It's Monday, Jan. 31, and as usual, Tanya Fields is having a hectic morning. The Bronx mother of four has already had to juggle her schedule after her babysitter called in sick, forcing her to be late for an important appointment in downtown Brooklyn. But on this occasion—unlike her daily work running a nonprofit star-tup or her prior years as an environmental advocate—there's no calling in sick or asking to reschedule: This appointment is for trying to keep her welfare benefits.
Fields is a blur as she sweeps into the lobby waiting room at 14 Boerum Place, the glass-and-steel downtown Brooklyn building where low-income New Yorkers must come to apply for "fair hearings"—in which a judge can rule on challenges to decisions handed down by the Human Resources Administration, the giant city agency that oversees public benefits like welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. She passes through the metal detector that greets visitors at the door and rushes up to the window, where she talks calmly but animatedly with the worker on duty.
A minute later, shaking her head, she approaches the table of Project FAIR, the service staffed by Legal Aid lawyers that offers pro bono advice and referrals to fair-hearing applicants. Fields begins telling her story. The previous month, she explains, HRA cut o the welfare benefits and rent assistance she had been receiving since she stopped working full time two years ago during a difficult pregnancy. She'd filed for a fair hearing to object to the cutoff , and her hearing date was this morning. Unfortunately, by the time she'd arranged for a substitute for her sick sitter, she'd missed her hearing, and now just what is she supposed to do?
It's the kind of story that could be told by any number of the people who have packed the Boerum Place waiting room to bursting and now patiently wait for their numbers to be displayed on an overhead LED board. According to the most recent official figures, more than 130,000 fair-hearing requests are filed in New York City every year, almost double the total from five years earlier. Fields, though, is somewhat exceptional, and not just because of the thick red braids and ever present sunglasses that make her stand out in any crowd. She also has a tale to tell that involves both extraordinary personal turns of events and byzantine bureaucratic headaches—though at Boerum Place, the latter are pretty much par for the course.
From work to welfare
Eight years ago, as a 22-year-old first-time mom, Fields graduated from college with a political science degree and was working at her first job, as an administrative assistant at NorVergence, a company in New Jersey that sold discount Internet and phone service. She had just rented her first apartment. "I was so excited. I came in and paid three months' rent in advance," she recalls. "I was like, 'I'm not going to be a statistic. I'm never going to have to move home, and I'm never going to need to get on welfare. I'm going to take care of me and my child.' "
Instead, she says, the company folded. "It was a scam. It was all over the news. Three months after moving in, I lost my job, and I didn't have any savings. And I went and I opened a PA case." (Welfare benefits go by many names—public assistance, cash assistance or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—but in the language of both the welfare bureaucracy and the people who receive the benefits, they're inevitably called "PA.") Fields' first stint on PA lasted a little less than a year. Since then, she says, her life "has been about trying to backtrack and get on footing from seven years ago." She was, she says, "always robbing Peter to pay Paul. If you don't have a down period where you can regroup and get it together—which I have really never had—it's very difficult to try to play catch-up."
By the summer of 2009, Fields was at least partly caught up, earning $40,000 a year working for an environmental organization in the Bronx, and pregnant with her fourth child. She developed complications with her pregnancy, however, and ended up taking disability leave from her job.
To supplement her disability insurance—which is capped at $170 a week in New York State—a state disability worker suggested that she apply for welfare benefits. With only minor bureaucratic hitches—"I was eight months pregnant when I applied, and they made me go see their doctors to verify that I was, in fact, pregnant"—she was soon receiving food stamps (now renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), Medicaid coverage and $237 in cash every two weeks, plus $450 a month as "shelter allowance" to help her pay her $727 monthly rent on the one-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx that she shared with her children.
After her baby was born that fall, Fields returned to her job, only to ¬find her hours had been cut to only 10 to 20 a week. She quit in January and found another part-time job, with the intent of spending her spare time launching a nonprofit organization to start green economic-development projects for poor women, an issue that she'd grown interested in at her previous position. Instead, she says, she found herself spending much of her time wrangling with the city Human Resources Administration over her PA benefits, which she'd kept to supplement her reduced income.
First, HRA informed her in April that it was withholding part of her PA benefits for "concealment," or hiding income. This, it turned out, was the echo of an old charge from 2005 that HRA had withdrawn after Fields filed for a fair hearing. (Such withdrawals are extremely common: Nearly 60 percent of fair-hearing cases end with the city withdrawing charges, according to HRA figures.) Now, ¬five years later, HRA was reviving the old withdrawn allegation and wanted to cut Fields' PA benefits—which had already been reduced to $90 every two weeks when she returned to part-time work—to $23 every two weeks.
Fields applied for another fair hearing to challenge that finding several weeks later but missed it, she says, when her daughter got sick. And in any case, she wasn't sweating the PA money, since she still had a paycheck.