Niagara Gazette

March 9, 2014

POVERTY IN NIAGARA: Benefits boom -- Caseloads, costs rise following 2008 economic downturn

Social Services' caseloads, costs rise following 2008 economic downturn

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Niagara County Department of Social Services is a busy place these days. 

In recent years, demand for services has risen, caseloads have increased and so have costs. 

The numbers reflect what Social Services Commissioner Anthony Restaino said has been one of the highest periods of activity his department has seen in his 14 years on the job.  

Niagara County, he contends, is not alone. 

“Pretty much everybody throughout the state is seeing the same thing as it relates to an increase in caseloads,” Restaino said. “The economy really isn’t making enough of a rebound to where (people) can find work and support themselves and their families.” 

Niagara County, like many other parts of the country, saw a spike in demand for social services assistance following the 2008 economic downturn. In the weeks and months that followed, Restaino said staff members saw a lot of new faces, many of whom had never applied for social services help before. Many, Restaino suspects, were victims of corporate downsizing or layoffs. 

“We were seeing more and more people who were coming into this building for the first time,” he said. “A lot of these people were trained and working sometimes for 15 to 20 years at the same job.”

While residents have been able to transition into new positions or careers, many others still have not and are continuing to receive assistance. 

The cost to the county has added up. 

“It really is showing a general increase and it’s really as a result of people not being able to get employment that allows them to not use or need food stamps or to stay off of or get off of cash assistance,” Restaino said.

His department oversees several programs under the social services umbrella, including basic Medicaid, foster care and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. The department also is in charge of the federally subsidized “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” which provides cash assistance to eligible families for up to five years. 

New York state is one of the few states in the country that offers “Safety Net,” another supplementary cash assistance program that kicks in after those eligible for TANF have “timed out,” or surpassed their five years of eligibility. 

A welfare reform bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 imposed the five-year eligibility limit. The state of New York later created Safety Net, a similar program with no limit attached. 

Restaino’s department has seen across-the-board increases in caseloads and costs in recent years.

The cost for Basic Medicaid, a program long-decried by county lawmakers as a burdensome “unfunded” mandate,” rose from $40.6 million in 2007 to $46.8 million last year. 

SNAP and Safety Net costs have increased as well. 

In 2004, 7,078 SNAP cases were reported compared to 14,970 by the end of 2013. Not surprisingly, the county’s cost for SNAP has more than doubled in the last seven years, from $21.4 million in 2007 to $51.2 million in 2013. 

In 2007, New York changed the way it handled SNAP applicants. With support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state put an end to the practice of fingerprinting food stamp recipients. While supporters contended the practice made it easier to guard against fraud, advocates for the poor, Cuomo among them, argued that fingerprinting stigmatized needy people and stifled participation. 

As was once the case years ago, individuals applying for SNAP or Medicaid are no longer required to conduct face-to-face interviews with social services staffers. Today, applications for both programs are most often submitted by mail or by telephone.

Restaino noted that individuals receiving benefits under various programs are required to re-certify on a regular basis. For SNAP, recipients are required to re-certify every six months. Medicaid, TANF and Safety Net require annual eligibility reviews. 

“At that point, they have to tell us about any changes in their income, household composition, address,” Restaino said. “If there’s a change, we have to determine whether people are still eligible.” 

Safety Net cost increases in particular have drawn the ire of county lawmakers in recent years. 

In 2007, the program cost the county $6.1 million. By the end of 2013, the cost had risen to $10.9 million. 

Until March of 2011, counties and the state split costs for Safety Net evenly. As part of the 2011-2012 state budget, lawmakers agreed to pass more of the cost along to the counties, increasing the local share to 71 percent and decreasing the state share to 29 percent. 

As part of the deal, the cost-sharing for TANF changed as well. Before April of 2011, the federal government covered 50 percent of the cost for the program, with the state and counties picking up 25 percent each. As part of the Safety Net cost change, the state agreed to “absolve” counties of their TANF expenses in an effort to make up for any extra cost related to Safety Net. 

“Quite frankly, that has not worked out,” Restaino said.   

“That (Safety Net) program is growing and the percentage of the cost of that program is higher now on the backs of the local taxpayer than it was prior to April of 2011,” he added. 

Part of the reason: Benefits being paid to individuals who move into Niagara County to collect after they have “timed out” on their eligibility in other states. 

According to the social services department, in 2012, 204 people moved into Niagara County from outside New York and applied for benefits, adding $3.7 million to the local cost of welfare and Medicaid. 

Through August of last year, 111 more individuals moved in and applied for assistance, adding another $1.8 million to the county’s burden. 

Restaino’s department has documented cases of individuals who have exhausted their TANF allotments in places like Michigan, Georgia and Ohio who moved to Niagara County and applied for extended benefits. 

The county, through entities like the Association of Counties, has for many years lobbied for reforms in Albany. Last year, Niagara County lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported a resolution calling on the state to impose a residency requirement for public assistance. They’ve made similar requests dating back to 1992. 

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, who co-sponsored the most recent residency resolution, said, quite simply, no-limit assistance programs like Safety Net are costing the county “a fortune.” 

Republican lawmakers in the county legislature have supported similar reform efforts. In 2009 and again in 2011, Majority Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, sponsored successful resolutions calling on the state to impose residency requirements for public assistance.

Virtuoso placed the blame squarely on state lawmakers, saying only they have the power to impose a residency requirement and enact other reforms.   

“Our state legislators have to do their jobs and do something about it,” he said. “We haven’t heard anything from the state. They are mute on the issue.” 

BY THE NUMBERS The costs associated with various assistance programs offered through the Niagara County Department of Social Services for the past five years: 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Purchase of Services $1.69M $1.72M $1.61M $2.03M $2.21M Basic Medicaid $37.0M $36.2M $41.3M $45.4M $46.8M TANF $11.5M $10.7M $12.3M $12.2M $11.8M Foster Care $6.2M $5.7M $6.1M $6.4M $8.5M Safety Net $7.1M $8.2M $8.6M $9.4M $10.8M SNAP $39.6M $46.0M $47.9M $48.9M $51.2M