NEW YORK - The letter from New York City to welfare veterans is blunt. "Your time limits for cash assistance will be expiring this year," referring to the five-year lifetime limit on federal cash aid. "We have scheduled an appointment for you to be seen so you can discuss how you plan to manage your household expenses."
The notice went to Angel Martinez, one of two working parents in a family of five who were getting by on low wages and their small cash aid supplement. It went to Florence Dawson, sole parent in a family of six, who is still not working for pay, but stretches benefits with dried beans and homemade bread. And it went to Nancy Nay, whose battles with cancer, asthma and sickle cell anemia are still interfering with her ability to participate in workfare and support her teen-age daughter.
These are just three of the 38,800 New York City families who face a federal welfare cutoff in December. But their stories hint that the universe of such cases is far more diverse and complex than champions and critics of time limits expected - on the whole, they are neither the most recalcitrant nor the least resourceful of the poor.
In about 32 percent of the cases, at least one parent has a job, like Martinez. About 22 percent are now classified by the city as noncooperative, like Dawson. The remainder are divided among those doing workfare in exchange for their benefits, those in job training, those deemed by the city to be temporarily ill, disabled or elderly, and those still being assessed. Moreover, many, like Nay, have shuttled among many of these categories, for reasons sometimes lost in the bureaucracy.
The fate of families who hit their lifetime limits on aid, from whatever mix of bad luck or bad choices, has long loomed over the welfare overhaul. Would the government enforce such cutoffs, regardless of suffering? Would it take the specter of such suffering to motivate the most dependent to help themselves?
In New York City, such questions now look too simplistic. First, the state, required by its constitution to aid the needy, has already spread a safety net of sorts - though how, when and for whom it will operate is still uncertain. Then, when the time limits really take hold, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who took a hard line on ending welfare during an economic boom, will have been succeeded by a new mayor facing an uncertain economic climate.
For now, though, the Giuliani administration is pushing to shrink the group of families reaching their federal time limits, and the letters are part of that campaign.
"Individuals should use the five-year milestone as an important opportunity to reassess their lives and their progress toward achieving self-sufficiency," Jason A. Turner, the city's welfare commissioner, recently told a City Council committee.
But what welfare officials call a milestone looks a lot like a cliff to many families. "Every organization that represents poor clients is getting a stream of calls saying, `How am I going to live when my aid ends?'`' said Don Friedman, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Community Food Resource Center.
The state and the city have said that those reaching the time limits would have to reapply for aid under the state-financed system known as Safety Net Assistance. But the system, a mix of vouchers and debit cards, would significantly reduce cash benefits and is not expected to be in place until at least the spring of 2002.
A closer look at three Brooklyn families as they weighed limited options in complicated lives shows fear, confusion and even panic over the possible consequences of the time limits for their children.
Fearing a fall
Angel Martinez rejects the notion that he and Regla Belette, parents of three in Brooklyn, are a welfare reform success story. "We're giving it our best shot," said Martinez, 40, "and it seems to be backfiring in our face."
Martinez worked for years in a factory and for a music company, making $9 an hour, before he went to prison for a 1990 drug conviction. When he got out, he used public assistance to complete drug rehabilitation, excelled in his welfare-to-work training program, and was recently promoted from a cleanup crew to a warehouseman in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Belette, 26, who turned to public assistance during the three years Martinez was in prison, spent a year in a workfare assignment at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Now she is paid by the city to take care of her sister's three children while her sister is in a workfare assignment.
But because of computer glitches, Belette's baby-sitting pay from the city was delayed for months. When the cutoff notices began coming, their cash aid had been cut to $89 every two weeks, and Martinez was earning only $6 an hour, he said.