Time to Let a Little Sunshine In

Sometimes, complex, intractable problems require complex, expensive solutions. So it’s particularly frustrating when government refuses to adopt a free, simple and proven method to address an important social issue

April 11, 2007

*Cross posted from TortDeform.com

Sometimes, complex, intractable problems require complex, expensive
solutions. So it’s particularly frustrating when government refuses to
adopt a free, simple and proven method to address an important social
issue.

That’s the case in New York City, where social services officials
are struggling to get public assistance benefits to the people who need
them most. A recent report
by the grassroots group Community Voices Heard shows that people with
disabilities continue to have a hard time getting the help they need,
despite a city program dedicated to helping them.

According to the report, one of the program’s failures is its
inability to ensure that people with disabilities receive the
information and support that they need to navigate the complicated
public assistance application process, which involves multiple
appointments in various locations.

We feel the City’s pain. It’s not easy to provide the millions of
New Yorkers eligible for public assistance with all of the specific
information they need about the many different rules governing public
benefits programs. The task is made harder by the many different
languages spoken in the city, and by the fact that a substantial
proportion of the people needing public assistance have a low level of
literacy.

That’s why it’s particularly surprising that the city is placing
obstacles in the way of non-profits that want to help get information
to the people who need it. Since the Giuliani Administration changed
the city’s welfare policy, New York City has forbidden advocates from
setting up help tables in the government offices where people apply for
benefits. Groups literally left out in the cold include the New York City AIDS Housing Network, which wants to get benefits information to HIV positive people, and Make the Road by Walking,
which wants to let people with limited English proficiency know about
their right to an interpreter. The result is incomplete applications,
and families left without Food Stamps, Medicaid, and other
life-sustaining benefits, solely because they don’t find out what they
need to know to submit effective applications for those benefits.
Advocates will help to ensure that there is less error in the
distribution of public benefits, which benefits low-income families,
city agencies, and the general public.

Now, the New York City Council is considering a bill,
the Ready Access to Assistance Act, that would require the city to
allow advocates to set up help tables in the public areas of benefits
offices. It shouldn’t take a piece of legislation to require such a
common-sense measure. But since that seems to be the only thing that
will move the bureaucrats to let a little sunshine in, we hope it
passes, and soon.

* Laura K. Abel is Deputy Director at the Brennan Center Strategic Fund.