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COVID-19 Disparities In Rochester, NY: The Legacy Of Redlining In The City Of Frederick Douglass And Susan B. Anthony

Posted on October 2nd, 2020

This was originally published by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition on October 1, 2020.

On June 3, a group of Rochester’s Black and Latino community leaders declared racism a public health crisis. They urged communities of color to remain vigilant in fighting the spread of COVID-19.


The groups, La Cumbre and the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group, linked the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities to the fact that Black and Latinx people disproportionately suffer from various health conditions that are COVID-19 comorbidities. With the new report from NCRC and their academic partners, we know these comorbidities are a direct result of segregation in housing.


Racially based segregation and discrimination are rooted in systems put in place starting over 400 years ago, when this country was settled by Europeans on land stolen from indigenous peoples and worked by peoples from Africa who were kidnapped and enslaved. This system required the creation of a racial hierarchy to justify and perpetuate it.


Rochester and the surrounding communities once belonged to the people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. These lands were expropriated and settled by Whites who employed slaves much like the rest of North America at that time. While Rochestarians are proud that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are integral to our identity, we are just beginning to uncover and understand the grimmer aspects of our history.


This includes the long legacy of structural racism in Rochester’s housing market. One early way structural racism raised its ugly head was through residential redlining, which was launched by the federal government through the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) Residential Security Maps. The HOLC developed the grading process used to prepare these maps during the Great Depression to help the federal government decide which mortgages were safe to insure, and to persuade banks to extend mortgage credit to homeowners. Neighborhoods that were home to a majority of people of color were given the lowest grade, “D-hazardous,” resulting in residential segregation on racial lines. (The other grades were: “A-Best,” “B-Still Desirable,” “C-Definitely Declining.”)


Figure 1: 1938 HOLC “Residential Security” Map compared to NCRC Historic Redlining Score by Census Tract



Racial residential segregation was implemented by other means in Rochester as well. The city was one of the destinations for Blacks moving north during the Great Migration. “As tens of thousands of black people arrived in Rochester from the South in the 1950s and 1960s, they were met with a sophisticated, far-reaching, government-sponsored infrastructure dedicated solely to keeping them out of ‘respectable’ white neighborhoods, both in the city and the suburbs.” This infrastructure included discriminatory policies and practices in the real estate industry; refusal by banks and other lending institutions to lend in redlined neighborhoods or to Blacks buying in White neighborhoods; and deed restrictions and racial covenants.


This summer, Yale researchers found that the White elite of Rochester played a role in creating the wealth and income inequities that persist today. According to the report:


Racial covenants helped segregate neighborhoods by backing up the White supremacist effort to divide and control Monroe County with the power of judges, juries, police, and entire neighborhoods. Covenants did so by fusing a legally enforceable rule of segregation with a socially enforceable norm of segregation.


Black families were thus forced to reside in crowded, unsafe housing in parts of what are now the Corn Hill and Upper Falls neighborhoods. This was the tinder that only needed a spark for the July 1964 uprising/rebellion.


Unfortunately, racial residential discrimination in Rochester didn’t stop after the uprising or after the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. Neighborhood disinvestment and lack of homeownership opportunities has continually resulted in African Americans not receiving loans. In 1992, the Empire Justice Center, Melissa Marquez, now CEO of the Genesee Coop FCU and other not-for-profit organizations in the area, convened the Greater Rochester Community Reinvestment Coalition (GRCRC). Based on its analysis of home mortgage lending data, the GRCRC issued its first report in the early ‘90s, documenting that White low-income households and neighborhoods in Rochester received four times as much lending as middle-income Black households and neighborhoods. Black households were unable to grow their equity due to their inability to get affordable loans, or often any loans at all. Homes are one of the main assets of Americans. The historical lack of lending has created enormous wealth disparities between Whites and people of color.


Residential segregation led to racial disparities in public health in Rochester much like it has in most urban areas in the U.S. Children in aging houses were exposed to lead paint. Black and Brown neighborhoods lacked access to fresh foods as grocery stores moved to the suburbs. There are fewer safe and healthy public spaces in segregated neighborhoods.


Housing discrimination also led to a highly segregated educational system. The Rochester City School District (RCSD) educates a city with the highest concentration of child poverty in the country, while it is surrounded by affluent suburbs with well-resourced schools.


Rochester’s long history of residential segregation also affects how residents in the city of Rochester are policed. Officers employed by the city overwhelmingly choose not to live in the redlined neighborhoods they serve. It’s no surprise, then, that Daniel Prude, a Black man, was murdered in March of this year by RPD officers in the heart of a neighborhood redlined by the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1938. The officers were responding to a 911 call from Joe Prude, who was seeking help for his brother after he ran from the house in the early morning hours in apparent mental distress. Systemic racism, of which redlining is just one manifestation, created the conditions — the segregation, the racist history of policing, health and health care disparities, a Black man’s mental health crisis, and the callous response by police officers — that ultimately led to Prude’s death.


The legacy of residential segregation and structural racism also impedes access to healthcare, produces psychosocial stress and reinforces the implicit bias of health care providers against people of color. All of these factors add to racial inequities in health outcomes, both mental and physical, which we see illustrated in the two census tracts highlighted in the table and maps below.


Table 1: Rochester Best/Worst Neighborhoods for Health
Figure 2: Historically Redlined Neighborhoods and Social Vulnerability



Census tract 92 (outlined in red), located northeast of the central business district in zip code 14605, is part of the Upper Falls Neighborhood. It is red (Q4) in the Historic Redlining Score map, meaning it was one of the most redlined. Census tract 78.02 (outlined in green), in zip code 14610, is part of the Cobbs Hill Neighborhood. It is green (Q1) in the Historic Redlining Score map, meaning it was one of the least redlined areas.


The NCRC report includes a CDC Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to evaluate the resilience of neighborhoods to a wide range of hazards including human and natural disasters and outbreak of diseases, such as COVID-19. Census tracts 92 and 78.02 are highlighted here because they have the highest and lowest SVI scores, respectively, among the areas mapped on the HOLC maps. In addition, many of the other indicators of ongoing segregation and disparate health outcomes also align as one would expect. (See Table 1 above.)


  • Census tract 92 has an SVI score of .99; 64% of the population is majority nonWhite; and 58% lives in poverty.
  • Census tract 78.02 has an SVI score of .08; 12% of the population is majority nonWhite; and 4% lives in poverty.


Health outcomes are worse for Census tract 92, as seen in Table 1. Life expectancy in CT 92 is 10 years lower than in CT 78.02 (see also map below). Health indices related to stroke, diabetes, COPD and other COVID-19 risk factors are 30–60% higher in CT 92 than CT 78.02.


Figure 3: Historically Redlined Neighborhoods and Life Expectancy



Housing Segregation And The COVID-19 Pandemic


As has been documented across the country, COVID-19 cases and deaths are disproportionately hitting Black and Latinx people in Monroe County and in historically redlined neighborhoods in Rochester.


According to the July 15 report of the Monroe County Department of Health,



Data released by the Monroe County Department of Health at the end of July shows that the five zip codes with the highest rates of COVID-19 per 100,000 in Monroe County are: 14605, 14608, 14611, 14619 and 14621. The rates in these areas range from 1,224 per 100,000 to 1,046 per 100,000.  The median household incomes in these areas range from $21,000 to $39,000, and their composition is 60-88% nonWhite (as seen by the American Community Survey 2013-2018).


By comparison, Monroe County, as a whole, has a much lower COVID-19 rate, 623 per 100,000, a much higher median household income, $60,222, and a relatively low 30% nonWhite population.


The high rates of COVID-19 cases in these five zip codes align with what is being found around the country and with NCRC’s report. They have the highest percentages of people of color and some of the lowest income levels, and all of them are in the city of Rochester. Four of these five zip codes cover most of the census tracts with the highest redlining scores (red tracts) outside of the central business district (circular tract in middle of map) in NCRC’s redlining map. Zip code 14619, the 19th Ward neighborhood, was scored as still desirable in the 1935 HOLC map.


In addition to the impacts of segregation outlined above, people who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods tend to work at higher-risk essential jobs, are paid less than a living wage, do not have sufficient health insurance and/or do not have family or sick leave. It is no wonder they have higher COVID-19 infection rates.


These patterns impact all low-income New Yorkers but have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities because of what Isabel Wilkerson calls America’s caste system.




In order to effectively address segregation, discrimination and the disparate impact of COVID-19, change needs to happen at the systemic level, including:


A Reason for Hope

Posted on April 20th, 2020

Every year, spring brings with it an awareness of new life, rebirth, and hope. Coming out of an often cold and dreary winter, spring reminds us that there is warmth, hope, and light on the other side. It’s fitting then that spring brings with it the observance of Crime Victims’ Rights week. Every April, the nation stops to recognize people whose lives have been forever changed by a crime.

As a newcomer to Empire Justice Center, working as the Program and Marketing Manager for the Crime Victims Legal Network, I have learned that there is life after victimization, especially when victims receive the right support. Prior to joining Empire Justice Center, I worked in the field of education as an English and Special Education Teacher. During my time there I saw firsthand what victims of crime often face. Education is said to be a tool of liberation and at times I found this to be true. However, there were times when even the best lesson, expertly planned, couldn’t touch the real life consequences and traumas that victims face after experiencing a crime.

What called me to this position was the opportunity to empower others through the resources we offer on our website, NY Crime Victims Legal Help. Since starting I have begun the journey of educating myself on the history of crime victims’ rights. What has caught me the most off guard is the sheer number of victims who never report what has happened to them. Whether this is due to language barriers, fear of retaliation, or the complexities of our legal system; there are people who need help and face significant barriers when navigating their way to the resources that they need.

In my role, I hope to bring more awareness to the resources that are available to victims of crime on NY Crime Victims Legal Help. These resources reassure me that victims will no longer have to navigate the consequences of their victimization alone. I envision individuals across the state accessing the site and being connected with both legal and non-legal resources that reinforce and protect their rights. Ultimately, we hope the website will provide access to services that help victims manage all the ways their victimization has changed their lives.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic may feel like an extension of winter, the Crime Victims Legal Network has not forgotten our duty to advocate for everyone to have wholeness, peace, and life. We have resources on our website that address civil legal issues impacted by COVID-19, including access to courts, help with financial matters, and employment issues. In these uncertain and ever changing times, let us hold onto the hope that spring brings and let it remind us of our connection to one another.

Lacie White


*For more information about the Crime Victims Legal Network, please see crimevictimshelpny.org

This was produced under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Reflections on Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Posted on April 10th, 2019

Every April, the Office for Victims of Crime leads our nation in the observance of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The crime victims’ movement, still in its infancy, arose from countless cases of injustice where the rights of individuals who experienced crime were unrecognized, ignored, or forgotten. The movement focuses on addressing how to support someone who has been victimized, acknowledging the physical, emotional, and financial impact of crime on individuals, and letting victims know that they have rights and are not alone.  All these are things that the NY Crime Victims Legal Network also hopes to do.

I joined Empire Justice Center in 2015 to be a part of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project. At that point, the Network was just an idea – an elaborate plan on paper, a vision in the minds of its creators.  Now, we’re on the verge of expanding the geographic reach of the Network and its online resource, NY Crime Victims Legal Help, to a total of 26 counties in New York State,* and by the end of this autumn we will have expanded the Network to all regions in our state outside of New York City. It is a productive and exciting time for Empire Justice and our partners, Pro Bono Net, Center for Human Services Research, and the New York State Office of Victims Services. For me personally, it’s also a good time to reflect on something I’ve learned in the past 3 ½ years: that there is no hierarchy of victimization.

In 1984, the year the Victim of Crime Act was signed, I was graduating from high school, painfully shy, terribly naïve, and completely uncertain of my place in the world.  Several years later as a law school graduate, I was still shy and only slightly less naïve, but I found an area of law that I had a passion for and a longing to work in: domestic violence.  For the next two decades I worked primarily in the field of family violence and intimate partner & sexual violence. One of the things that I prioritized while educating students and training professionals was the unique challenges faced by this particular group of victims. I’ve been compelled all these years to try to reveal what had been hidden, and to make what can seem intrinsically incomprehensible– that abuse and violence can happen in a context of a romantic or familial relationship – apparent.  An important component of my work is making sure that people understand the answer to the most frequently asked question, “Why don’t they just leave?” and explaining the depth of betrayal that results from being hurt, tormented, exploited and terrorized by someone you love. I recognized the shame, embarrassment, fear and other difficulties targets of intimate partner and family abuse may face when trying to seek help; it was important to me to help them pave a path to understanding and assistance.

But in the past 3 ½ years, I gradually became aware of something else. I have come to realize that individuals who are victims of other crimes share the trauma of victimization and also need the collective voice of advocates to have their concerns heard. Someone who is mugged or robbed or physical assaulted during a crime also experiences betrayal that can impact their sense of safety and security in the world. The legal and systemic challenges faced by an individual whose perpetrator is a stranger can also be acute. The unfathomable grief, disbelief or anger of an individual who loses a loved one in a crime is often augmented by months – or years – of entanglement with the legal system seeking to hold the criminals accountable for their actions. The struggle to obtain justice can be just as tough whether or not your offender is a stranger or a spouse.

As there is no hierarchy of oppression, there is no hierarchy of victimization.

That I’ve just now come to this simple, basic realization humbles me.  Every victim of crime deserves compassion; to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity; and to have their rights enforced. As I look forward to the expansion of the Crime Victims Legal Network, I am grateful for the continued opportunities I have to learn from the incredible people I’m fortunate enough to work with, and those I’m privileged to assist.


*For more information about the counties included in the pilot and the expansion, please see https://empirejustice.org/victims-of-crime/ or crimevictimshelpny.org


This was produced under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

NY Crime Victims Legal Help

Posted on November 7th, 2018

A few days ago, I received a request for technical support and assistance from an attorney in western New York. This isn’t out of the ordinary – Empire Justice is known as an excellent resource for technical assistance on certain types of complex civil legal matters.

This attorney had a client* who had gone through an experience that required delicate and sympathetic handling: the nonconsensual recording and distribution of intimate photographs of the client to the client’s family members. The shame, humiliation, and sense of betrayal experienced by the client were unbearable. This person, hesitant to contact the police, wanted to know if there were other legal options, and if there was someone who could provide non-legal support as they tried to cope with the devastating ramifications of this crime.

Fortunately, we were able to refer the attorney to a new legal resource designed to help victims of crime: the newly launched NY Crime Victims Legal Help.

NY Crime Victims Legal Help is an online resource that connects victims of crime to civil (non-criminal) legal information, resources, and services. The website is currently being piloted in the counties of Erie, Niagara, and Genesee.

Funded through a $1.5 million federal grant obtained by the New York State Office of Victim Services (OVS), the website is the result of a collaboration among that agency, the Center for Human Services Research at the University at Albany, Pro Bono Net, and Empire Justice Center. Working in partnership with an Advisory Committee, the goal was to create a legal assistance network that would address the civil legal needs that New Yorkers face as a result of criminal victimization. The help of hundreds of crime victims and their service providers has been instrumental in the creation of the website, which is the centerpiece of our Network.

According to stats from the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), there were more than 190,000 violent or property crimes reported in counties outside of New York City in 2017. These are only the cases that were reported to the police, and we know from our Needs Assessment that a significant percentage of victims never report the crime or seek help.

There were a number of reasons why crime victims didn’t always seek help. The strongest were:

NY Crime Victims Legal Help was designed to assist exactly these individuals.

The online resource was created with the specific needs of crime victims in mind. We wanted the site to be welcoming and accessible, contain information that’s easy to find and easy to understand, and be simple to use on any mobile device. Even the images on the homepage were chosen to reflect the diversity of people who are survivors of crime, while also conveying hope and strength, because individuals are more than just their victimization, and positive outcomes are also a reality – especially when people are able to access the help they need.

A Legal Help Directory is available so that users can easily find legal assistance in their area. Simply select your county and your legal issue to find legal help near you. Because more than 1/3 of the crime victims in our survey reported that no one informed them of their rights as a victim, we wanted to make sure that users of the site could easily obtain this information. The Know Your Rights library contains information about your rights as a crime victim in criminal court, as well as particular protections and general information on some of the top areas of legal need identified by both victims and providers:  Family, Housing, Employment, Money, and Immigration. The Find Legal Forms section has links to blank forms and online programs that can help you create the necessary court documents. Finally, the Get Started option offers users a way of accessing all these features at once.

Currently, the Legal Help Directory and Get Started tool can only generate results for the Erie, Niagara, and Genesee counties, but the Know Your Rights information and DIY Forms are available to anyone. In 2019, our goal is to expand the legal content on the website, expand the technological features of the online resources, and expand the geographical scope of the NY Crime Victims Legal Help to include all regions in New York State outside of New York City.

We’re piloting the site in order to get useful feedback about its utility for both people who have been victims of crimes and for service providers. Is the information easy to understand and helpful?  Are there sections that should be simplified, or expanded? Are there subtopics within the Know Your Rights section that need to be included?  When we expand the legal content, what legal issues should be addressed and what areas of victimization should be included?

Whether you are a civil legal attorney, a human service provider, a victim advocate, or a crime victim, your continued guidance, involvement, and support are vital to the improvement of this project. Contact me with any thoughts, concerns, or ideas for improving the online resource, or email me at rparthasarathy@empirejustice.org if you want to get involved with the Crime Victims Legal Network.

Knowledge is power. Think of all of the people this network can help, if they only knew about it. Spread the word!

(*Details of the attorney, client, and case were charged or omitted to protect the individual’s privacy.)

Sour Grapes and Doughnuts: Big Changes at the CFPB (And Why It Matters to You)

Posted on May 7th, 2018

It was a tale of two Acting Directors at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On November 27, 2017, Leandra English, appointed Deputy Director and de facto Acting Director by outgoing Director Richard Cordray, who was resigning, sent an email to staff thanking them for their work and wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. That same morning, Mick Mulvaney, appointed Acting Director by President Trump, was also at the CFPB offices, and sent an email to staff telling them to enjoy the doughnuts he had arranged. The message also directed all employees to ignore any directives or further messages from Leandra English. Thus began a legal battle, unresolved today, that will determine the future of the Bureau.

The CFPB from its inception has existed with its share of political controversy. First proposed in a 2007 paper by then-Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, the Bureau was created in 2010. The intention of the agency was not only to protect consumers seeking financial services, but also to regulate the financial services industry so that the same mistakes and misdeeds that led to the virtual collapse of the American economy in 2007-2008 would not be allowed to happen again. The Bureau was specifically designed to be an independent agency, functioning free from the political divisiveness that it is now mired in.

The accomplishments of the Bureau from 2012 to 2017 under Director Cordray are undeniable. Among them was a major overhaul of the rules around mortgage servicing, where abuses had cost homeowners not only billions of dollars, but for hundreds of thousands of them, their homes to foreclosure. Legal actions were brought against banks, credit card companies, payday lenders, debt collection companies, and others, bringing billions of dollars of relief to consumers who had been victims of financial service industry abuse. The Bureau processed almost a million consumer complaints in its first five years, and educated millions of American consumers in the area of financial services. More than one poll in 2017 has shown that across party lines, a majority of Americans think Wall Street and the major banks needed more regulations, and approved of the CFPB.

However, not everyone in Washington was a fan of the CFPB and its mission. During the presidential campaign that led up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump criticized the CFPB often, claiming that consumers and the economy in general suffered from over-regulation of the financial sector. He, and others, said the Bureau was choking the life out of financial service providers through overreach, and stunting the growth of the economy. One elected official who echoed these sentiments, and often took them further, was Mike Mulvaney, a GOP Congressman from South Carolina. First appointed, after the election, by President Trump as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and then in November of 2017 as Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for some Mulvaney was an odd pick. Along with the doughnuts he brought on his first day on the new job, he carried several years’ worth of very public criticism of the Bureau with him. Mulvaney had referred to the agency as “sad, ”sick,” and a “joke.”  He had called on the Bureau to have less independence, and to be more accountable to Congress. He had co-sponsored legislation to abolish the Bureau altogether. Now he was to lead it.

The CFPB mission statement under Cordray read, “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st Century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives.” Under Mulvaney, the mission statement now reads, “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st Century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by regularly identifying and addressing outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome regulations, by making rules more effective, by consistently enforcing federal consumer financial law, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives.” It’s not hard to see a complete shift in both mission and tone.

In Mulvaney’s first report to Congress as Acting Director, he called the Bureau “far too powerful”, and “with precious little oversight”. He made several recommendations to Congress that would diminish the agency’s power, and greatly limit its independence. In his first month on the job, Mulvaney froze or greatly slowed all hiring, rule-making, enforcement and supervision activities. He began to roll back many of the consumer protections that had been put in place since 2010. He put all Bureau operations under review. Some say that the drama of Mulvaney’s rhetoric outweighs the actual impact of his actions, at least so far. When the Acting Director quietly changed the official name of the agency to the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the move was largely symbolic, but displays a clear ideological shift. The Bureau hasn’t been completely paralyzed under his direction; massive lender Wells Fargo has confirmed that it is facing a fine of a billion dollars from the CFPB and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as a result of abuses to consumers in auto and mortgage lending. This is the first enforcement action taken by the Bureau with Mulvaney at the helm.

Drama, sour grapes and doughnuts aside, there is no denying that the CFPB has taken a massive change in direction under Mick Mulvaney’s leadership. Many questions exist about the future of the Bureau. Will current critical consumer protections against fraudulent practices by financial service providers that cost American consumers, particularly those most economically vulnerable, billions of dollars be rolled back or eliminated? Will critical safeguards on the financial services industry meant to prevent another collapse of the American economy be partially, or totally, dismantled?  Will the Bureau lose its independence or cease to exist completely?

The answers to these questions will not only greatly affect the financial services industry, but are critical to the financial well-being of every American consumer. If you have a credit card, bank account, mortgage, auto, student, or any other loan, the future of the CFPB is relevant to you. If you own stocks or any type of investment, have a 401K or other retirement account, the future of the CFPB is relevant to you. In fact, if you participate in the American economy at any level, the future of the CFPB is relevant to you.

Please join agencies and consumers across the country in fighting for crucial consumer protections by reaching out to your congressperson and urging them to retain the integrity of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can use this link to identify your representative.

Calling All Victim Advocates!

Posted on October 17th, 2017

As the weather turns cooler and the beauty of the foliage enchants, as the scent of pumpkin spice fills the air and Halloween candy is ever-present, remember to wear purple to raise awareness about domestic violence, and consider volunteering to help the Crime Victims Legal Network.

This October marks the 30th anniversary of national Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM).  DVAM was launched back in 1987 to unite individuals and organizations working on domestic violence issues and to raise awareness of the experiences of these unique victims of crime.  Wearing the color purple during this month, especially on the Thursday during the third full week of October (this year, October 19th), has helped to draw attention to this important issue.  Over the past three decades, we have shined a light on this social injustice that knows no social and economic boundaries, and through grassroots and legislative efforts, have made a significant difference in the lives of intimate partner violence survivors. But our efforts are still needed in support of these victims – and for other victims of crime.

The New York Crime Victims Legal Network (CVLN) is a partnership of organizations working together to better address the civil legal needs of crime victims, including victims of domestic violence.  Crime can have a huge impact on victims and their families.  The emotional reactions to a crime can include a variety of behaviors such as increased concern for personal safety, withdrawal from others, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and a range of feelings from fear and anxiety to guilt and helplessness.  On top of this, victims of crime may have to face multiple legal problems that stem from their victimization. It can be overwhelming, and many people aren’t sure where to turn.

The CVLN is in the process of developing new tools that will connect victims of crime with the information and services they need.  A dedicated website will have a suite of features including a triage screening tool, legal aid help directory, self-help resource library and live chat.  From the Needs Assessment we conducted last year, we know many crime victims don’t seek help because they don’t know where to go, don’t think that anything can be done to help, or because they think they can deal with things on their own.  The triage tool is being designed to help crime victims identify their legal needs.  For the pilot stage, we are focusing on providing legal resources in the areas of housing, family, employment, immigration, and finances – the top needs identified by victims of crime and service providers.  By offering know your rights and self-help resources, we hope that more crime victims become aware of the options available to them, and through the help directory that they know where they can obtain help with their legal problems.  And to assist users in finding their way around the website, a live chat feature will be available.

To create a product that truly meets the needs of crime victims in New York State, we need feedback from real people.  If you are a victim of a crime who resides in Erie or Genesee County, would you consider becoming part of our Community Insight Group?  We’ll be turning to you at various stages of the development of the website to get your thoughts, opinions, and advice.  Is the website design aesthetically pleasing?  Is the site easy to maneuver?  Is the content helpful?  Your feedback will play an important part in guiding the direction of the website.  User testers will receive a small stipend for their assistance.

Service providers – we can use your help, too!  Please help us recruit user testers.  Reach out to past clients you believe would likely use our site, anyone who could potentially have civil legal issues directly or indirectly stemming from their victimization.  We’re inviting 10-12 people to be a part of this Community Insight Group.  Or you can help by volunteering as a content expert, someone who reviews the legal content being developed for the site and makes sure the resources we offer are useful.  Please email me at rparthasarathy@empirejustice.org if you are interested in helping or for more information.

I hope we can count on your help with the Crime Victims Legal Network.  And don’t forget to wear purple!

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Doing Time in Dilley

Posted on September 15th, 2017

This blog tells the true story of families seeking asylum in the United States- families that have gone through horrors not meant to be experienced, especially by children.  Please be aware that some of the content may be considered graphic by some readers.

In December 2016, I spent a week serving as a pro bono attorney at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), a family detention center for women and children located in Dilley, Texas.  Volunteers are organized through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a collective created by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).  These organizations joined together in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s expanding practice of detaining families seeking asylum at the United States and Mexican border.

The water tower stands sentinal over Dilley.

What exactly is a “family detention center?”  Well, it’s basically a cleaned-up term used to hide what these places really are: prisons.  The United States government is currently incarcerating women and children fleeing violence in their home countries (mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and who are asking for asylum at our borders.  Yes, children – some as young as just a few months old.

I met with a number of these women and children during my time at the STFRC.  One young girl’s story has stayed with me, months after I met with her.  My colleague was interviewing her mother, and I sat down to keep her pre-teen daughter company.  As we sat coloring with crayons, she turned to me and asked if I wanted to know why she came to America.  I told her I didn’t know why but if she wanted to tell me, she could.  She proceeded to tell me about how her uncle had been raping her for years and that when she told her mother about it, everything got worse.  Her mother called the police, who didn’t do anything, and her family turned on her for dragging others into their private affairs.  Her own family threatened her with violence, and her mother made the decision that in order for them to be safe, they had to flee the country.  This child does not belong in a prison while she and her mother rightfully seek asylum under US laws.  She needs to be counseled and offered medical services, not incarcerated.

After telling her story, the young girl turned to me and asked if I could play her some songs on my laptop.  She was really worried and nervous about their hearing the next day with the asylum officer and what questions they might ask her.  I tried to ease her mind and said she could answer any questions the way that she had just explained it to me.

Prathiba in Dilley, TX

After that, we sat and watched Disney music videos to take her mind off things until her mother was done preparing.  Before she got up to leave, she turned to me and asked if the Empire State Building was as tall as she had seen in pictures.  She said she was hoping to see for herself.  She is a kid, one who has been through a lot, but a kid nonetheless.

Why are children being imprisoned?  Mostly because the companies who run these private prisons are earning millions of dollars a year in revenue for each of the 2,400 beds they fill at the STFRC.

In even more appalling news, in May 2017, Texas lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would license family detention centers as child care providers.  This is despite a 2016 court ruling where a judge held that the STFRC did not meet the minimum requirements to care for children.  The GEO Group, the  private prison company that runs the other Texas family detention center, Karnes, lobbied Texas lawmakers to introduce the bill, a bill that would earn them exponentially more revenue and allow them to remain open and hold children in these facilities for even longer.

Beyond the disturbing reality where a family jail would be licensed by the state as a childcare provider – this is a dangerous precedent.  From someone who has been to the STRFC, seen and spoken to the children and women being held there – there is no way that they should be allowed to pretend they are childcare providers.  Almost all of the children there have severe diarrhea, congestion and hacking coughs.  Their coughs were so forceful it sounded like they would vomit at any moment.  When mothers tried to seek medical attention, they were told to give their children honey or a throat lozenge.  When I was there, the medical staff did not even speak Spanish, so most mothers did not know what medicines were being given to their children.  Children who were running around playing would come back from the infirmary and just pass out asleep from the pills given to them.  One day, a child in the “daycare” room was found by a CARA volunteer passed out and nonresponsive, with no STFRC staff member in the room with the children.  And if that weren’t enough, volunteers were all warned to not drink the tap water in Dilley because it has been contaminated by nearby fracking.  Yet, the STFRC staff filled water dispensers directly from the tap for the women and children being detained.

Family Detention Centers are inhumane, not a solution.  With the Trump administration planning to expand detention,these human rights abuses need to be brought to light and these centers need to be closed.

The experience of volunteering in Dilley has reaffirmed my dedication to fighting for immigrant rights, and I already have plans to return.  If you are interested in volunteering or learning more, please visit AILA’s website.

Prathiba joined a long line of advocates volunteering in Dilley, and hopes to go back this year.

Working for Justice: Beginning with Inspiration

Posted on July 31st, 2017

In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher.  The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice?  What is a voice if it does not sing for change?”  I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in.  The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.


The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general.  Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice?  What is equality?  How are they intertwined and are they universal?  Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others.  Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality.  I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.

My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.”  I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime.  I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.

During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day.  SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft.  The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers.  Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year.  These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health.  The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill.  It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.


I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team.  We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses.  The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.

I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial.  Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State.  Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.

Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation. 

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project: Moving into the Pilot Phase

Posted on July 20th, 2017

Last Spring, the Crime Victims Legal Network Project launched a comprehensive needs assessment to better understand the civil legal needs of crime victims in New York State.  To the hundreds of crime victims and service providers who completed surveys or took part in focus groups and in-depth interviews: Thank you!  I am overwhelmed and gratified by your participation and excited to share the results with you.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project is a federally funded partnership between the New York State Office of Victim Services, Empire Justice Center, the Center for Human Services Research at SUNY Albany (CHSR) and Pro Bono Net.  Together with our fourteen-member Advisory Committee, we are working to develop a first- of- its- kind statewide network outside New York City that uses sophisticated technology solutions to make it easier for crime victims to access civil legal aid.

Over a year was spent designing and conducting a multi-phase Needs Assessment, led by our research partner, CHSR.  The Needs Assessment was essential to helping us identify the civil legal problems faced by crime victims, the barriers to seeking help and the role an online resource could play in helping fill the existing gaps in services outside of New York City.  While we had a sense of what these problems and gaps were, we want to create an evidence-based solution that will play a meaningful part in assisting victims of crime and the professionals who work with them.

The response to the surveys was tremendous.  We received 310 responses to the victim of crime survey, and 412 responses to the service provider survey.  Focus groups for both sectors were conducted in nine regions across the State, and civil legal attorney and law school clinical faculty were interviewed.

Here are some highlights of the analysis of the issues, services and challenges in meeting the civil legal needs of victims of crime:

The complete report can be found on CHSR’s website.

As the Project Leader, I had the privilege of assisting in four of the focus groups in western New York, and I am humbled by the generosity of all the participants.  The expertise of service providers was astounding, and your recommendations – all of which came from a place of genuine caring – were taken to heart.  And the crime victims?  Your willingness to share some of the most intimate and traumatic experiences of your life to ensure that other crime victims get the help you didn’t is nothing short of incredible.  Thank you, to all the participants.

What’s so exciting is that, now with the analyzed results, we can make sure that the technology solutions developed for the Network Project are truly grounded in the real life needs and preferences of crime victims.  Based on the results, Pro Bono Net, our technology partner, has proposed that the Network’s technology include a website with a suite of features designed to meet the needs of crime victims, and at the same time help civil legal assistance providers in delivering holistic services to their clients.  And that’s what we are starting to develop during this second phase of the Project.

May 1st marked the start of Phase II, the pilot phase of the Network Project.  As we develop the technology, we will be focusing on growing partnerships within the western New York region, specifically in Erie and Genesee counties, the geographic area of the pilot.  Our goal is to work with service providers – both legal and human services providers – whose clients may benefit from the technology solutions being developed, and have them test the online resource and help us improve it before we expand it to the rest of New York State.

For the pilot stage, we will be focusing on the top concerns identified by both crime victims and service providers in the needs assessment: family, money/finance, employment, housing and immigration.  Your knowledge, along with the continued guidance of the Advisory Committee, will help us make sure the information on the website is useful, practical and can really assist crime victims with their civil legal issues.

In the next few months, I’ll be reaching out to some of you to be a part of this initiative.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Crime Victims Legal Network Project or in helping out, please contact me.  I can be reached at rparthasarathy[at]empirejustice[dot]org.

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 3

Posted on March 24th, 2017

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers’ rights.  We’ve seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called “welfare reform” of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty plus years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group, continues his thoughts in his third installment.


In my previous articles, I examined the 1996 welfare reforms and assessed where things stand today, nationally and in New York State.  I intended, in this third and final installment of TANF at 20, to take a forward looking view:  In what ways might Congress and the Federal government improve the welfare system to make it a more humane and effective in fighting poverty?  A TANF reauthorization bill introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators, despite its flaws, gave hope that some less punitive, more productive legislation might be achievable. [1]  Then came the November elections, and I felt compelled to rethink what I could discuss that might be possible, of interest and of value.  The new game plan:  I’ll review what we might anticipate in the way of federal TANF legislation in the coming year(s), acknowledge that we will probably not be able to turn to the Federal government for constructive change, and then focus on what New York State can do to help fill the void.

What Action Is the Federal Government Likely to Take on TANF?

In June, 2016, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the most powerful voice in Congress, released a report entitled “A Better Way:  Our Vision for A Confident America” (interesting choice of adjectives). [2]  It was written by the House-created Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility.  Though lacking in legislative detail, it offers a peek into the likely changes the Republican-controlled Congress would expect to make in the TANF program.  Most of the news is bleak, though there are a few positive concepts and some of the rhetoric might align well with progressive perspectives. [3]  But these hopeful signs tend to be overwhelmed by more harmful provisions, and of course, even the best of ideas are inconsequential if tax cuts and budget cuts prevent meaningful implementation.  Shortly before this article was completed, the Trump administration proposed the outlines of a federal budget that would cut tax revenues and increase defense spending by $54 billion.  Discretionary programs such as TANF would be the inevitable targets of the resulting spending cuts.  Here are some “high”lights of the Ryan plan:

Work (Part 1)

Some pretty good rhetoric
The TANF portion of the “Better Way” report is primarily focused on work.  It begins with some promising rhetoric.  It quotes a state welfare official who complained that the TANF law emphasizes technical programmatic requirements rather than real individual progress.  This is likely a reference to TANF participation rates, which measure whether enough recipients are “engaged” in mandated activities, without regard for whether favorable outcomes are being achieved.  For years, progressives have urged Congress to replace participation rules with more meaningful measures, like poverty reduction and long-term placement in decent-paying jobs.

The TANF section also suggests that states should be accountable for helping recipients improve their employability and secure decent jobs, and observes that child care, transportation, stable housing, adequate food and consistent work schedules are important to successful employment.  This could be the introduction to a progressive overhaul of the welfare system!

The actual recommendations? 
The Task Force does not formulate detailed proposals, but things go downhill as the paper proceeds.  Most strikingly, it repeats, in so many words, the “Work First” mantra of the 1996 reforms:  a job, any job, is more effective than, for example, education-focused activities.  If that was ever true, it is most certainly not true at a time where decent paying jobs increasingly require higher education and/or specialized training.  The report repeatedly insists that adults on TANF who can work must work, as if that were not already the law of the land.  It complains that the states are not engaging enough of the TANF recipients in work activities.

What we might expect
I would be surprised if TANF reauthorization did not include some mix of higher participation rates and the elimination of the means by which states can reduce their required level of work participation. [4]  The conservatives will also have to resolve the tension between two competing principles.  First is the impulse to be much more restrictive about the activities that can count as work participation.  Second is the bias in favor of greater local discretion.  A number of states, red and blue, have called for broader authority to define countable work activities.  We’ll see how it plays out…

Work (Part 2)

Not strictly TANF
The preeminence of work in the “Better Way” report shows up in its discussion of some non-TANF programs.  But because of the repeated reference to the TANF work rules, and the likely impact on the people we serve, they bear mentioning here.

SNAP – The report recommends that the law “insist on work for work-capable adults” receiving SNAP benefits.  The discussion seems to simply restate the SNAP rule for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependent Children [5] – ABAWDs – but may foreshadow even more rigorous, punitive and broadly applied work mandates.

Housing assistance – The Task Force expresses concern about the length of time that people remain in subsidized housing, and cites data to the effect that many employable residents are not working.  Not surprisingly, the proposed solution:  impose TANF-like work requirements, which are always accompanied by severe punishments for alleged noncompliance.  Admittedly, the proposal would include help with child care, transportation and other work supports.

The Ryan Task Force speaks out on anti-poverty programs in general
I’d like to touch briefly on a number of observations and recommendations in the report that address the anti-poverty, non-profit and social services world in general, governmental and otherwise.

Incentives/“cliffs” – The paper addresses inappropriate incentives at some length.  We all might agree that public benefit “cliffs,” where a small increase in earnings might result in the loss of eligibility for some critical benefit, create an incentive not to increase earnings.  A robust remedy would be welcome.  But the paper is also concerned about the law’s insufficient marriage incentives.  The TANF law already promotes marriage and two-parent families, but one could imagine alarming new possibilities.

Non-profits – The report complains that non-profits are often rewarded for helping more clients to receive benefits, without also giving the agencies an incentive to move people off of benefits.  There is no specific proposal, but there’s glaring potential for mischief here!

Effectiveness – Under the folksy title, “Pay More for the Good Stuff, Less for Everything Else,” the report bemoans the fact that federal funding too often fails to distinguish between effective and ineffective approaches.  But how will “effective” be defined?  The Task Force seems to suggest, for example, that extended time receiving benefits is a sign of ineffectiveness.  So the federal match rate should be reduced over time to ensure that the state is invested in moving people off of benefits.  This would be deeply troubling…

Program evaluation – The Task Force argues that most federal programs are not evaluated, and when they are, many are found ineffective.  Certainly, a strong case can be made for evidence-based policy making.  The danger is that effectiveness will be defined by policy makers who are overtly hostile to the programs they are assessing.

Waste, Fraud, Abuse – It seems reasonable that the feds should “focus support on the people who need it most,” doesn’t it?  But unfortunately, this is the Task Force’s way of saying that too many recipients are wrongly paid due to fraud, waste and abuse.  TANF is actually not singled out, but the report lists the major offenders, such as the EITC, which in 2015 allegedly had an improper payment rate of over 27%, or $17.7 billion.

Local control: the New York impact – The report supports more local control and flexibility in TANF program choices.  That principle is too often honored in the breach.  But ironically, we in New York State might distinctly benefit – or at least be somewhat less vulnerable – if Congress and the new administration delegate more authority to the states.  It’s a very different story in many other states.

What can New York State do?

A disclaimer – I’ll share my thoughts here on changes in the welfare system that New York State should consider.  We of course cannot be certain when or how the federal government will modify TANF laws or what the final federal budget will look like.  But sadly, it is probably safe to say that constructive, beneficial change to the welfare system in the coming years is much more likely to originate at the state or local levels of government.  We would, therefore, do well to consider what might be done in the Empire State. [6]

An informational aside – Family Assistance (FA) is New York State’s TANF program, whereas Safety Net Assistance, our other public assistance program, is purely a State creation.  While federal law is controlling for TANF/FA, it has no jurisdiction over SNA.  In New York, comparable policies have generally been adopted for both programs, though with some notable exceptions. In any event, this section looks at state options for change in the TANF/FA program under current federal law constraints.

And a prelude – The list that follows is by no means exhaustive.  Hopefully it provides a useful sample of actions that New York State can undertake to enhance our welfare program while comporting with federal law.

The Welfare Work Rules

  1. Sanctions:  The New York State legislature recently passed a fine law addressing sanctions for alleged work rules violations.  It requires that the social services district investigate to determine the reasons for non-compliance before the sanction process is triggered, and it provides that a person can have a sanction lifted upon a showing of willingness to come into compliance.  But the law only applies to New York City.  Federal law mandates sanctions for non-compliance, but nothing more specific than that. [7]  The sanction law can and should be expanded statewide.
  2. Two-generation programs:  I am increasingly persuaded that programs that address the needs of low income parents and their children represent one optimal means of serving both generations.  Programs might have to be structured in such a way that the activities in which the parents engage might be countable as work, but the endeavor is well worth the effort. [8]
  3. Career Pathways:  I generally favor more forceful leadership from Albany on welfare policy.  I also recognize the value of the districts – intimately familiar with the population they serve – having some latitude with regard to the work activities they assign.  But it is not unreasonable for OTDA to provide guidance and ground rules regarding the activity assignments.  There should be programs that take local labor market conditions into account and that adhere to best practices in the field.  One example of a model that has a track record for effectiveness is the Career Pathways concept.  In brief, Career Pathways programs offer a ladder of instruction and training, with multiple entry and departure points, each level offering skills training that can result in the granting of recognized credentials; many of the most effective programs include “soft” skills development.  This may include training in the realm of executive function, skills that focus on flexibility, “working memory” and what is sometimes called self-regulation. [9]
  4. Households with children under 1 year:  This is fully permissible under current TANF law.  In New York, advocates tried for years to secure a work activities exemption for PA recipients with children under the age of one year.  Initially the primary motivation was to free up child care funds for already-employed parents.  But a terrific additional gain might be that the exemption would enable parents to spend more time with their infant children, and districts might offer services and programs to assist young parents.
  5. Access to education:  Because the federal government has asserted itself aggressively in the realm of countable work activities, access to education may depend more on what happens next in Washington D.C. than some of the other recommendations made here.  But there is at least the possibility that more discretion will be given to states regarding assignable activities.  In any event, New York should act decisively to make all levels of education and skills development more integral components of PA work assignments.  The research about the benefits, in terms of employment, retention and compensation, of every increment of quality education and training is overwhelming.  For starters, making college education one of the activity options and making homework a countable activity should no longer be left to local discretion.

General Welfare Policies

  1. Benefit levels:  A shameless plug!  Federal law says nothing about TANF benefit levels in the states.  A singular achievement in New York would be the enactment of the Home Stability Support program, which would vastly enhance the capacity of PA recipients to pay rent and heating bills.  Please visit http://www.homestabilitysupport.com/supporters-1/, or drop me a line to join our list-serv.
  2. Screening for disability:  Over the years, I have informally surveyed advocates around the state regarding the local districts’ treatment of people with disabilities.  I have consistently been told about systemic problems in this area.  Disabilities are too often not identified, and of course if the disability is not identified, then individuals are unlikely to receive the accommodations that are needed to secure benefits and that are mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Federal TANF policy requires upfront disability screening, though there has been little in the way of enforcement and that is unlikely to change under the next administration.

New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which oversees the state’s welfare programs, has been incredibly frustrating in its unwillingness to set forth explicit directions for the districts with regard to identifying disabilities.  Under the ADA, screening must be voluntary, and there are issues that need to be worked out so that the process is not seen as coercive, but the state can certainly do a much better job in ensuring that disabilities are identified and, where appropriate, that needed accommodations are offered.

The culture of welfare administration 
In the first two installments of this blog, I have decried the culture of welfare administration.  In too many, but not all, districts this often create barriers that prevent people from receiving urgently needed assistance.  The effect of these obstacles is to discourage, intimidate and confuse people seeking benefits.  The remedies are many; they might include:

Welfare law has stringent rules about resources and eligibility.  But possession of some level of resources is often critical to the ability to leave welfare, and may offer a cushion against the unpredictable nature of employment.  It is reasonable that people with substantial wealth should not be eligible for PA, but households with modest resources should not have to exhaust them before receiving aid.  For example:

Child care
A brief step beyond the realm of public assistance.  Child care is guaranteed by law for PA recipients who are given work assignments.  But the shortage of funding for child care for working parents who are not eligible for welfare has reached crisis proportions.  Thus, if a welfare recipient does exactly what the system demands of them, that they secure employment and leave the welfare rolls, they will, sooner or later, face a crisis if they are unable to secure a child care subsidy.  The situation became ever more desperate when Congress wisely enacted rules to improve child care health, safety and quality, but absurdly failed to provide funding to enable the states to comply.  Certainly, the provision of adequate child care funding for both the PA and the non-PA populations must be among the highest of priorities.


Coming to the conclusion of this “TANF at 20” posting, I return to the beginning, the adoption of “welfare reform.”  From the start, many advocates felt that the TANF program, and the larger PRWORA legislation under which it was created, were ill-conceived, and grounded in biases about public assistance and the people who need it.  And nothing about the 20 years since 1996 has changed our views.  Take a look at a remarkable series of articles by Peter Germanis, who dubs himself Peter the Citizen, an “ardent conservative deeply concerned about truth in policy making and policy assessment.”  I am sure we would disagree about many details, but in his article, “Making “Welfare Reform” Great Again:  Five Recommendations for President-Elect Donald J. Trump,” [10] Germanis notes that he played a role in writing the 1996 welfare reform law, and now regretfully calls it a massive failure.  He recommends that the new president not rely on sweeping anti-poverty reform packages, but rather that he encourage state flexibility but with accountability, reject block grants, emphasize work, but focus on what is realistic, reasonable and effective, and recognize that welfare dependency should be reduced, not by cutting the caseloads, but by reducing poverty.  Germanis strongly believes that the 1996 reforms failed in virtually all respects.  I might tinker a bit with his themes for the new administration, but considering the source, his ideas might carry considerably more weight.  We can hope.

In this third installment, I discuss the prospects for the TANF program in Washington – ranging from uncertain to bleak.  I then proposed a sampling of steps that New York State can undertake without conflicting with Federal law.  I conclude with the hope that this not be simply an informational exercise, but that we continue to share thoughts and ideas about addressing the urgent needs of low income New Yorkers and work together to enable some of these and your ideas to become reality.

End Notes
 [1] See The Empower Act of 2016, http://www.king.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/EMPOWER%20Section-by-Section.pdf.
 [2] The section on poverty can be found here, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/?page=poverty, with links to various formats, snapshot, fact sheet, entire document, etc.
 [3] During the course of 2016 there was at least one potentially promising, bipartisan legislative proposal, but my fear is that such moderate initiatives will face steep resistance in Congress and the White House.  See, http://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/news/blog/senators-introduce-bipartisan-tanf-reauthorization-bill-would-expand-access-to-education-and-training.
 [4] States can currently reduce their mandated work participation rate by reducing their caseload, and also by increasing their “maintenance of effort” expenditures.  For a fine brief explaining the participation rates, see Elizabeth Lower-Basch, “Work Participation Rate – TANF,” Center for Law and Social Policy, updated July 2016, http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/TANF-101-Work-Participation-Rate.pdf.
 [5] This rule provides that ABAWDs are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period unless they are meeting prescribed work requirements.  Issues such as adequacy of notice, availability of work options, and the accuracy of “able-bodied” determinations, makes this rule particularly problematic.
 [6] Most of the proposals here are based on my experience and research into welfare issues.  But this discussion is also specifically informed by two publications, Elizabeth Lower Basch and Stephanie Schmit, TANF & The First Year of Life – Making a Difference at a Critical Moment, Center on Law and Social Policy, October 2015; and Donna Pavetti and Liz Schott, TANF at 20: Time to Create a Program, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 2016.
 [7] 45 CFR §216.14
 [8] For more information about the two-generation approach to building family economic security, see, for example, Report by the Executive Director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, “A Two-Generational Approach: Helping Parents Work and Children Thrive,” https://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/two-gen/2015-02-03_report_FINAL.pdf.  See also a wealth of materials from Ascend – Aspen Institute, http://ascend.aspeninstitute.org/pages/the-two-generation-approach; and the Center for Law & Social Policy, http://fcd-us.org/resources/thriving-children-successful-parents-two-generation-approach-policy.
 [9] An excellent overview of executive function can be found at the website of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/.  While this site focuses on early childhood development, the need to address executive function deficits in adults is challenging but crucial.
 [10] Peter Germanis, November 2016.  This and many other “Peter the Citizen” articles can be found at http://mlwiseman.com/?portfolio=peter-the-citizen.