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CVH Testimony before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Social Services

CVH Testimony before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Social Services on Public Assistance Benefits in New York State

October 26, 2022

Thank you to the Committee on Social Services and Chair Rosenthal for holding this hearing to discuss the dire need to update Public Assistance Benefits in New York State.

My name is Juanita O. Lewis, and I am the Executive Director of Community Voices Heard. Community Voices Heard (CVH) is a member-led, multi-racial organization principally composed of women of color and low-income families in New York State. CVH tackles tough issues and builds power to secure racial, social and economic justice for all New Yorkers. Through grassroots organizing, leadership development, policy changes, and creating new models of direct democracy CVH is creating a truly equitable New York State.

CVH was started in 1994 when eight New York City women became fed up with oppressive policies designed to keep them in poverty. They wanted to upend the existing power structures and transform the social safety net into a system that would enable low-income people to break out of poverty. Since then, CVH has evolved into an organization working to strengthen the power and civic engagement of people of color across New York State. We have chapters in New York City and the Hudson Valley – in Yonkers, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie.

I am here representing the experiences Black women, who make up the majority of our membership. They are Black women who cannot find employment that pays a living wage. They are Black women who are paid 64 cents for every dollar earned by a White man. They are the caretakers of communities and families that have been ravaged by lack of economic opportunity, high housing costs, mass incarceration, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an estimate from the U.S. Census, 14% of Black residents in Westchester County, 11% of Black residents in Orange County, and 16% of Black residents in Dutchess County live below the poverty line. The poverty line for a mother and a child is $18,310. But we all know that the federal poverty line is far below the bare minimum cost to live and work in the modern economy. The cost of basic necessities like housing, food, transportation, health care, a smartphone plan, and taxes for a single person in Westchester is over $50,000.

This is a racial justice issue. The U.S. Social Safety Net programs carry a long legacy of racism, particularly against Black mothers, in terms of eligibility requirements and the low-levels of benefits, particularly in States with the highest Black populations. New York State can’t control every aspect of these programs, nor undo the program’s history, but it can make up for years of neglect by raising the grants to enable all New Yorkers, including low-income Black and Brown New Yorkers, to meet basic needs. The Basic Needs & Utilities levels must be raised, as is proposed in A.9130/S.9513, which we support, subject to amendments that would increase the grant levels consistent with inflation.

The legislature must also raise the amount of the shelter allowance. New York is in a deep housing crisis. A single, working person making average wages cannot afford rent and modest living expenses in any of the nine counties in the Hudson Valley without assistance. For people who are unable to work, or who are between jobs, the shelter allowance is not enough to pay even a small portion of the average rents in the Hudson Valley.

In just the last year, average rents have increased over 11% in Poughkeepsie and over 12% in Newburgh. The average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Newburgh is over $2,000, and over $1,800 in Poughkeepsie. Hudson Valley communities are in crisis.

Yet, the shelter allowance for adult only households has not been updated since 1988. It must be a priority to ensure that all people receiving cash assistance also receive assistance to stay in their homes or to find a home. The maximum shelter allowance must also be raised to 100 percent of the HUD Fair Market Rent (FMR) and be tied to the FMR going forward, as proposed in A.8900/S.8632.

The Housing Access Voucher Program (S.2804B/A.3701) must also be a priority for the next legislative session. The shocking rent increases over recent years have left too many New Yorkers housing insecure, far beyond the number of people who qualify for cash assistance. U.S. Census data estimates that over 30% of renters in Yonkers, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie are severely rent-burdened and paying more than 50% of their income toward rent.

We are facing a crisis in communities across New York State, and New York’s social safety net programs must be updated to meet this crisis. It is a matter of racial and social justice.

Juanita O. Lewis

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