Justice (Finally) For Disabled in Poverty

The Empire Justice Center  just sent out a press release with this good news.

After over three years of litigation the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has issued an Administrative Directive that directs local social services districts to return millions of dollars that have been illegally withheld from low income families on welfare struggling to care for disabled family members.

In 2004, in an attempt to cut costs in the state budget, the Pataki Administration imposed new “household budgeting” rules for families that were by definition very poor – living on public assistance with the added financial burden of caring for a disabled household member.  At the time, the Pataki Administration estimated that the change would save $30 million.  The rule change initially affected approximately 27,000 households each of which lost an average of $90 each month in benefits. Small families in downstate areas were even harder hit, with some households losing close to $200 a month.  Over the course of the litigation, as additional families applied for assistance, nearly 50,000 households were affected by the reduction in benefits.

I remember my shock when this proposal was made. To be sure, people in poverty were America’s “designated peril to the republic” when Governor Pataki was elected with the conservative wave of 1994.  A decade later, however, we had new designated perils, and besides, the damage to the poor had been done.

Yet Governor Pataki apparently had left his heart in San Francisco and didn’t care to go back and look for it. So he took food out of the mouths of poor people with disabilities. Fortunately, justice won.

The court battle came to conclusion in early September, when Monroe County Supreme Court Justice David Egan signed a final judgment, declaring the Administration’s budgeting change illegal and directing the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) to move forward with a plan to prospectively increase benefits to affected families and to calculate retroactive awards. As a result, new applicants and many current recipients immediately began receiving the appropriate, higher monthly benefit.

By spring of 2008 most current recipients should have received their retroactive benefits.  Those who are no longer on welfare will have the opportunity to have eligibility assessed, but will not receive retroactive awards if they are not currently eligible for public assistance.  Ultimately, it is anticipated that tens of millions of dollars in retroactive awards will flow into the pockets of affected families and into their communities.

Looking good! Kudos to the affected families, the Empire Justice Center, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Legal Aid Society (NYC) for fighting the good fight.

Memo to Ralph Nader: there most certainly is a dime’s worth of difference.

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