Changing the Narrative Around Cash Assistance: Julia Casey, FPWA

‘The pandemic reinforced a need for assistance that’s flexible and that provides folks with choice, dignity and the trust to make decisions about what they and their families need. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to change attitudes about receiving assistance.’

Julia Casey, Policy Analyst of FPWA, an anti-poverty policy and advocacy organization, focuses on expanding cash assistance in New York. Here, Julia explains the barriers faced in accessing and trying to get by on public benefits, the impact of COVID-19, and current legislative efforts to raise benefit levels, improve access to cash for families and change the narrative around public assistance. 

Q: Why is cash assistance and/or TANF important to focus on?

A: Cash assistance provides targeted support to people with the lowest incomes who often have serious barriers to work, who often have some sort of a disability or are caring for a child with a disability, or need help accessing education or training. 

Cash assistance—and the TANF block grant that helps fund it— also reflects systemic issues that are not just found in the benefits system, but also in the child welfare system, in the education system, housing, you name it. Namely, racism and sexism, which shape these programs and change how they’re designed and how they’re administered. 

There’s a long and really problematic history of TANF. When the federal government ended the previous cash assistance program, AFDC, and created the TANF block grant in 1996, it added time limits, work requirements and restrictions on immigrant eligibility. All of those policy shifts were born from false narratives about people who receive cash as being too dependent on government assistance and not working hard enough. 

Even the stated goals of TANF are not about reducing poverty. TANF’s stated goals are to “reduce dependency,” maintain two parent families and prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Nothing in those goals has to do with helping families meet their basic needs or achieve their goals, whatever those might be.

In reality, folks are coming to cash assistance after something very significant in their life has happened. In interviews we’ve done recently, one person described that she came to the program because she had a fire at her apartment and lost everything. Another person came to the program after her child’s father left. She was working at a non-profit at the time, was unable to cover the cost of childcare, and just could not make it work. Another person had a child born with a disability and that child needed more care, so she had to stop working. Others lost their jobs or are dealing with chronic illnesses. Another said they lost several people in their family. 

There’s just so many stories of hardship. These stories tell you so much more about the reality of what conditions folks are coming into the program with in the first place and it reinforces why these programs should be accessible and not re-traumatize folks.

Q: How well is New York serving families through their cash assistance programs?

A: New York does have a more robust state program compared to a lot of other states—the cash grant amount is higher than most states, NY has ended some harmful behavioral requirements, and families can receive assistance past the 5-year federal limit through the parallel Safety Net Assistance program, funded by counties and the state. Still, it could be doing much more. 

The amount of money going to public assistance recipients is very low compared to the cost of living. The maximum for a family of three is $789 and this hasn’t changed since 2011. For families living in shelters, the amount hasn’t been updated since 1997. They get even less than other cash assistance recipients, just $45 a month for individuals and $63 for families with children per household member. That ends up at about $1.50 per day.

There’s also been efforts in other states to make work requirements or what counts as work more flexible. Vermont added some flexibility to say that activities that help families achieve their goals would count as work. New York can do the same, and, short of eliminating the work requirement, this could help make the program more accessible. For some people, that might be working to find quality, affordable childcare. That takes time and could be part of fulfilling the work requirement. For some people, maybe they’re struggling with a mental health challenge that requires consistent care, so receiving care for a mental health issue or disability can also count. There’s more that New York state can do to make work not such a punitive requirement, but something that is more aligned with the family’s goals.

Lastly, there’s access issues. Data at the city level shows that many families were unable to get benefits in fiscal year 2023, mostly because of paperwork. More than 84,000 cases were denied because the applicant was unable to complete the interview. Another 25,000 were denied because of failure to provide verification. Beyond that, another 37,000 weren’t able to complete the recertification and had their case closed. Another 9,000 were denied for not completing the recertification interview. Lastly, 40,000 denied because they were unable to provide the proper documentation. That’s 67% of all cases closed. So all those administrative paperwork issues are a huge challenge. There just has not been the support, technology, communication, or commitment from HRA to address some of those issues.

We’ve heard stories from folks who said, ‘I went and I applied. I had a record of applying, didn’t get confirmation that I uploaded documents, and then was told that my paperwork was lost and I had to start all over again’. People were up for recertification but didn’t get the notice and didn’t know they had to recertify. So, they fell off benefits and had to redo the whole process. 

That feels like it’s by design. Because of all these narratives about people being lazy, we make it so hard for people to get on the program. The reality is that we don’t have benefit programs that are willing to work with recipients, meet them where they are, and see them as individuals and not just a number. That’s just wrong. 

Q: What was different during the pandemic?

A: COVID has so much to do with how attitudes about giving folks cash are starting to change. 

During the pandemic, the state suspended the requirement for in-person interviews for cash assistance. That helped a lot of folks avoid falling off the cash assistance roll. You saw the same thing with Medicaid. Poverty dropped as pandemic-era supports provided targeted relief.

In many ways the pandemic was a realization of how close so many folks are to poverty. There’s just so many people who the federal government doesn’t define as being in poverty but who are struggling to meet their needs and are just a couple of paychecks away from needing assistance. The true scale of that crisis was really exposed. 

It was also a time where people’s needs were just changing so much. The idea of giving someone an in-kind benefit (like food stamps) that can only be used on certain things just didn’t feel like it met the moment. People needed to buy masks and household cleaning supplies and all these other things that help them get by on a day-to-day basis. It reinforced a need for assistance that’s flexible and that provides folks with choice, dignity and the trust to make decisions about what they and their families need. 

It just blew all those notions of, ‘oh, people don’t know how to spend money’ just right out of the water because that wasn’t bearing out in the data. People were using federal pandemic aid to meet basic needs like buying food. Food was one of the biggest spending categories. 

It reinforced what a lot of us as advocates have known for a while: that we should trust people to make decisions about what they need. It’s harder to refute that argument now.

Now there’s this whole unwinding happening—the expanded child tax credit and other program changes that provided support have expired. So it’s disappointing to see that the pandemic hasn’t yet led to permanent policy changes. I don’t think that means things won’t change. I think there’s just more work to be done.

Q: Can you tell us about the current efforts this last legislative session to increase access to cash in New York? 

A: Legal Aid, Empire Justice Center, and the Safety Net Project are leading a campaign focused on passing a few different bills related to increasing the cash assistance grant in New York. 

One bill focuses on the part of the assistance grant that’s called the “shelter allowance,” which can be used for rent. Typically, for a family of three, the shelter allowance in New York City is $400, so it has nothing to do with the actual cost of housing. And a lot of cash assistance recipients don’t have another form of housing assistance. So they’re living in shelters, they’re doubling up with family members, they’re opting to live in unsafe housing conditions, including staying in a living situation where they might be experiencing domestic violence. The bill would increase the shelter allowance to 100% of HUD’s Fair Market Rent, which is typically about $2,800/month for a 2-bedroom apartment, which would be a significant improvement. 

A second bill focuses on the “basic needs” part of the assistance grant, which would increase cash assistance by a few hundred dollars. It wouldn’t solve all the issues, but it would make a significant dent and raise the amount for the first time since 2011. The bill would also require that the state raise the cash grant to match inflation every year. 

The third bill has to do with homeless New Yorkers. If you’re living in a shelter, you’re not eligible for the full cash portion of the grant. The idea is that, because you’re in a shelter, you’re getting meals, toiletries and other needs met. So individuals in shelter get only $45 a month and families with children get only $63 a month per person. That amount hasn’t been updated since 1997. That bill would essentially make sure that New Yorkers living in shelters are getting the same cash assistance as everybody else. 

It’s looking like getting these bills passed will be a multi-year effort, because they didn’t make it in the state budget. If you weren’t involved in the campaign this year, you can still get involved next year!

Q: What are some ways people can get involved?

A: It’s important that people are showing up in Albany and talking about cash assistance in conversations about anti-poverty policy. But one of the biggest needs is for direct storytelling from folks who are receiving cash assistance.

Unfortunately, shame and stigma about receiving benefits is so pervasive. We’ve heard a lot of that in interviews with recipients for a cash assistance story collection series we’re working on. There’s still a lot of work to be done about changing attitudes about receiving assistance, and this narrative change work can really help move the needle.

A lot of folks who qualify for benefits qualify because they’re at their rock bottom. They have no other resources. Our system makes it so that you have to exhaust all other options before you even think about asking for public assistance. We hear about parents skipping meals so their kids can eat, or so that they can afford a Metrocard to get their kids to school. 

So families on cash assistance are really struggling, but they also have their own goals and hopes for themselves. One person we interviewed said they really want to open a childcare center because they love caring for kids, but they just need support to get there. Other people talk about wanting to pursue education or save for a home and be a homeowner. They have dreams and want a better life for their kids. They just don’t have the support to get there. 

These are narratives of resilience and what people have overcome just to get by day-to-day. It is a story that we don’t tell enough.