Speaking of raises …
First published: Sunday, January 13, 2008
It’ll be easy enough to be confused, if not overwhelmed, with the state Legislature back in session and the special interests descending upon lawmakers peddling causes both noble and ignoble.
There ought to be perhaps more pressure than ever to raise the pay of the state’s judges for the first time in a decade. The judges themselves are making the very persuasive case one would expect of them. Then, again, it’s a safe bet that the very legislators whose votes are needed to give those judges a raise will demand one for themselves as well — lame as that argument is, at least until they can reform the Legislature first.
But what about the poor, the people living on government subsides?
State welfare benefits haven’t been increased since 1990. What’s known as the basic welfare grant for a family of three has been stuck all those years at $291 a month. A family of three on welfare also can get up to $426 a month in food stamps and a shelter allowance of a little more than $300 a month. The specific amount of the housing subsidy varies from county to county.
It’s unconscionable that the Legislature has gone this long without adjusting basic welfare benefits.
Everyone is affected by inflation, of course, from judges and legislators to the poorest of the poor. That latter group, in fact, may well be hit all the harder since so much of the little money it has goes to the most basic of necessities.
The price of milk, for instance, has gone up by 94 percent since 1990. The price of fuel oil and natural gas are about twice as high now than they were when the subsidy for home heating costs last was adjusted in 1987. In each case, that’s much higher than the overall 55 percent increase in the rate of inflation since 1990.
New York’s courts, including the Court of Appeals, have ruled five times since 1987 that the welfare shelter allowance is illegally low. That requires welfare families to use part of their basic grant, scant as it is, to subsidize housing costs.
Even now, more than a decade after rewritten welfare laws reduced the number of New Yorkers on public assistance by 61 percent, more than 535,000 people — including more than 300,000 children — live this way. They need the Legislature’s attention as much as anyone. A cost of living adjustment in the basic welfare grant, to $475 a month for a family of three, is urgent.
The Assembly, but not the Senate, voted for a 10 percent increase in the basic welfare grant last year. This year the Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a 25 percent increase.
That money is readily available, too, despite the state’s $4.3 billion budget deficit. Federal block grants pay for the state’s welfare costs. Other states have used the block grant since 1996 to raise welfare benefits. New York, though, has invested it in so-called rainy day funds.
And now it’s raining, and raining hard, on the people who most need state government’s help.
THE ISSUE: The state’s welfare grant hasn’t be raised in years.
THE STAKES: Without an increase, inflation will erode subsistence funds even more.