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.

 

Will New York State Pay for Guardianship, or Not?

A new law designed to give young people in kinship foster care a more permanent home won't force them to sever ties with their parents, but it's not clear how New York will pay its share of the program, called "subsidized guardianship," due to begin April 1. The Federal government will cover 50 percent of the cost, but Governor Cuomo's recently proposed budget does not account for how the state and city will divvy up the rest. The state legislature must decide whether the money will come out of the foster care block grant, which would likely mean the city would shoulder nearly the entire cost, or whether the state and local government should share the costs, as they do for adoption subsidies.

The city's Administration for Children's Services, as well as Citizens' Committee for Children and the New York Public Welfare Association (NYPWA), recommend that state and local government share the costs. "Our position is that this is a permanency option, comparable to adoption, and should be paid for using the [the same division of costs between the state and local districts that] funded adoption in 2010," NYPWA wrote in an emailed statement.

Until the legislature resolves the issue, the city and other local districts will be expected to pick up the tab for all costs not covered by federal funding. The city stands to save thousands of dollars each year in administrative oversight for each child who would otherwise have remained in foster care.

More than 5,500 New York City children live in kinship foster care with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives. Pending federal approval, nearly 1,000 of these could leave the foster care system and remain with their relatives without the intense, sometimes invasive oversight and costly monitoring of the Administration for Children's Services and the private agencies it oversees. These relatives would receive between $7 and $56 a day, depending on a child's age and needs, the same rate as adoptive parents. But unlike adoption, which can fuel family tensions because it requires parents to lose their legal rights as parents, children in kinship guardianship will stay legally bound to their parents.

"If there's a reason to keep the parents in the life of the child, then guardianship is the way to go," explains Mark Testa, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.

New York is one of the last states in the nation to start such a program. Testa, who has helped implement similar programs elsewhere, predicts it will affect about 500 New York City children the first year and 300 to 400 children the second year. But others guess these numbers might be lower for New York City because of potential months-long delays in Family Court.

At a recent NYC Bar Association meeting, Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, said that parent attorneys were already reviewing cases to see which might be right for kinship guardian. To qualify, a child must be in a certified foster home with relatives for at least six months and have no plans to return home or be adopted. Subsidized guardianship will be an especially welcome option for children whose parents have mental illness or debilitating addictions, Shapiro noted. With the new program, these kids could find stability without disrupting their bonds, legal and otherwise, with parents. "Subsidized guardianship gives all of us an opportunity to retain better outcomes for families," Shapiro said.

Meredith Sopher, director of child welfare training at Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Practice, described a client who had bounced through six different foster homes before finding stability living with her mother's cousin, who planned to adopt her. But just before the girl's birth father died of cancer, he asked his daughter to never be adopted. When the girl's foster mother began adoption proceedings, guilt consumed the young woman and she ran away, ultimately aging out of the foster care system to live on her own.

Sopher wishes she had been able to offer the young woman subsidized guardianship, and expressed relief that it was now on the table. "It's a new option," Sopher said. "We're thrilled."

Cuomo Plan Would Close Juvenile Lockups

If Governor Cuomo gets his way, New York State's juvenile corrections facilities will lose one third of their capacity over the coming year. The governor's executive budget, which he presented to lawmakers earlier today, predicts the state can save $22 million per year by downsizing and closing juvenile jails, cutting 376 of the current total of 1,209 beds. He would also get rid of the current, mandatory 12-month waiting period for closing facilities - a controversial legal requirement that critics say forces the state to waste hundreds of millions of dollars each year on maintaining and staffing near-empty juvenile jails.

Under the governor's plan, $75 million would be redirected to community-based programs for young people who run into trouble with the law over the next two years. Another $38 million would go to improving medical, mental health and other services for youth remaining in state facilities.

Advocates for young people in New York City say they support reinvesting funding into community programs. "We're cautiously optimistic," says Avery Irons, Director of Youth Justice Programs at the Children's Defense Fund, New York. "We're hopeful that other cuts to children's services will not undermine efforts to keep kids on the right path."

Governor Cuomo has made juvenile justice reform a signature issue of his administration, capping off his January State of the State address by describing New York's overreliance on juvenile lockups as a violation of young people's civil rights, and promising to end the practice of keeping juvenile facilities open in the interest of preserving jobs. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he said.

MONEY FOR ALTERNATIVES

Over the past several years, consensus among New York City and State policymakers has shifted toward keeping kids out of state-run lockups, which investigators from the US Department of Justice on down have condemned as dangerous, violent and counterproductive. Since 2006, the city has invested in a large-scale effort to expand and support community-based programs for kids who get arrested or end up in court, providing them with supervision while keeping them near their families and providing services like counseling and job training. (See the Center for New York City Affairs 2009 report: A Need for Correction: Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System.)

City officials say their alternative programs are far more effective and less costly than incarcerating kids far from home, but they worry that it will be hard to maintain or expand the programs in the face of the city's deficit. Last year, the city's largest alternative program had to turn away more than 150 kids who may have been eligible for its services, since it lacked capacity to take them in.

Under the Governor's budget, the state would make $29 million available to local governments to invest in alternative community programs in the coming fiscal year (which begins in April, 2011), and $46 million in the following fiscal year.

Much of the money for those programs would be made available by restructuring the way the state reimburses counties for the cost of detaining young people who are awaiting court hearings or transfer to state lockups. Under the current system, the state pays 50 percent of the cost of running local detention centers. The governor's plan would put a cap on that money, a move he predicts will save $23 million in the coming fiscal year and $51 million in the next, and give counties a financial disincentive to hold low-risk youth in detention centers.

THE FIGHT IN THE LEGISLATURE

Now that the Governor has presented his plan for the budget, the battle over juvenile justice funding and reform will move to the state legislature. Last year, the Senate passed bills that would have accomplished much of what the Governor has proposed in his budget, reinvesting money from juvenile lockups to community services, and guaranteeing state reimbursement for alternative-to-incarceration programs. But the bills faced tough opposition, primarily from Republican legislators whose districts depend on juvenile justice facilities for jobs, and from the New York State Public Employees Federation, which represents employees at the state's juvenile facilities. Both bills died in the Assembly.

As of January of this year, there were 604 young people confined in state facilities, of which 375 were from New York City. Currently half the beds in the system are empty.

The Governor's budget provides $10 million economic development grants to areas impacted by closed facilities.