Charles Dickens Meets Franz Kafka: The Maladministration of New York City’s Public Assistance Programs


Recipients of public assistance [hereinafter PA] confront a world strikingly Dickensian in nature. They must endure both strict standards of eligibility and inadequate benefit levels. Nationwide, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children [hereinafter AFDC] standard of need, which is set by the states and which determines financial eligibility, on average decreased by 38% in real dollar terms from 1970 to 1987. In 1987, the average need standard equalled only 62% of the poverty line. Payment levels similarly declined 38% on average in real dollar terms from 1970 to 1987. New York was no exception. In real dollar terms, the New York need standard and payment level each decreased 39.6% from 1970 to 1987, at which point they equalled only 64.1% of the poverty line. Even when AFDC benefits are combined with food stamps, in 1987 only one state, Alaska, provided payments that exceeded the poverty line.9 In 1987, New York’s combined food stamp/ AFDC payments for a family of three represented only 82.1% of the poverty line. In short, people on public assistance live in a world of desperate poverty where continuing aid is essential for the barest subsistence.

This story, however, describes only part of the world in which PA recipients must live. People on PA face an enormous and byzantine bureaucracy” administered according to a mind-boggling array of rules. Equally important, they must comply with a series of administrative requirements or suffer a loss of benefits. In this Kafkaesque world, recipients benefits may be terminated even when they are completely eligible – even when they may desperately need those benefits to survive.

This Article examines the intersection of these Dickensian and Kafkaesque worlds by addressing the phenomenon known as “churning.” Churning occurs in PA programs when a recipient’s benefits are terminated (in PA lexicon, the person’s case is “closed”) for reasons that are wholly administrative, that is, for reasons unrelated to the recipient’s actual need for public assistance. The recipient’s benefits may some time thereafter be reinstated (the case is “reopened”), but in the meantime the recipient must survive without public assistance. Given that people on PA are by definition living at a bare level of subsistence, the temporary cessation of benefits can precipitate a financial crisis: they may fall behind in rent, be unable to pay utility bills, or run out of money for food.

Section I of this Article examines statistical data on the administrative closing and reopening of PA cases in New York City and finds that churning has increased dramatically in recent years, leading to the frequent denial of benefits to people who are “eligible” for PA in any ordinary sense of the term. Section II illustrates the devastating effects of churning on the lives of the poor by presenting the results of surveys performed by the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee [hereinafter EHIVC]. Section III goes on to explain in detail the causes of churning, first examining PA’s “quality control” system and the way it encourages administrative closings, and then examining the results of EHIWC’s research, which illustrate some of the most common reasons for administrative closings. Finally, Section IV proposes changes in the administration of the PA programs to reduce the frequency of churning and describes some of the reforms that already have been implemented.

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