Veda Myers’ recollection of applying for food stamps in 2006 brings a noticeable strain to her voice. She remembers the application process as an ordeal taking place over three months. First she looked in vain on a city website for clear instructions. Then she called a food stamps office, but the caseworker hung up before Myers, then 22, had a chance to ask all of her questions. She decided to go to a benefits office, but that’s where the real trouble started.

In her first visit to the office on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn, she waited a total of four hours for a meeting that lasted 30 seconds. “The caseworker looked at my application, put a stamp on it, then put it in a file,” Myers said. The caseworker didn’t ask her if she wanted to apply for expedited food stamps, which caseworkers are instructed to do. She returned two weeks later at the scheduled time of her second meeting, the one at which her eligibility would be determined. She waited five hours, but had to leave for work before talking with anyone. A month later she returned for her re-scheduled appointment. This time she waited nine hours – without eating, since the office prohibits food. When she finally had her meeting, she recalls the caseworker asking, “Why’d you move to New York if you couldn’t afford it?”

Myers ultimately was deemed eligible for food stamps and used them for six months. The Brooklyn resident recalled her experience recently, from her current post as an economic security coordinator at Hunger Action Network of New York State. But a survey published last month by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum suggests that Myers is not alone in her frustration. The survey, which assessed client satisfaction at Human Resources Administration (HRA) Job Centers where New Yorkers apply for public assistance, was strongly critical of HRA. It found that the majority of those surveyed experienced long waits and had to come back multiple times, and that most felt HRA staff gave confusing or misleading instructions, and even lost application materials.

Gotbaum said the survey findings are significant in light of the anticipated influx of benefits applicants as unemployment rises – an influx which may be coming already. HRA statistics show 5,607 more New Yorkers receiving cash assistance in October than in September – the largest one-month increase since 2004 – and 21,394 additional food stamp recipients as well.

HRA has expressed strong dissatisfaction with the way the survey was conducted, questioning the motives of the public advocate and her allies at social services nonprofits. In particular, the survey seems aimed at reigniting an old argument over a piece of legislation introduced by Gotbaum that HRA has repeatedly opposed. It has also served to highlight ongoing distrust between HRA and its clients, advocates and others in government.

A disputed survey

The survey collected responses from 100 benefits recipients total, focusing exclusively on those who had visited city Job Centers more than once in the last year. Twenty people were surveyed at random outside five Job Centers (also randomly selected), one in each of the five boroughs. Respondents were asked 12 questions. Some were biographical, such as “How many times have you visited a HRA public benefits office in the last year?” Others assessed the individual’s experiences, such as “What types of problems have you had while dealing with public benefits offices?” A third type examined whether HRA staff explained the applicant’s rights to him or her, with questions such as “Are you aware you have the right to bring another person or an attorney to assist you with your public benefits case? If yes, were you allowed to bring another person or attorney to assist you with your public benefits case?”

HRA rejects the validity of the findings. “We don’t agree with the methodology of the Public Advocate’s report,” HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio said last week. Brancaccio wouldn’t elaborate, but suggested that similar studies in the past that were conducted by nonprofit welfare advocacy groups cherry-picked a population that did not represent the general experience of HRA clients.

Lawrence Mead, a political science professor at New York University, agrees that the survey was “completely one-sided.” Mead was a paid consultant to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration on welfare policy from 1998 to 2000, and currently advises Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs on poverty issues in an unpaid capacity. Reacting to the survey, Mead said, “no comment was asked from the agency. HRA might have good explanations for the problems found. It might even contest whether the abuses claimed by clients even occurred.” Mead believes that the best test of the agency’s accessibility to applicants is not a random survey, but an examination of the fair hearings process, where clients can contest their denial of benefits in front of an administrative law judge.

Gotbaum and advocates for welfare applicants argue that the question of the research methodology is less important than the possible systemic problems at HRA that the survey suggests. Most of the problems found in the survey occurred before a person was denied benefits – the kind of long waits and required return visits that Veda Myers experienced – well removed from the fair hearings process that Mead suggests focusing on. “We get this all the time: they didn’t like the way we did the study,” Gotbaum said.

Gotbaum’s office conducted the survey in part because it had received a number of complaints from citizens applying for benefits, which is in line with the office’s function of scrutinizing trouble spots around city government. The report also cited, as inspiration, findings from a 2008 report by the Brennan Center that found a number of significant barriers to accessing Job Centers and advocates the inclusion of help desks to aid applicants.

“We’re not here playing 'gotcha,'" Gotbaum said. “We want to make the system better. This is especially important as we enter more difficult economic times. When you think about what’s coming, we need to expect a huge influx in people using HRA. Now is the right time to be looking at the problems people are facing at these Job Centers.”

Help desks are controversial