Bloomberg Passes Up Food Stamp Funds

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a pro-choice, gay friendly, anti-gun former Democrat whose most ambitious policy initiatives have aimed at reducing poverty and making the city more environmentally sustainable. Mississipi Governor Haley Barbour is a conservative, anti-abortion, gay marriage opponent with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association who divided his earlier career between orchestrating the 1994 Republican Revolution and serving as a big-bucks tobacco lobbyist.

Amid rising unemployment in the past year, guess whose administration chose to provide more generous food stamp benefits to people who are not working?

Barbour's did. Bloomberg's didn't.

In the halcyon days of early 2007, when the city's unemployment rate reached a record low, the mayor claimed a leading role in the city's post-Sept. 11th renaissance, hailing the "unique position of strength New York City is in as a result of five years of innovation, accountability and fiscal responsibility."

Now joblessness is rising. From May 2008 to May 2009, the unemployment rate (which understates joblessness because it only counts people who are actively looking for work) rose across the city—from 4.2 percent to 8.1 percent in Manhattan, from 5 to 9.2 percent in Brooklyn and by slightly less dramatic margins in the other boroughs.

It's an open question whether Bloomberg—whose economic skills were his main argument for extending term limits—is going to get blame for the employment numbers for which he once claimed credit. In a recent Marist poll, 51 percent of respondents said they approved of the way the mayor was handling the economy.

Bloomberg didn't trigger the 2008-2009 recession any more than he single handedly spurred the 2002-2008 job boom. What he more accurately could be judged on is how he has played the economic hand that fate has dealt him. Saving money in a rainy-day fund? Check. Calling for pension reforms? Check. Raising unpopular taxes? Check. Strengthening the safety net? Eh…well…yes and no.

When the federal government adopted welfare reform in the mid-1990s, it restricted access to food stamps as well as to cash benefits. If you were not disabled, didn't have kids and weren't working, you could only receive three months of food stamps in any three-year period. But the feds recognized that there would be times and places where that rule could be unreasonably strict. So they permitted states or counties with high unemployment to apply for a waiver that would allow childless, able-bodied people to get more extensive benefits.

In the past two years, all or parts of 46 states (as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and, oh yes, Guam) have applied for or received waivers, including Alaska, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and other rock-ribbed "red" states. Even South Carolina and Louisiana, whose ambitious Republican governors have made big shows of refusing stimulus money, took the extra food stamp benefits. Only Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Delaware have not participated—and Delaware doesn't really count because no one's sure it actually exists.

New York City has long qualified for the food stamp waiver because it's unemployment rate exceeds the national average. Under welfare-slashing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city turned the extra benefits down. When Bloomberg took office, there was hope or fear (depending on whom you asked) that he would accept the waiver, especially in tough, post-Sept. 11 times. The New York Post editorial page and the conservative Manhattan Institute warned Bloomberg against such a move, and when the mayor turned down the waiver in 2002, the Post said he'd "passed an early test." Later, in 2006, Bloomberg's welfare chiefs wanted to accept the waiver but the mayor overruled them. This year, when the federal stimulus package offered a waiver to every state and county so that the unemployed could get food stamps until mid-2010, the Bloomberg administration said, "No thanks."

This refusal to accept federal money that needy people would inject into the economy through neighborhood stores has long puzzled advocates. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum tried unsuccessfully this spring to get Governor David Paterson to accept the waiver statewide; Paterson decided to leave the choice to local officials. State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan has introduced a bill that would force the city to accept the waiver; it has yet to be voted on.

According to Gotbaum, accepting the waiver could bring $155 million in federal money to the city. It would mean continued benefits for 47,000 current food stamp recipients and restarted benefits for 14,000 others who've already timed out. The city might bear some administrative cost for handling the extra food stamp caseload, but the stimulus package could even cover that. While the city still puts plenty of bureaucratic obstacles in the way of people trying to get the benefits to which they are entitled, Bloomberg's administration has done a somewhat better job than Giuliani's did in getting eligible people to receive food stamps: The number of recipients has increased by 49 percent in the past five years.

So why would the mayor turn down federal aid for needy people in a program his administration has expanded?

Compared to the Giuliani days, welfare hasn't been a hot-button issue during the Bloomberg years. But Bloomberg's welfare record is something that he is highlighting this year: His campaign website says that "Mike has reduced New York's welfare rolls to their lowest level in 45 years by sticking to the simple principle that underlies welfare reform—you can't get something for nothing." The Human Resources Administration, which administers food stamps and cash assistance in the city, displays on its website a chart that shows the city's welfare caseload shrinking even as unemployment climbs.

As City Limits' Chloe Tribich reported earlier this year, HRA explains its refusal to accept the waiver as "consistent with our work-focused welfare program and .... New York City's longstanding policy that able bodied individuals between 18 and 50 years old who do not have children are required to work in order to receive food stamp benefits."

Of course, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out, food stamps aren't welfare.You can only use them on food. And they aren't very generous. A single adult has to make less than $13,500 a year to qualify and can get a maximum benefit of $200 a month. The average monthly benefit per person in New York State is about $110.

In other words, the $36 million Bloomberg has spent on his re-election campaign would cover a year of food stamp benefits for about 27,000 average New York recipients.

Of course, the campaign can't do that: It's got a mayor to re-elect. However, the Bloomberg team has done its part for the local food industry by spending $32,000 on "food service" and "meals," according to campaign finance records. That's a lot of donuts and coffee the re-election team is wolfing down on hizzoner's dime. But, like its website says, "you can't get something for nothing."