Niagara Gazette

Local News

March 9, 2014

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

Social Services' caseloads, costs rise following 2008 economic downturn


Niagara Gazette — 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.” 

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