Good morning, Chair Rosenthal and esteemed members of the New York State Assembly Committee on Social Services. My name is Wilfredo Lopez and I have the pleasure of serving as the Director of Government Affairs for the Urban Resource Institute (URI).
URI has been in operation for close to 40 years and has grown to become the largest domestic violence shelter provider in the country. URI currently provides temporary housing to more than 3,000 people impacted by domestic and gender-based violence and families experiencing homelessness. URI is committed to developing and delivering innovative client-centered and trauma-informed services to individuals impacted by domestic and gender-based violence. We appreciate the opportunity to share our views on this important topic and the unique effects that the pandemic and continuing economic instability have on the clients we serve.
The cost-of-living crisis increases the fragility of a system already in need of repair. Over the past decade, increased inflation has decreased the buying power of the dollar by over twenty percent.1
Increasing prices on goods and services continue to put a strain on many family budgets. These effects are particularly acute for families depending on public assistance benefits to make ends meet.
Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022. Since then, the rate has dropped to 8.3% in October, which is still high. When looking at the year-to-date data, inflation is still above 8%, which is the highest rate since 1990, when inflation last broke 6%.2 The outlook continues to be bleak, with projections predicting higher than average inflation through 2025.3 Percentages do not tell the entire story. Looking at the increased prices of housing, transportation, food, and goods one can truly see the impact inflation is having on all families.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2022, food prices in the New York City area rose at their fastest annual pace since 1981. According to City Harvest, the number of children visiting food pantries was 55 percent higher earlier this year than it was before the pandemic.4 Although there are many news reports about the increasing price of bagels, deli sandwiches, and $8 pints of blueberries,5 families feel the real impact when comparing the increase in the price of a gallon of milk year over year.2
The national average for a gallon of milk in August 2021 was $3.56.6 The national average for that same gallon of milk in August 2022 was $4.19. That is a 71.69% increase in one year. Families with children often go through three to four gallons per week. That is approximately $2.50 per week or $10 per month that families do not have in their pocket. That is because the public assistance benefits standard of need has not increased since October 2012.7 Food costs are not the only thing impacted by inflation; housing has also become unaffordable for many New Yorkers, especially those relying on public assistance benefits.
The New York City Rent Guidelines Board increases —, which passed in June 2022 — will allow rents on one-year lease renewals for rent-stabilized apartment leases signed between October 1 and September 30, 2023, to increase by 3.25 percent, the highest increase in nearly a decade.8 Skyrocketing housing costs combined with rising inflation is leading to an increase in the number of families losing their homes. Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.9 Individuals and families experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness depend on temporary public assistance benefits to make ends meet, however, the benefit amounts do not come close to addressing the needs these individuals and families have.
There are two types of temporary assistance, Family Assistance (FA) and Safety Net Assistance (SNA). Assistance for families with children is subject to certain eligibility restrictions, and includes a 60-month time limit. Individuals, couples without children, and families with children who have reached the five-year limit are eligible for SNA. Applicants for SNA must meet the eligibility requirements, which include income and resource limitations. A person who is determined to be eligible for these programs receives a monthly benefit that is less than 50% of the federal poverty limit in all counties of New York. The amount of the monthly benefit depends on whether the applicant is currently in a shelter or not.
The non-shelter public assistance grant is based on household size and is the same regardless of the county of residence. Meaning that an applicant in New York County – where the median gross rent per month is $1,78710 – will receive the same monthly benefit as an applicant living in St. Lawrence County, where the median gross rent per month is $715.11 The current benefit levels allow a family of four to receive $433 per month, hardly enough to survive, never mind thrive.
Public assistance benefits do not get any better for individuals and families in shelters. Public assistance grants include a shelter component, known as the “shelter allowance,” which varies depending on the county where the applicant resides as well as the size and composition of the household. Further, the shelter allowance schedule is divided into two categories, one for households with children and one for households without children. Throughout New York State, shelter allowances are significantly lower than the actual cost of decent housing. 3
Using the same two counties as examples, a family of four living in St. Lawrence County receives approximately $817.70 per month in shelter allowance, while a family of four living in New York County receives approximately $951.70.12 This begs the question, “How are New York families living in shelters supposed to find affordable housing with public assistance?”
What is even more telling is that these benefit amounts only provide approximately 35.36% of the federal poverty level for a family of four for the family in St. Lawrence County and 41.15% for the family in New York County. These public assistance benefit amounts are insufficient.
URI works with primarily with domestic and gender-based violence survivors and families experiencing homelessness. Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness in New York.13 Survivors of domestic violence flee with their families to the safety and security of URI or other shelter providers, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Public assistance benefits represent a critical lifeline for survivors of domestic violence and their families. This is in part because a startling 98% of survivors have reported that they have experienced some form of financial abuse.14
Financial abuse can take many forms. Abusive partners, in order to exercise and maintain control over their partner and their children, will actively seek to prevent and sabotage their partner from attaining economic independence or stability by limiting their access to financial resources, interfering with employment, ruining credit, and more.15 Survivors may struggle to meet basic needs and left trapped – and economically vulnerable – in an abusive relationship or otherwise unsafe situation. Ending an abusive relationship may mean losing not only access to a partner’s income, but also housing, employment, health care, or childcare.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, family violence, especially against women, increased to record levels.16 Domestic and gender-based violence during the pandemic increased because the risk factors increased. Women living in under-resourced communities are more than twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence compared with women in well-resourced communities.17 About 45% of participants in a survey of 1,500 domestic violence survivors reported experiencing financial difficulties, including many not being able to pay their bills.18
Due to the nature and impact of economic abuse, survivors have an increased need for public assistance benefits, and they require more protection, greater flexibility, and longer-term benefits. Without programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children), Medicaid, New York State’s Temporary Assistance Programs, or housing allowances these families would go hungry, have no access to medical care, and go without many basic needs.19 Because the public benefits assistance amounts have not increased in so many years, they no longer set families on a path toward financial independence. Instead, low benefits amounts keep recipients stuck in a near perpetual cycle of poverty and mere subsistence. 4
URI was pleased to see the state address economic well-being in the fiscal year 2023 enacted budget through enhancements to the Empire State Child Credit and modest increases to anti-hunger programs. The enacted budget also included changes to the State’s public assistance eligibility determination requirements. Even with this improvement, significant financial challenges continue to exist for those receiving these benefits, in part, because the benefit amounts have not increased to keep pace with inflation. The State’s announcement earlier this month detailing that households participating in SNAP, including those already receiving maximum benefits would receive the maximum amount of food benefits allowed for October20, is a good first step. However, this measure is temporary; families require a permanent solution to stave off the effects of inflation. Under the current economic climate, the state requires bigger, bolder, and more permanent investments in public assistance benefits going forward.
There are many plans and pieces of proposed legislation that address the issue of the current public assistance benefits in light of the economic instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation. The priority is increasing the basic grant amounts for individuals on public assistance, which is why URI respectfully request that the New York State Assembly include funding for legislation A.9130 (Increase Basic Grant Amount for Individuals on Public Assistance) in its one-house budget proposal to increase the standards of monthly need and home energy grant amounts. Individuals who receive public assistance have had to subsist on the same grant levels since 2012 for their basic grant and the same grant levels as the 1980s for their home energy grant. This legislation would create an immediate positive impact for individuals on public assistance.
URI also believes that to solve this issue, funding should be included for legislation A.8900A (Increase Shelter Grant Amount for Individuals on Public Assistance) in the one-house budget to allow people on public assistance to receive a shelter grant of up to 100% of fair market rent in their area, which will allow them greater access to housing.
Further, the disparity that exists between the allowances granted for individuals living in shelters that provide meals versus those shelters that do not provide meals must be addressed. The Assembly should include legislation A.8061 (Increase Personal Needs Allowance for Homeless Individuals) in the one-house budget proposal to increase the personal and special needs allowance provided to individuals in shelters with meals so that it is the same as the grants received by those in shelters that do not serve meals. This additional monthly allowance will enable individuals to purchase food, medications, clothing and other necessities.
Individuals and families receiving public assistance benefits should not be penalized for having savings. The current amounts exempted discourage households receiving assistance from saving money for emergencies or investing. Increasing these amounts will enable individuals to have resources available without the fear of losing much needed public assistance benefits. The Assembly should include legislation A.7672A (Resource Exemptions for Public Assistance 5
Program Applicants) in the one-house budget proposal allowing an increase in the amounts exempted in calculating the number of benefits of any recipient of public assistance.
Moreover, individuals participating in federal workforce innovation or skills certification programs should be given some time to adjust to their new jobs without the fear of losing public benefits immediately. The Assembly should include legislation A.7534A (Exempting Income Earned from Job Training or Adult Education Programs from Public Assistance Program Needs Determination) in the one-house budget proposal allowing the exemption of income earned because of participation in federal workforce innovation or skills certification programs for a period of up to six months. Taken together, the impact of these increases would have a sea change on the ability of individuals relying on public assistance benefits to get their lives back on track. These changes would also be of incredible benefit to the clients we serve.
Once again thank you for the opportunity to come before you today to share our views on this important topic and the unique effects that the pandemic and the current economic instability is having on the clients we serve. 6
1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm (last visited last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
2 U.S. Inflation Calculator, https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/annual-u-s-inflation-rises-8-2-in-september-core-rate-marks-40-year-high/100023207/ (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
3 Congressional Budget Office (CBO), “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2022 to 2031,” https://www.cbo.gov/publication/57950 (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
4 Nicole Hong, $15 French Fries and $18 Sandwiches: Inflation Hits New York, N.Y. Times, Aug. 8, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/08/nyregion/inflation-nyc.html.
6 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics National Average Price for Whole Milk, https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/APU0000709112?data_tool=XGtable (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
7 Empire Justice Center, Standard of Need by County, (Aug. 01, 2022), https://empirejustice.org/resources_post/standard-need-charts/ (last visited Oct. 26, 2022).
8 Kim Velsey, Your Rent Might Be Going Up This Week, CURBED, (Oct. 26, 2022), https://www.curbed.com/2022/09/rent-stabilized-increases-2022.html#:~:text=Not%20quite%3A%20The%20average%20rent,July%20to%20%243%2C500%20in%20August.
9 Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City, Coalition for the Homeless, https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20homeless%20New,it%20was%2010%20years%20ago (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
10 U.S. Census Bureau, Quick facts for New York County, NY, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/newyorkcountynewyork/PST045221 (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
11 U.S. Census Bureau, Quick facts for St. Lawrence County, NY, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/stlawrencecountynewyork (last visited Oct. 25, 2022)
12 Supra, note 7.
13 Supra, note 9.
14 Aditi Bhattacharya et al., Reinvesting in Economic Justice, Equity, and Solidarity for Survivors in New York City, (Oct. 2022), https://csaj.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/NYC-Survivor-Economic-Equity-Platform_FINAL-3.pdf (last visited Oct. 25, 2022).
15 See, e.g., Postmus, J. L., Plummer, S. B., McMahon, S., Murshid, N. S., & and Mi Sung Kim, M. S., Understanding Economic Abuse in the Lives of Survivors, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(3), 411–430 (2012).
16 Liz Mineo, ‘Shadow Pandemic of Domestic Violence,’ The Harvard Gazette, June 2022, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/06/shadow-pandemic-of-domestic-violence/. 7
17 National Institute of Justice, When Violence Hits Home: How Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role, Sept. 2004, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/205004.pdf.
18 National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, J. E. Bradshaw Lyon & A. Menard, “Meeting Survivors’ Needs through Non-Residential Domestic Violence Services & Supports: Results of a Multi-State Study,” http://www.vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/DVServicesStudy-FINALReport2011.pdf.
19 Supra, note 14.
20 Press Release, Governor Kathy Hochul, Governor Hochul announces $234 million in additional food assistance for October (Oct. 21, 2022), https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-hochul-announces-234-million-additional-food-assistance-october.