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Waving the banner of welfare reform, President Clinton signed historic legislation in August 1996 abolishing poor families' federal entitlement to direct cash assistance and replacing it with a decentralized system of conditional block grants to the states. To qualify for these grants, most states—including New York—overhauled their own welfare systems and added rigorous new welfare-to-work requirements (the most prominent of which is frequently called "workfare"), as well as other programs which became conditions of eligibility for assistance. Not surprisingly, New York City, with one of the largest and most concentrated welfare populations in the United States, has become a crucible for these momentous changes.

Even before the passage of federal legislation, the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had taken aggressive steps to place the City at the cutting edge of welfare reform by restructuring its public assistance system. In April 1995, the Mayor denounced the welfare system in New York City as too "user-friendly" and declared that "[i]t was a system saying, please come and take the money."' In response to this alleged state of affairs, he introduced NYC-WAY ("Win, Accountability, You"), designed to tighten administrative procedures and move more public assistance recipients into workfare. In 1997, Mayor Giuliani brought Jason Turner to New York from Wisconsin, where he has been credited with dramatically reducing the welfare caseload, to become Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration ("HRA") and announced a major initiative to transform the City's "Income Support Centers," which had provided primary access to a variety of welfare-related services, into "Job Centers," designed to emphasize workfare requirements and drastically reduce public assistance rolls.

The Job Center initiative has caused widespread controversy and prompted federal litigation, Reynolds v. Giuliani. The Reynolds plaintiffs claimed that staff at the Job Centers were preventing the poor from applying for Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance, and emergency assistance in violation of federal and state law and the federal Constitution. On February 29, 1999, a District Court judge agreed and enjoined the City's program until such time as corrective measures could be implemented.

This report examines the Job Center initiative and surrounding litigation.

Publication Citation

54 Rec. Ass'n. B. City N.Y. 472 (1999).