How local welfare should work:
One client's story, told by her NHLA advocate
Margaret* was an accountant before she became physically unable to work last summer. Facing homelessness if she couldn’t pay her rent, she turned to her town for help.
Unfortunately for Margaret, her town wasn’t following state rules for its local welfare program. The town recently agreed to a settlement with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, where I work helping people like Margaret who are wrongfully denied benefits like housing assistance, food stamps or other public assistance for low-income and disabled New Hampshire residents.
Margaret offered to share some of her story to spread the word about how local welfare programs are supposed to work.
“I never want someone else to have to go through what I went through,”she said. “I knew I had to swallow my pride and ask for help, but it’s very hard. . . I am a hardworking person, I have been my whole life, but the moment I fell on hard times, it was like they said to me, ‘you’re nothing, you’re dirt.’ When I knew what they were doing was wrong, I wondered, how many other people have towns done this to?”
Under New Hampshire’s local welfare law, applicants have a right to 1) submit a written application for assistance, 2) review the city or town’s written guidelines, 3) receive a timely written decision, including the reason for denial of any part of their request, 4) receive written notice before being suspended for failure to obey the guidelines, 5) to appeal and 6) to receive continued assistance during the appeal process, if requested in writing.
Margaret’s town did not have written guidelines explaining the application process, eligibility criteria, covered expenses or appeal process, as required by the state law.
New Hampshire’s local welfare law requires towns to “relieve and maintain”anyone who is poor and unable to support himself. The law requires every city and town provide assistance for basic living needs —food, shelter, medical assistance and utilities —at a minimum. Local welfare helps people meet their very basic needs for survival.
Applications must be available whenever the city or town office is open. An individual seeking assistance has an obligation to fill out the form as completely as possible and provide the requested verifications. In an emergency —for instance, if someone runs out of heating oil in the middle of winter —temporary aid to fill the immediate need can be given, pending a decision on a completed application. Otherwise, decisions on applications are generally made within 5 days.
Generally, the total of an applicant’s expenses will be compared to his or her income and assets to determine eligibility. The assistance given to a particular person will vary from person to person, but generally it must be enough to address the applicant’s basic needs.
Local welfare does not give applicants cash. Instead, applicants are given vouchers for services. For instance, for two months, Margaret’s landlord received a voucher to redeem with the town for payment of her rent.
During colonial times, New Hampshire towns set aside land for a “poor farm.”People who were unable to support themselves lived there indefinitely. Since society deinstitutionalized the welfare system, cities and towns face a perennial question: How long should they have to “relieve and maintain”people who need help?
Town officials told Margaret they didn’t want to help her pay her rent for a third month. But cities and towns can’t deny assistance because an individual has received aid in the past, or because the town has gone “over budget.”
Once a person is receiving assistance, the assistance can only be suspended if he or she fails to comply with a condition that was previously imposed in writing.
When she was denied rent assistance, Margaret asked for a written notice of the denial. Town officials refused to provide one, which is also against the state law. By this time, Margaret had contacted a civil legal aid agency and was informed about her rights, so she submitted a written request for a hearing. Eventually, she and the town reached a legal agreement, and she and her daughter were able to stay in their home.
The law requires cities and towns use these procedures of a written application and decision to give municipalities discretion to structure local welfare programs within certain boundaries, while ensuring the programs are operated fairly, and are free from discrimination.
If you have trouble applying for local welfare assistance or are denied assistance, contact New Hampshire Legal Assistance at 223-9750.
*This client's name has been changed at her request.