How does the federal shutdown affect NYC children and families?

When Congress shut down the federal government nine days ago (and counting), billions of dollars stopped flowing from D.C. to state and local governments. With notable exceptions, most social safety net programs have kept running, using a patchwork of funds left over from the last fiscal year, contingency dollars from federal agencies, and money from state and local governments. What does the shutdown mean for programs that serve children and families in New York City?

In most cases, the answer is not much...yet. The majority of social service programs are safely funded through the month of October—either because they have carryover money from before the shutdown, or because the programs don’t follow the yearly federal budget cycle.

If the shutdown lasts into November, then city programs—and the families they serve—will face much bigger problems. Contingency funding plans, created by many federal agencies to help programs ride out the shutdown, only last through October 31. Few state or city agencies have the kind of rainy-day money that would keep programs running for long, without federal dollars coming in. The standard public statement offered by city agencies is that they won’t speculate on November.

The uncertainty is particularly damaging for organizations like food banks and soup kitchens, which anticipate increased demand due to major cuts in the federal food stamp program, set to take effect in November regardless of what happens with the shutdown.

Read on for a rundown of the shutdown’s consequences for New York City programs. Of course, these assume that Congress doesn’t default on its debts on October 17. In that case, all bets are off.

FOOD AND CASH ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS

Food Stamps: Federal money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) is safe until the end of the month. That’s because Congress authorized funding for the program as part of the Recovery Act, back in 2009. Since the authorization was already set to last until October 31 of this year, SNAP wasn’t subject to new budget appropriations on October 1.

If the shutdown lasts into November, the US Department of Agriculture has said that it will disburse about $2 billion in contingency funds, which states can use to keep their SNAP programs going.

However, come next month, SNAP will face cutbacks that have nothing to do with the shutdown. Not only will the program almost certainly be cut when Congress passes the Farm Bill (before the shutdown, the Senate’s version of the bill included a SNAP cut of $4.1 billion; the House of Representatives’ bill slashed the program by $40 billion over 10 years), but it will also be subject to a cut that’s been pending since 2010. As part of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” nearly three years ago, Congress funded an increase in school lunch reimbursements by planning a major cut to SNAP, scheduled to take effect November 1 of this year. If the cut goes into effect, New York City residents will lose $19 million per month in food stamp benefits, according to an analysis by the Food Bank for New York City.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC): At the beginning of the week, WIC, the federal program that helps pay for food for pregnant women, new parents and kids up to age 5, looked to be at serious risk of shutting down. Yesterday, however, the USDA released new guidance allowing states to tap into a pot of contingency money, which should keep the program running through October 31. If the shutdown lasts into November, New York State would likely need to come up with its own money to cover the lack of federal funds.

Emergency Food: Last-resort food programs like food banks and soup kitchens rely heavily on federal support. The Food Bank for New York City, which funnels most of the emergency food that goes to hungry New Yorkers, gets about half of its food supplies through the USDA’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

The TEFAP supply is safe for this month, because the program had purchased October food before the shutdown. But since no new orders can be placed, TEFAP food will disappear if the shutdown drags into November.

School Lunches: School lunch money comes through the federal Office of Child Nutrition Programs, which has said there are enough carryover funds from last year’s budget to cover meals through the end of October. If the shutdown continues and federal funds dry up in November, advocates speculate that City Hall will likely cover the costs. But with nearly 80 percent of the city’s public school students eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches, that would be a major, unforeseen hit to the city’s budget.

Cash Assistance: New York State’s Family Assistance (FA) program provides temporary benefits to needy families with children. Technically, FA shouldn’t be touched by the shutdown, since it operates under the federal government’s basic welfare program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), which is a mandatory program and therefore not reliant on yearly appropriations. However, TANF does have to be renewed by Congress. The program’s current authorization expired on September 30th, but states are are allowed to use their own money and carryover funds from last fiscal year to keep the program going.

The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) says that the Family Assistance program will operate as usual through October 31. A spokesperson declined to speculate on what might happen if the shutdown continues into November.

EDUCATION, CHILDCARE AND AFTER SCHOOL

Head Start: None of the city’s Head Start programs are at risk of closing this month. Most of the programs, which serve low-income kids aged 3-5, are administered by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). While ACS uses federal dollars to fund the programs, its contracts started earlier this year and are not immediately dependent on a new federal budget.

Fortunately for city kids, none of the Head Start programs located in the city had federal contracts up for renewal in October.Nationally, 23 Head Start programs (serving a total of 19,000 kids) were up for contract renewal on October 1, according to the National Head Start Association. Until they were rescued yesterday by a billionaire couple from Texas, seven programs had shut down and six were on the brink—including one in upstate New York.

Schools: Public schools are "forward funded," which means they obtained this year’s federal funding–which covers about 10 percent of the school system’s operating expenses—in last year’s budget and will not be affected by the shutdown.

Childcare and After School: Most of the city’s subsidized childcare programs operate under contract with ACS. Since their contracts started earlier this year, they are not immediately affected by the federal budget or the shutdown.

After school programs administered by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) are similarly immune to the federal budget cycle, since their contracts began earlier this year.

CHILD SUPPORT AND FOSTER CARE

Like public schools, child support and foster care services received advanced appropriations in last year’s federal budget, leaving them untouched by the shutdown.

HOUSING

Public Housing: There is enough carryover and contingency money to fund public housing through the end of October, according to a plan released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on October 2.

Section 8: Housing Choice (also known as Section 8) vouchers covering October rents were disbursed before the shutdown. HUD predicts that carryover money will fund November vouchers if the shutdown continues.

Homeless Shelters: The city’s homeless shelter operators, which contract directly with the NYC Department of Homeless Services, are not affected by the shutdown.

 

Mayor's Axe to After-School?

The Bloomberg administration is poised to make sharp cuts to the primary source of government funding for hundreds of free after-school programs that currently serve about 53,000 children across the city. Just two years ago, the city's "Out-of-School Time" or OST program received more than $117 million in city funds and served more than 87,000 kids. This fiscal year, the program was reduced to $90 million in city dollars. And now, a recent contract proposal from the administration indicates that, in 2013, the program will be cut to just under $70 million. Advocates say the reduction will nearly halve the number of program slots available to city kids.

"The proposed decrease is just going to be devastating to the system at a time when there is such a high demand," said Kathleen Fitzgibbon, senior policy analyst at the Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies, which represents 20 of the more than 400 community agencies that currently run the after-school programs. The cuts would be hard not only on the children shut out, she said, but for their families, who rely on the programs for childcare.

"What are working parents going to do?" she asked. "Will they lose their jobs?"

Fitzgibbon said she is also concerned about the jobs lost to providers. "Since 2009 we've seen the loss of five thousand jobs as a result of cuts."

Cathleen Collins, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which distributes funding for the program, said in an email that one reason for the anticipated cut in slots is that the cost per child is expected to increase.

"In the new RFP, all programs will be required to provide services both during the school year and over the summer. The average price per participant for services is therefore expected to be higher than in the past. In addition, the new RFP sets out a rigorous program model with a strong focus on academics, including the requirement of an education specialist in every program. In recognition of the cost of high-quality services that will yield the positive outcomes we want for our young people, DYCD has increased the maximum price per participant that providers can propose, which necessarily reduces the number of participants that may be served."

Collins said it is too soon to know how many kids would lose services as a result of the funding cuts, as the number of program slots will depend on the proposals that the city receives. She also cautioned that there "are still some budgetary issues at play."

Norah Yahya, a policy analyst for United Neighborhood Houses of New York, maintained that the current situation is different from the usual back-and-forth that organizations engage in with the mayor at budget time. "It's dire," she said. "Cuts of this magnitude to services are not usual."

Programs supported by OST after-school funding are free, and offer academic support, cultural activities and healthy snacks for children after school hours and during school holidays and summer. When the contracts were restructured in 2005, Mayor Bloomberg described the program as a "long overdue" means of providing supervision and enrichment to kids who have nowhere else to go after 3pm. "Our new Out-of-School Time system will better serve children and working parents by engaging youth at precisely the times of the day when they are likely to be home alone or are most vulnerable," he said.

Vickie Lopez is a medical secretary at New York Hospital whose two daughters, ages five and seven, had been attending a city-funded after-school program since they began kindergarten. Last year, program reductions meant they were no longer able to get spots, she said. "I cried," Lopez remembered. She was placed on a waiting list, but said she never heard anything more.

Finally a friend of a friend offered to watch the girls for $150 a week, three hours a day. "It was a very, very rough year for me," said Lopez. She said at times she was forced to bring one of her kids to work with her out of desperation.

A 2011 report by Policy Studies Associates analyzing 10 after-school providers funded by the program found that 84 percent of youth enrolled were black or Latino, nearly one-quarter were English Language Learners, and 18 percent were special education students.

Contracts for the revamped program are due to start in September of 2012 and will last three years. They are funded almost exclusively with city tax revenue, with a small amount coming from the state.

The after-school cuts come at the same time as proposed steep reductions in the availability of government-funded childcare slots for preschool-aged kids, following the loss of federal funds for those programs. They also come just four months after Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of the Young Men's Initiative, billed as an effort to reduce "the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." Over three years, the mayor has committed a public-private partnership to creating more than $127 million in programs to "connect young men to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities."

Yahya said the after-school programs are particularly important for low-income black and Latino youth. "This isn't just a babysitting club." In addition, she said, many of the programs make a point of hiring people from the communities they serve, which allows kids to have a mentor who understands where they are from. "The children can see themselves in their mentors, in working adults that care about them and are successful."

"I'm fearful for what the future holds for youth services, as the pot for them gets smaller and smaller," she added. (The city cut DYCD's total budget by close to $40 million this year.) Programs, said Yahya, are now so stripped down that new cuts likely cannot be absorbed through reductions in supplemental services. "A lot of specialties have already been eliminated. They're down to the marrow."

Dozens of Young People Turned Away From Shelters

New York City shelters for homeless and runaway youth have turned away dozens of young people this summer because of lack of space, shelter operators and advocacy groups say. Advocates attribute the problem to the economic downturn, which they say has made it more difficult for older adolescents and young adults to find the jobs and housing necessary to become self-sufficient. "Programs around the city are either totally full, or turning away people," says Margo Hirsch, executive director of Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an organization that advocates on behalf of runaway, homeless and street youth. "It's definitely related to the economy. Young people who could marginally hold on to a job and stay with relatives, maybe paying a little rent, can't do that anymore."

Streetwork, a program of the nonprofit organization Safe Horizon that serves homeless and runaway youth ages 16 to 21 in Manhattan, turned away 33 young people who requested shelter in April, 26 in May, and 40 in June, according to the agency's vice president David Nish. Last year, he adds, they turned away no people during those three months.

A group of 10 young people who were turned away one day this summer returned the following day, saying they'd spent the night in Central Park, says Nish. "Young people are coming to us looking for beds, and we don't have anywhere to refer them," he says.

Covenant House, which has an emergency shelter in Manhattan for young adults from ages 18 to 21, turned away 46 young people in June, according to Hirsch. "Normally we would accept anyone who came to the door, and we can't do that at this point," says Nancy Downing, Covenant House director of advocacy.

Covenant House reports a 40 percent increase in young people seeking shelter since October 2008. For a few months, the shelter tried to accommodate everyone by increasing the number of young people housed on each of the shelter's five floors from about 45 to about 75. However, in March, staff reduced the number on each floor back to 45. "We simply don't have the funds to increase our staff to be able to accommodate the larger numbers," says Downing. Because of a tight budget, Covenant House has been forced to close programs designed to help prevent homelessness among youth, Downing says.

"It's almost a moot point for us to do referrals at this point, because everyone is full," agrees Frances Wood, an administrator at Sylvia's Place, an emergency shelter in Manhattan for gay, lesbian and transgender youth under the age of 24 run by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. "Everyone is overflowing and has a long waiting list. It's a really frustrating situation."

She says Sylvia's Place has seen an increase in teens seeking shelter and is housing about six more young people each month than usual. Wood says they have also turned some people away in recent months, although she didn't provide statistics. She adds that she has seen more young adults who don't identify as gay or lesbian asking if they could stay there, for lack of other options.

Legally, young people ages 18 to 21 are eligible to enter adult shelters, but in practice, the adult shelters frequently refer people in that age range to Covenant House, advocates say. Runaway youth under the age of 18 who were abused or neglected at home are potentially eligible for foster care, but in practice it is difficult to get older adolescents placed in the foster care system, says Hirsch. Indeed, 16- and 17-year-olds have a legal right to leave home on their own, without a parent's consent, for as long as 30 days if they enter a shelter for runaways.

Susan Haskell, assistant commissioner for the city's Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which funds services for runaway and homeless youth, says the crisis shelters for youth have been operating at 100 percent capacity for the past several years. She says the number of crisis shelter beds doubled from 60 in 2006 to 113 last year. When demand outstrips supply, the shelters give priority to 16- and 17-years old and often refer 18- to 20-year-olds to the city's adult shelter system, she says.

Covenant House receives funds from both private and public sources, and private donations have decreased recently, Downing adds. The City Council increased DYCD's budget for runaway and homeless youth from $4.6 million last year to about $5.9 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. City Councilman Lewis Fidler, D-Brooklyn, who has advocated for more money for homeless youth, says the funds were approved in June and should be distributed in August. He says the increase will help but will not solve the problem. "The pie here is not big enough," he says.

Before the current recession, more young people may have made the fragile transition to self-sufficiency by relying on the hospitality of relatives, friends, and parents, advocates say. But as adults lose their jobs and sometimes their homes, fewer families may be willing to support children after age 18, says Nish.

"Right now a lot of young people who would be able to enter self-sufficient adulthood are really being delayed in that process because competition is much fiercer, availability of jobs is much less," says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, a nonprofit agency that runs a wide range of youth programs. Budget cuts at nonprofits, meanwhile, make it more difficult to serve young people in need. Green Chimneys has temporarily closed 10 beds in its 20-bed program for homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender young people because of city budget cuts. (Nolan hopes to be able to reopen those beds in August with new city funding.)

A 2007 survey by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services estimated that there were 3,800 homeless people between the age of 16 and 24 in New York City on any given night. Of those, about 1,600 had spent the night sleeping outside, in an abandoned building, at a transportation hub, or in a car, bus, train, or another vehicle. Another 150 spent the night as a sex worker, according to the survey.