When low-income families apply for public benefits in New York City, they confront a difficult process, and they typically go it alone. Dedicated advocates at non-profit organizations are trained to answer questions, provide interpretation, track down key documents, and provide other essential help to public benefits clients. These advocates can even explain how official rules render some people ineligible for assistance. A sensible way for families to consult with these advocates is at “help desks” in the public areas of the public benefits offices. But, unfortunately, the City refuses to allow families to do so.
Authorizing advocates to run help desks would be a smart change of policy for our City and it could be done without significant cost to taxpayers. Help desks would enable applicants to better understand agency policies and would increase the accuracy and efficiency of agency decision-making. Advocate-run help desks would also provide important assistance to people with special needs, such as limited proficiency in English or mental health problems. In other settings, such as in fair hearing offices run by the state, and in the family and housing courts, help desks are commonplace, and have proven to be invaluable.
This Brennan Center Strategic Fund Policy Proposal—which, if adopted, would enable families to consult with advocates at help desks in public benefits offices in New York City—sets forth the observations of advocates and of public benefits clients, as conveyed to the Brennan Center in interviews and focus groups that we conducted in 2007. We describe a variety of ways in which help desks can substantially improve the public benefits system and the lives of many New Yorkers. It is time for the City to remove its ban on help.