Governor Paterson’s 2009 Message to New York’s Poorest: Let them Eat Pheasant

When we first saw the Governor’s press release headline proclaiming “GOVERNOR PATERSON PROPOSES FIRST INCREASE TO WELFARE GRANT IN 18 YEARS – Children Represent Largest Portion of Recipients,” our reaction was, its about time, and a good thing that at last we have a Governor with courage to do the right thing for a politically weak and unpopular segment of our citizenry, whose ranks are growing in this time of recession. Also, funnelling more to these families will bring some federal reimbursement and will tend to stimulate the local retail economies.

Those more cynical might quickly have pointed out that the headline of Governor Paterson’s press release, announced along with other budget messages, uses the word “proposes” for the welfare increase in contrast to other press releases which emphatically announce his initiatives in a way almost suggesting they are a fait accompli, viz., “GOVERNOR PATERSON’S EXECUTIVE BUDGET ELIMINATES LARGEST DEFICIT IN STATE HISTORY, REINS IN SPENDING,” when of course all measures in his budget must be acted upon by the Legislature.

Those interested in the details would, upon reading further, learn that the Governor’s budget proposal for welfare increases would not add one nickel to the budgets of needy families in 2009:

The basic monthly grant has remained at $291 for a family of three ($3,492 per year) since 1990. Since that time, inflation has increased by more than 65 percent.

For the average size public assistance household comprised of a mother and two children, the maximum monthly basic allowance when the increase is fully implemented in 2012 will be $387 ($4,644 annually), a monthly increase of $96 or 33 percent from the current maximum allowance of $291.

Approximately 200,000 households will benefit from this increase, which would take place in three phases: a 10 percent increase, from $291 to $320 in January 2010; a second 10 percent increase to $352 in January 2011; and a final 10 percent increase to $387 in January 2012.

Thus the Governor’s proposal after 18 years of no welfare increases is to make it 19 years.

Incomes for the poorest in the state stagnated even during years of comparative good economic times. As a result, about 200,000 New York households with about 510,000 members living at the public assistance level have been ground deeper into poverty, exacerbating their problems and creating chronic energy crises. See The Economics of Low Income Energy Assistance in New York: No Wonder They Call Economics the “Dismal” Science. As utility bills have gone up over the years, more and more is deducted from the welfare grants and paid directly by local social services departments to the utilities. Vouchered public assistance households never have utility emergencies, and so they are not eligible for HEAP crisis assistance payments made to households with higher incomes. As a result, public assistance households have more and more taken out of their allowances, and have less and less to deal with other rising costs, including rent, which is typically above the inadequate welfare rent allowance levels.

The state’s failure to update the welfare income eligibility levels also throws many low income households into an emergency utility assistance category meant for those above the welfare level, exposing them to very harsh restrictions imposed by OTDA. See OTDA Must Relax Its Administrative Restriction on Utility Assistance Loans for Persons with Incomes Above the Public Assistance Level; OTDA Eases, but Continues, its Administrative Restriction on Assistance to Utility Customers with Incomes Above the Public Assistance Level. The resulting inability to resolve energy crises as the Legislature intended when it simultaneously adopted HEFPA and the emergency utility assistance program in 1981 frustrates the goals of protecting the poor, the utilities, and the public interest in providing continuous service to residential customers.

* * * * * * *
A few days before touting a welfare increase proposal for 2010 (and no increase in 2009), the Governor issued a press release indicating he proposes to close a state-run pheasant breeding farm intended to support the pheasant population, the hunting pastime, and the attendant economic development benefits that accrue when New Yorkers hunt at home instead of South Dakota where there are 8.56 pheasants per mile. As a result 8,000 New York ringnecks will be slaughtered.

These state-slaughtered birds will be donated to food pantries for New York’s poor. See “GOVERNOR PATERSON ANNOUNCES DONATION OF THOUSANDS OF PHEASANTS TO LOCAL FOOD BANKS, SOUP KITCHENS, AND FOOD PANTRIES – Says Closure of State-Operated Pheasant Farm Will Save Nearly $750,000.”

Reminiscent of the words attributed to Marie Antoinette upon learning the poor had no bread to eat, Governor Paterson’s message appears to be:

Let them eat pheasant.”

Update January 23, 3009
The Governor announced that the game farm will not be closed, and so the necks of the ringnecks will not be wrung for the food pantries. See Pheasant Reprieve.

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