|Niagara County Majority Leader Rich Updegrove is a little tired of county taxpayers being forced to pay for Albany’s overly generous, lifetime, welfare benefits.
Like every state in the nation, New York provides Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), benefits mandated by the federal government under 1990s welfare-reform laws.
Under TANF, benefits provided to able-bodied adults are for up to five years’ total in a lifetime.
After that, welfare is cut off.
In other states, when someone uses up his five years of welfare, he or she must go to work -- or move to New York State.
In New York, a costly New York State lifetime welfare program, called Safety Net Assistance is offered to those who have exceeded their 5-year welfare allowance.
What's worse, now local counties, not the state, pay for most of it .
The result: Safety Net Assistance, unique to New York State, is projected to cost Niagara County taxpayers $7.8 million this year, or more than 10 percent of county tax revenues.
Now Republicans in the county legislature are saying "enough is enough” and plan to call on state leaders to permit Niagara County to opt out of paying benefits beyond five years - like they do in most states- or, failing that, at least change the lopsided way the state requires the county to pay for welfare "lifers" benefits.
What set them off initially is that Republican county lawmakers found that a recent Cuomo-inspired change in the ratio of payments counties pay to "welfare lifers" is now costing almost $2 million a year in extra payments for just the single change alone.
The $2 million increase was caused when the state shifted its funding formula for Safety Net in the 2011-2012 state budget which was the first budget passed on Cuomo’s watch.
“Essentially what happened was, after funding (Safety Net Assistance) at a 50-50 split since it was created, the state decided to start only paying 29 percent—and made the county pick up 71 percent of the tab,” explained Richard E. Updegrove R- Lockport, the top Republican in the 15-member Niagara County Legislature.
"That’s wrong and that’s obnoxious,” Updegrove said.
On top of that, with Niagara Falls leading the way to attract low income housing projects, and with people moving from other states and from downstate New York, the local caseload has jumped significantly in recent years.
Under NY's Safety Net - not only do welfare benefits kick in after the five-year TANF is exhausted, but the criteria for Safety Net is wide and broad, too, a wide net meant to catch people from all over the nation and get them here to enjoy welfare.
According to NYS’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, NY's Safety Net is provided to persons who have exceeded the 60-month limit on [TANF]; aliens who are eligible for temporary assistance, but who are not eligible for federal reimbursement; families of persons refusing drug/alcohol screening, assessment or treatment and families of persons found to be abusing drugs or alcohol. But you don’t have to be a drug addict or a foreigner to come here to get welfare.
Almost anyone can move to New York and get on welfare immediately; there are few requirements and hardly any screening to prevent fraud. Typical welfare fraud, as cited in numerous studies, includes people collecting welfare, while working under the table, or a couple living together, one of them working, while the other is on welfare, who lie in order to collect welfare by claiming they do not live together and thereby meet the low income requirements.
Updegrove said he was particularly troubled by the new costs associated with the county picking up a larger part of the tab for a program the state mandated.
"There is no federal requirement for New York to be so generous with our taxpayers’ money to begin with,” he said. “That New York offers a program that many states don’t, and asks our property taxpayers to fund it, is ludicrous.”
Ironically, at the same time welfare rolls were growing, the county lost population.
Perhaps it’s cause and effect.
According to figures from Niagara County Social Services Commissioner Anthony Restaino, shared with The Reporter by Updegrove, the county’s caseload has jumped from 1,036 Safety Net recipients in 2006 to 1,563 today—a 51 percent hike in less than a decade. That's on top of the 5,000 or more TANF welfare recipients who haven’t exceeded their five year run.
“The results of this program are inconsistent with the objectives,” Updegrove said.
Updegrove said he is planning to introduce two pieces of legislation at the legislature’s next meeting later this month. One asks the state to restore the previous 50-50 funding split for Safety Net, a position shared by the New York State Association of Counties at its recent statewide conference, held last month in Erie County—and the other asks to let counties decide if they want to offer the Safety Net program at all.
“Safety Net is the kind of expensive benefit program that is the major driver behind New York State’s high taxes and high cost of living,” Updegrove said. “As the federal government is not requiring anything more than TANF, and many states are only offering TANF, we are at a competitive disadvantage. We’re asking New York State to let us innovate and abandon costly unfunded state mandates—especially if we are expected to pick up the tab. Safety Net is a good place to start.”
First-term Legislator Randy Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, agreed with Updegrove. An accountant by trade, Bradt said “we are projected to spend at least $7.8 million locally for Safety Net just this year.
To put that in perspective, we collect $73 million in property taxes annually. That means more than 10 percent of our taxes are going just to fund this one (extra) welfare program.
“We have watched our (welfare) caseload increase by more than half in less than a decade. And total costs have climbed from $5.8 million in 2006 to a projected $11.1 million this year,” Bradt said. “That is unsustainable spending no matter how you cut it up.”
Can Niagara County afford to pay more welfare benefits than the rest of the nation?
Updegrove added, “Repeal of this one state-mandated program would allow us to give our taxpayers a 10 percent tax cut. That’s what’s really at the crux of this. Your county taxes are 10 percent higher than they need to be because of this (extra, lifetime welfare) program mandated by Albany.”
Updegrove fixed the blame on Cuomo and his allies in the New York City-controlled, liberal, state legislature.
“Four years ago, when Carl Paladino was running for governor, he took a lot of heat for criticizing the state’s welfare system, and warning that it would expand under Andrew Cuomo and [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver,” Updegrove said. “It turns out he was absolutely right. It’s time for fundamental reform.”
This is not a new cause for Updegrove, a longtime foe of interminable social spending. He has repeatedly blasted the state’s Medicaid program for offering health benefits most working taxpayers’ insurance doesn’t cover.
The healthcare benefits handed out freely by the state includes full medical, dental and eye-care. The federal Medicaid program mandates 10 basic services. There are 21 optional services. For instance, free dental and free eye glasses are not mandated by the federal government.
But New York State Medicaid provides these and 28 other services, the most in the nation. Other states, including California, have reduced benefits covered. New York spends more on providing Medicaid benefits than Texas and California combined.
In New York, according to the Cato Institute, a family receiving TANF, Medicaid, food stamps, WIC, public housing, utility assistance and free commodities (like milk and cheese) would have a package of benefits worth $38,004.
Since welfare benefits aren’t taxed, while wages are, someone in New York would have to earn more than $21 per hour to be better off than they would be on welfare.
That’s more than the average entry-level salary for a teacher.
Working also means added costs such as paying for child care, transportation and clothing.
And a person switching from welfare to work will lose something else: less time for leisure.