DMI Blog

Maureen Lane

Dear Massachusetts: I think one of your welfare policies is swell.

Massachusetts is usually a few steps ahead of the rest of the country in promoting progressive social policy, but with mixed results. For example, the state’s drive for universal health care was lauded by the press, but actually burdened struggling families with the responsibility of having to purchase insurance without addressing the skyrocketing costs of health care. A similar progressive policy in Massachusetts not yet effectively realized has been the push for welfare reform that truly addresses the cause of poverty.

In 2003, the state legislature made changes in Massachusetts’ welfare policy to allow more people receiving welfare to count education and job training towards work requirements. However, according to an editorial in the Boston Globe, from 2003 to 2006 “there was no increase in the percentage of women engaged in educational activities.” Though the policy was changed, limited effort put into actually increasing education among women receiving welfare.

Fortunately, in a little glimmer of implementation peeking through, the improved policy may soon reach those whom it is designed to impact. Julia Kehoe was appointed the state welfare commissioner in May of this year, and already has made strides towards improving the lives of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable citizens. Kehoe plans to expand access to social services and is committed to shifting to training from a work-first emphasis.

One program through which this has been realized is Choices, which allows people receiving welfare opportunities to build economic security for their families. Through Choices, people receiving welfare and low-income workers are assessed on career preferences and abilities, and then receive counseling as to viable options for educational and career advancement. Program participants then have a variety of options to pursue, including job training, job search referral, academic and vocational college degrees, and in-house certificates. Throughout the program, participants continue to receive group and individual support, as well as assessment and career counseling.

Choices and similar programs in Massachusetts have the potential to increase education enrollment for people receiving welfare, and will if citizens are informed about their existence and empowered to pursue them. A high-quality system connects families with the benefits they need when the jobs run out and or illness or some other crisis presents itself. After families are stabilized, the key to long-term financial security is enhancing parental employability in jobs that will last; policy that encourages education and training is imperative to achieving this goal.

A report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) confirms that despite the challenging circumstances low-income students face in seeking a college education, higher education "provides the best opportunity--especially for women--to acquire good jobs, with good wages and good benefits." The most striking finding is the ripple effect that higher education creates in students’ families and communities. Children of college graduates show improved grades, better study habits, and higher self-esteem. Meanwhile, 80 percent of low-income women who obtain degrees report increased community involvement, and 76 percent feel that they have increased their contributions to society.

Here in New York, state officials must imitate the efforts of Julia Kehoe and others in Massachusetts if we are serious about generating the conditions in which families can thrive. State law permits work-study, externships, and internships to count as work activity; the focus now must be on facilitating the attainment of higher education and job training. In a laudable bi-partisan consensus, legislators agreed last month that people receiving welfare should have access to training that leads to sustainable wage jobs. Like the Massachusetts model, New York's new law can be designed to benefit those who are poor, low-wage, or receiving welfare.

The Globe editorial ends with this directive: "The welfare department need not be just a place to get a benefit check -- or a referral to a dead-end job. Massachusetts needs a comprehensive effort to fight poverty by building economic security, and college is a crucial piece of that effort." Programs like Choices and the efforts of Julia Kehoe are advancing this goal.

The movement in Massachusetts towards realizing the potential of positive policy is laudable. Ending the cycle of low-wage, dead-end employment is possible with the help of our policy makers, and can happen in New York if we are serious about instituting and implementing policy that addresses the underlying causes of poverty.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:07 AM, Jul 19, 2007 in Education | Welfare
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