 to 1984 and the corresponding increase in the number of case reopenings. As the data in Table 1 illustrate, administrative closings more than doubled from 1975 to 1984, as did case reopenings. Figure 1 displays the correlation between administrative closings and case reopenings. As the data also demonstrate, of all cases closed from 1975 to 1984, most – seventy-six percent – were closed for administrative reasons. Case reopenings similarly comprised the bulk of all case openings, representing sixty-two percent of all case openings.

Based on its research, EHIWC develops recommendations for reform of the administration of public assistance. Each year, EHIWC publishes its research in an annual report and meets regularly with representatives of HRA to discuss EHIWC’s findings and recommendations. Over the past year, HRA has adopted and begun implementation of several of EHIWC’s recommendations.

The full article, to appear in a later issue of the Review of Law & Social Change, will contain a complete discussion of EHIWC’s research, its recommendations for reform which have been adopted by HRA, and its additional recommendations for reform. The full article will also discuss strategies for reform, including the role of the media in EHIWC’s advocacy efforts.

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