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May 8, 2001

Tempers Flare Near Deadline for Welfare


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Join a Discussion on Mayor Giuliani's New York

Join a Discussion on Welfare

The Giuliani administration announced yesterday that it did not plan to automatically enroll as many as 38,000 New Yorkers when they reach time limits for welfare benefits in a state Safety Net program, saying it hoped instead to nudge them toward self-sufficiency.

The new strategy was immediately condemned by City Council members and advocates for the poor, who said it might lead to interruptions in basic aid to thousands of women and children. Even Gov. George E. Pataki's administration, which has generally backed the city's aggressive push to slash welfare rolls, raised concerns, saying the city's plan, at least as presented, is unacceptable.

The hard feelings escalated so quickly on both sides yesterday that even as Jason A. Turner, the commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration, was trying to outline it for the first time to a Council committee, angry questions and commentary from one council member led Mr. Turner to stand up with his aides and abruptly march out.

"That's it," Mr. Turner said, just before he departed, even while Councilman Stephen DiBrienza continued to berate Mr. Turner in a raised voice.

The confrontation was not the first between Mr. Turner and Mr. DiBrienza, a Brooklyn Democrat and a candidate for public advocate, who has a reputation for picking attention-grabbing fights with the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

But the plan Mr. Turner briefly described was a warning flare of sorts for advocates of the poor who had long maintained despite assurances to the contrary by backers of welfare reform efforts that the federal benefit deadline of five years would cause hardship.

State and city officials, as well as most welfare recipients, have long known about the approaching deadline, established by the federal welfare legislation in 1996. The State Legislature, citing a State Constitution requirement that New York provide basic care for the abjectly poor, created a program in 1997 called Safety Net, through which the state and local governments split the cost of providing a similar level of welfare benefits to families who hit the federal limit.

State officials have urged local governments to press long-term welfare recipients to find jobs, and as the five-year deadline approaches, they agree with a Giuliani administration plan to call each welfare recipient in to reassess his or her progress.

"The goal is to see if they can knit together a strategy for getting off cash assistance," said Robert Doar, executive deputy commissioner of the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

But state officials said at no time did they urge requiring welfare recipients to reapply for benefits, a time-consuming and complicated process that advocates for the poor said could result in a loss of assistance for many people who need continuing coverage.

Mr. Turner, in his brief appearance before the Council's General Welfare Committee, said most of the 38,830 New York City residents enrolled in the federal welfare program for five continuous years are capable of working, or else they would have been signed up for a federal program for the disabled.

These people should "redouble their efforts to work with H.R.A. and find employment and close their case, and only if all of those efforts fail, reapply for the extended" benefits, Mr. Turner said.

Mr. Giuliani's tenure ends Dec. 31, the same day as the deadline, so a new mayor could reverse this requirement. But an effort to restart benefits would take time, Council officials said.

Mr. DiBrienza, chairman of the committee, interrupted Mr. Turner, asking how these welfare recipients mostly mothers who have not graduated from high school would survive without any benefits.

"Do you suggest somehow what, that they sort of just hang around the city, do you suggest they hang around the job center office, do you think they come live with you?" Mr. DiBrienza said, raising his voice in disbelief. "What do you think happens to real people in a real world for a period of time when they are reassessing their lives?"

Mr. Turner responded, "You will calm down the tone of your voice or you won't have the commissioner here to speak with in the next few minutes."

Mr. DiBrienza then became angrier.

"I talk the way I talk," he said. "You want to stage some kind of silly walkout, we will subpoena you back into that chair. So don't threaten me."

State officials said yesterday they were still discussing the city administration's plan. But if necessary, at least at this point, Mr. Doar said, the state would consider ordering the city not to take such a step. But he cautioned that no final decision had been made on how to resolve the matter.

Mr. DiBrienza said the Council would subpoena Mr. Turner to try to force him to return to complete his testimony.

Deputy Mayor Joseph J. Lhota defended Mr. Turner, saying it was Mr. DiBrienza's temper tantrum that resulted in the walkout.

"The commissioner is prepared to testify, as long as it is a civil environment," Mr. Lhota said, adding that the council member should take "distemper pills."

"No one has to sit through that kind of malarkey," Mr. Lhota said.

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