Welfare cut brings no immediate disaster New York caseworkers fear new rules will yet bring hard consequences


NEW YORK -- Of all the dire predictions about the dismantling of the nation's welfare system a year ago, perhaps the most disturbing was that more children would suffer from neglect, hunger and abuse in the chaos of households cut off from benefits.

Child welfare experts feared the worst.

For a year, Marcia Harris has been as qualified as anyone to determine whether these predictions were coming true. Harris, a caseworker at St. Joseph's Services for Children and Families in Brooklyn's Southside neighborhood, works with families on public assistance who have been ordered to seek counseling and other aid because their children were deemed to be at risk of abuse or neglect.

Clearly, an immediate disaster has not occurred. Harris has not recommended that a single Southside child go into foster care because women unable to cope with new welfare requirements or cutbacks had put their children in danger.

And she has seen striking instances in which mothers have risen to the challenges.

One obtained a license to drive a school bus and is considering three job offers. Another began using birth control for the first time, realizing that there would be no additional welfare money for another child and that she had to find work.

"Across my overall caseload, I have perceived a high level of motivation among these mothers," said Harris, who works with 13 of the 113 Southside families involved with St. Joseph's.

"There has even been some real bonding among them. They share information, tips about day care and the like. We have not yet seen cases where people truly snapped."

That said, things have not been easy at St. Joseph's, a social services and foster care agency that has worked with Southside families for 20 years.

Caseworkers say there is an overwhelming sense that the hardest consequences lie ahead. Lifetime limits on welfare will not take effect for years.

The office's yearly allowance for emergency shelter funds ran out in August, and its food pantry was wiped bare months ago.

Harris and other caseworkers say the demands of the welfare changes have produced a powerful anxiety and depression among some clients. They have sent many more parents for mental health care in the past year, and the number of people coming for help was up 15 percent in 1997.

"People have managed; people have hustled," said Barbara Wald, the director of preventive services for St. Joseph's. "But it's way too early to tell responsibly what it will in the end mean for these parents and children. I absolutely remain nervous."

The experiences and emotions inside the St. Joseph's office in the heart of Southside -- surprise and relief balanced by a haunting uneasiness -- reflect the neighborhood's 12-month engagement with federal, state and city changes in welfare policy and enforcement.

The legislation and the state and city efforts at carrying it out have unquestionably affected the routines and decisions, the character and conversation, of a neighborhood where roughly half the residents received public assistance of some kind.

The neighborhood has not been decimated. But many residents note that it was a poor neighborhood to begin with, and thus incrementally grimmer circumstances are often hidden.

Lorraine Morgan and Sandra Velasquez, with 25 years on welfare between them, are off the rolls and working.

Solangel LaFontaine refused the welfare work requirement and moved with her son to Florida.

Esmeralda Santos, who was ordered into workfare last year, remains stuck there, her seventh-grade education garnering her no job opportunities.

Ana Melo, a 55-year-old woman with serious medical problems, was given a workfare job cleaning the Staten Island Ferry terminals, but has at last moved from welfare to federal disability benefits.

William Rodriguez, who dared to open a supermarket on Havemeyer Street last May despite declining food stamp revenues and other potential disruptions to the neighborhood's revenue flow, has seen profits from his $1 million gamble slowly grow, reaffirming his belief that, one way or another, "people are going to buy food."

The old Williamsburg welfare office, where recipients had shared the troubled particulars of their lives with caseworkers for 30 years, is now an office for detecting welfare fraud.

"I think it's true that for many people in this neighborhood the old attitudes no longer exist -- the idea that to go on welfare and get along is a realistic possibility," said Monsignor Bryan Karvelis, pastor of Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church in Southside.

"And it's true that we have not seen people cast into the streets in great numbers. That's not to say there isn't a crisis.

"It's just that poor people, by definition, have always lived in crisis. They go from crisis to crisis, surviving as best they can along the way. We have survived. So far."

In straight numerical terms, the drop in Southside's welfare population over the past year has been striking. In Southside, the greatest reduction in the past year has come among the single adults without children who were receiving benefits under a state welfare program known as Home Relief -- a reduction of nearly 50 percent, to 630 from 1,182.

The decline in the number of people receiving federal welfare benefits for single mothers with children has been less steep -- 5,654 people now on the rolls, from 6,288.

The number of people receiving federal disability benefits, known as Supplemental Security Income, has barely changed, in part because of the federal government's decision not to strip legal immigrants of SSI.

The statistics also show that more people are using what government assistance remains. There are 4,163 people in Southside who are not on welfare but are poor enough to receive Medicaid, up 450 from a year ago.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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