Falling Far Short of Our Commitments to People with Disabilities who Receive Public Assistance
As Sewell Chan reported in the New York Times, the city estimates about 55 percent of people receiving welfare in New York City currently "are completely or partly unable to work. In February 2005, the Human Resources Administration overhauled its efforts to help this population, creating WECARE, which stands for Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment."
WECARE has had a significant role in recognizing the need for programs for people with disabilities who receive public assistance. Nevertheless, a new report by Community Voices Heard (CVH) shows that WECARE can work much better.
As CVH writes, "approximately $66.6 million per year that the Human Resources Administration (HRA) allocated to a program to serve an annual 45,600 public assistance recipients with barriers to employment, is neither addressing their barriers nor helping them move towards self-sufficiency."
It makes sense, of course, that having a disability would act as a barrier to some types of low-income work. WECARE needs to address these barriers to employment much better than it has. But other barriers exist for people with disabilities as they work to meet the requirements set in place by the government in order to receive public assistance. For example, many WECARE participants miss required appointments with welfare providers, most likely because of some situation that is linked to their disability. As Don Friedman of the Community Service Society observes, "We need to do a better job of understanding the people who need services. The design of WECARE called for an 'escalating outreach' for missed appointments so that people would not lose benefits needlessly." In other words, WECARE needs to do a better job of understanding the barriers npeople with disabilities face across the board, and do a better job of making programs work with these barriers, so people do not lose their benefits as punishment for some situation resulting from their disability.
For other participants, the New York Times notes that of over 45,000 recipients with barriers who were assessed employable, only 2,500 had gotten unsubsidized employment.
In my work, it feels like I continually return to the point that we need to make policy based on what we know works! And when we see that something isn't working, we need to change it. This seems so simple, yet in my experience with welfare policy this basic logic is rarely implemented. People receiving welfare, after they are stabilized from the crisis that brought them to welfare, need to be able to access the education and training that will allow them to land the jobs that will pull them permanently out of poverty. My crisis was homelessness, for a student I work with it is his father's debilitating illness, for others it can be something else entirely. After each individual crisis is in check, we need to be able to move from poverty in ways that are sustaining. The WECARE population has more challenges than the average person receiving welfare but clearly needs the same things ultimately: access to the programs that provide real education and training in a way that will lead to long term financial security for the participant.
The bulk of the WECARE program is being carried out by two city contractors: Arbor Education and Training, part of ResCare, in Louisville, Ky., and Federation Employment and Guidance Service, also known as FEGS Health and Human Services System, in Manhattan.
I mention these two contractors because I think they can do much better. These private welfare providers can fall prey to the same insulated bureaucratic routine as government welfare providers. This overwhelming bureaucracy plays out in a few ways: one is through welfare providers not seeing the individual in front of them but rather seeing a case to be handled; the second is through handling cases in familiar, maybe even rubber stamp ways rather than creating designs and techniques that are specific to each individuals need, which would actually help to topple cycles that currently trap too many in permanent poverty.
Clearly, these two companies are falling short.
Don Friedman and Community Voices Heard remind me that Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Chair of the Assembly Social Services Committee, last year proposed intensive case services for those on public assistance who have limitations. This year Governor Spitzer proposed a modest 15 million dollars for intense case management. CVH has done an important service to the city and state in identifying WECARE design practice disconnects now. The sooner we address changes that can make policies and programs work the way they are meant to do, the better.
There's an excellent story in the Village Voice on the topic today.