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Poor New Yorkers hit By inflation’s impact on benefits, advocates say

ALBANY — Soaring rents and spiraling prices for energy and other necessities are forcing New York’s poorest residents to make tough choices, according to advocates and lawmakers.

Jessica Radbord, senior staff attorney for the Empire Justice Center, said she has advocated for one woman who is left with just $10 each month after $430 of her $440 monthly state Safety Net benefit goes to pay her rent in a rooming house.

“Do you buy toothpaste and tampons?” Radbord said at a state Assembly Social Services Committee public hearing. “Do you buy laundry detergent and household cleaning products? What about minutes for her phone so that she can make her appointments with her health care providers?”

The state Constitution, Radbord said, makes it clear that care for the needy is an obligation of the state and its subdivisions.

But she added that “the maximum grant levels just aren’t enough to be able to meet basic expenses.”

Further, Radbord said, only 18.9% of family assistance recipients — households with children — are residing in federally subsidized housing or receive Section 8 grants that go to their rent. Meanwhile, rents have skyrocketed in many communities, and many people can’t find housing they can afford.

The committee, led by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, is examining the levels of assistance offered by a variety of programs and found many of the benefits offered have remained flat or increased only slightly in recent years. The national inflation rate for the year ending in June was 9.2%.

“All across New York state people need help,” said Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York. “We’re really worried about people freezing this winter.”

Finkel suggested the state could do more to ensure people entitled to benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food stamps are getting those benefits. She estimated about a third of older New Yorkers who are eligible for food stamps are not getting them.

Finkel also suggested state agencies use data matching to determine if an applicant for one type of benefits overseen by a particular agency is eligible for other benefits managed by different bureaucracies.

“If they’re eligible for other benefits, let’s not make them go through a whole bureaucracy all over again,” Finkel said.

Rosenthal said the state’s main welfare agency, the Office of Temporary Disability and Assistance, whose commissioner is an appointee of Gov. Kathy Hochul, did not send a representative to the hearing.

State Assembly GOP Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, asked by CNHI about the push for increases in public assistance benefits, said social service programs should be reviewed with an eye toward ensuring they are “lifting people out of poverty.”

“I would want to make sure they are effective and there is some accountability in the program,” said Barclay. He noted another approach to assisting low-income New Yorkers is through earned income tax credits, which he described as an efficient way to drive relief to families.

Barclay added: “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have drug testing for these programs.”

At the hearing, Rosenthal said benefit levels, in many cases, are now so low that “we’re setting people up for failure,” when the objective of assistance programs is to try to help individuals escape a life of poverty.

“It’s costing us far more than we realize by leaving our public assistance grants exceptionally low,” Rosenthal stated. “We are in fact contributing to higher rates of hunger, lower graduation rates and poor health outcomes.”

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