18th Annual People's State of the State Rally In Albany

Call for Universal Health Care, Making Work Pay, Food Policy Council. Advocates of the poor called today for Governor Spitzer to make ending hunger and poverty a priority for his administration. Speakers at the 18th annual People’s State of the State in front of the state Capitol said that poverty was a rampant problem throughout the state, particularly in upstate cities. || DMU Blog: Gov. Spitzer and Arianna Huffington

Groups Want the State to do More to End Hunger: Call for Universal Health Care, Making Work Pay, Food Policy Council

Advocates of the poor called today for Governor Spitzer to make ending hunger and poverty a priority for his administration.

Speakers at the 18th annual People’s State of the State in front of the state Capitol said that poverty was a rampant problem throughout the state, particularly in upstate cities.

“We started this event 18 years ago because the reality of poverty and hunger are often overlooked in the Governor’s formal state of the state address. For sixteen years, under both Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, people on welfare have fallen deeper and deeper into poverty. The tax burden has been shifted onto poor and moderate-income families while their real wages have either fallen or stagnated. Meanwhile the state’s efforts on job creation have increasingly focused on handing out corporate welfare checks for politically connected CEOs, with little accountability to ensure that jobs are actually created,” said Mark Dunlea of the Hunger Action Network, the principal organizer of the event.

Speakers at the event included Michael Kink of Housing Works; Rev. Debra Jameson of the Focus Food Pantry; Dr. Andy Coates of Physicians for a National Health Plan; Gene Rodriguez of the Capital District Worker Center; Bridget Walsh, Senior Policy Analyst at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy; and singer Mary Nell Morgan

Among other issues raised at the rally were: increasing funding for emergency food programs to offset funding cuts and inflation in recent years; raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and indexing it to inflation; enacting a universal health care program for all New Yorkers, not just children; create a NYS Food Policy Council to promote better nutrition, end hunger and support family farms; returning the time frame for issuing emergency food stamps to the day after application; establishing a wage subsidy program for low-income workers and/or a state funded food stamp supplement for working families; and, reforming the Unemployment Insurance system to increase the maximum benefit, increasing benefits at the bottom of the income distribution and establishing dependent allowances.

“The state budget is about our choices and our lawmakers have chosen for too long to keep poor children and their families in abject poverty,” added Gene Rodriguez of the Capital District Worker Center. “It is immoral that in the richest nation, New York leads in the growing gap between the poor and rich. Nothing illustrates that gap better than the decline in value of welfare benefits to only half of the federal poverty level. We are fortunate that in Albany the City Council has taken a proactive approach to address the living wage issue as in similar cases in Syracuse Buffalo and NYC, but much more work needs to be done throughout the rest of the state.”

The basic welfare grant has not been raised since 1990 – and it was grossly inadequate in 1990. Many of those impacted are children. Individuals receiving welfare assistance are working at mostly low-wage or unpaid job assignments. Those not working are elderly or disabled and cases where only the child is receiving assistance. They are all struggling trying to live on less than $10.00 a day (for a family of 3) – that’s only $3 a day per person to pay for utilities, travel, laundry, clothing, school supplies, toilet paper, etc. The groups want Governor Spitzer to propose an increase in the nonshelter portion of the welfare grant by 55% from $291 to $450 for a family of three. This would reflect the increase in the cost of living since the last adjustment in 1990. The groups also want the Fuel for Heating Allowance to be increased to account for inflationary increases since the last adjustments in 1986 -1987. Finally, a commission should be established to investigate the adequacy of all public assistance allowances and to recommend mechanisms to provide for annual cost adjustments. At a minimum, welfare benefits should at least raise families to the poverty line.

The changes to the federal welfare program in 1996 actually provided the state with a funding source to help raise benefits. Yet billions of federal welfare dollars have been diverted to resolve the annual state budget games rather than being used to raise welfare participants out of poverty.

The groups urged Spitzer to embrace health care for all New Yorkers. “We already pay for a universal health care system, but we still leave more than five million New Yorkers during the course of the year without coverage. The rest of the world has figured out how to spend far less money than we do, yet they provide not only universal health care but better health care services. We need someone that is willing to put taxpayers and health care consumers ahead of the special interests that benefit from the status quo. Incremental change is not the answer,” added Dunlea.

Universal health care has generated increased momentum in the last year in New York State, starting with the universal health care initiative in Massachusetts. While the new Governor, Mr. Spitzer, has primarily focused on promoting universal health care for children, and on reducing the number of uninsured by 50%, on at least two occasions he has spoken of his support for universal health care.

Earlier this month, Spitzer’s principal health care advisor, James Tallon of United Hospital Fund, unveiled a series of proposals that would provide almost universal health care coverage (98%) at a cost of an extra four billion. Unfortunately, the UHF study failed to examine a single payer health care financing system like Medicare for all. A recent study found that a single payer system for California would save $38 billion annually over a ten-year period. The California Legislature passed a single payer proposal earlier this year but the Governor vetoed it.

Polls consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly support a universal health care system. A recent Zogby poll of New York State residents found that more than 60% (61.9%) of the state’s residents would prefer a universal health care system like Medicare financed by taxpayers rather than the current system (supported by 28.4%). Earlier this summer, a proposal developed by the Universal Health Care Options Project to establish a Commission on Universal Health Care passed the Assembly with broad bi-partisan support (135 to 1).

“Demand for emergency food continues to increase and over 3 million people use soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the year,” noted Rev. Debra Jameson of the FOCUS Food Pantry and Breakfast program. “State and federal funding for emergency food programs have actually declined in recent years while the demand has continued to increase. We are asking for $32 million this year in state funding to restore the cuts and adjust for inflation and increased demand.”

Last year the state provided $22.8 million in the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, a 7% cuts in the funds for food banks and emergency food programs since 2002. The figure includes a restoration back to the funding level of 2003, a 5% annual inflation rate and a 1.8% annual increase to reflect the increase in poverty levels.

The recent census data documents that poverty remains a significant problem in New York. The official poverty rate statewide increased to 14.7%. New York City's poverty rate was 19.1% in 2005. And while Governor Spitzer has compared upstate to the poverty of Appalachia, much of the poverty in the state is concentrated in the upstate cities. Syracuse’s rate was 31.3%, Rochester 30.0%, Buffalo 26.9% and Albany 26.5%. Over half the residents of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo had incomes below 200% of the poverty threshold. And more than 10% of the residents of these cities and Albany are classified as extremely poor – with incomes less than half the poverty threshold.

The high poverty rate in upstate cities underscores the need for Spitzer to fulfill the legal requirements of the city-aid program enacted under Governor Rockefeller to recognize the unique problems cities face under NY’s system. Section 54 of the State Finance Law requires the state of share eight percent of its revenues with local government. However, the law has recently been annually waived through the budget process, with only 2% goes to local governments.

The groups also urged Spitzer to restore some semblance of reason to the states economic development programs. "For the last 12 years we have had an economic development agency that is wrought with cronyism and patronage, and has no basis in reality. We need to use our scarce public resources to support economic development policies that create good paying jobs, revitalize our urban centers and hold corporations accountable to their job creation promises," stated Ron Deutsch, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. Deutsch also talked about reforming the Empire Zone Program, making corporations pay their fair share of corporate income taxes and relieving the pressure on local property taxes by making the state's tax system more reliant on a more fair and progressive income tax.

The groups also want the new Governor to improve state oversight of the local Department of Social Services in providing food stamps and other benefits to eligible households. As a start, it hopes the new administration will go back to the requirement during the Cuomo administration of providing expedited food stamps in emergencies by the day after application; it was increased to five days during the Pataki administration. They have also submitted a series of proposals on how the state should implement recent federal changes in the federal TANP program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.).

“It is time to deliver on the promise of welfare reform. Participants want access to the education and job training that will enable them to escape poverty. We need stronger job creation programs that will provide a living wage. We need increased investments in transitional programs like child care,” added Dunlea.

The groups also want Governor Spitzer to re-establish the NYS Food Policy Council that existed under Governor Cuomo. The Council would help coordinate the various state agencies involved with hunger, health and agriculture to reduce hunger, promote better nutrition and support farmers. A wide range of groups supports the Council, including the NYS Farm Bureau.

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