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Maureen Lane

NY Post’s Editorial Board Gets It Wrong on Welfare

On Monday, the New York Post ran an editorial on the bills I blogged about last week - the bills I recommend that NY Governor Spitzer sign into law. These bills would help to change a welfare-to-work system that way too often funnels women in lower-paying jobs in traditionally-female industries, and help instead to hook them up with higher-paying work in traditionally male-dominated industries. The Post's editorial, aside from being insulting and disappointing, was simply poorly argued. From the rhetoric and tone of the editorial, it is clear that old stereotypes about people receiving welfare and hysterical arguments still dominate public discourse.

The problem, or at least the glaring one in my eyes, is that these tired stereotypes are just too rickety to support any coherent policy discussion about how people can actually move from dire poverty to economic security - which, if I remember correctly, is supposed to be the point of public assistance.

One of the students I work with at Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College, Krystle Cruz, said it best:

"The [editorial] states that 'too few welfare recipients have the skills to get good jobs;' therefore, is it not imperative that these recipients be armed with the skills needed to acquire a good job? The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) already imposes a 5-year limit on recipients, which is why acquiring an education during this time limit should be prioritized [if people are actually going to be able to land good jobs when they leave public assistance]. Following former President Bill Clinton's 'path' of welfare to work and former Mayor Guiliani's 'job centers' plan, only a small percentage of those being pushed off of the "welfare rolls" actually acquire employment that brings them above poverty level. On the other hand, almost 90% of those who achieved a bachelor's degree acquired employment that permanently moved them and their families above poverty level and from public assistance. Right now, TANF regulations do not even allow people to acquire a GED or ESL (English as a Second Language) training. Mayor Bloomberg himself said that the only way for one to make it out of poverty is to acquire a solid education. It is difficult enough to find a job with a college degree, let alone a high school diploma and the ability to speak English. "Just get a job?" Most of us have worked and are working. Yes, it is very important that our jobs offer us benefits, so that we and our children can be well enough to live and survive."

The Post says, "Experience the pride, satisfaction and dignity of earning a paycheck." This condescending lecture is wrongly directed. Most of the people receiving welfare do jobs well all the time. It's the policymakers who make welfare policy that shuts out access to education and training who ought to be getting this lecture. At the end of the day there is no pride or dignity in policies that keep people earning poverty wages and stuck in positions where they are easily exploited.

According to the Post, "Mayor Bloomberg has wisely urged Gov. Spitzer to veto the bill." His reasoning: "To achieve jobs with sustainable wages and benefits such as health insurance and paid leave, people with limited experience often first need to build an employment history," writes the mayor. "Delaying entry into the job market until a 'sustainable wage' job is available . . . is contrary to our philosophy of valuing all employment." Here's what I say: Delaying education and training for rhetorical argument confines people in a horrific cycle of poverty and delays entry to employment that will lift families out of poverty.

At WRI, we value families, their dignity and self-determination. The students I work with are not only parents and heads of households, but children on the family assistance budget who want to access higher education. Wrong readings and interpretations of the purpose of social policy thwarts them at every turn.

It's been my experience is that effective welfare policy must include work experience, training and education if it is to lead to sustainable employment. This experience comes from practice, not just theory. The Post's arguments reflect distorted views of the law and how it actually works. Take this for example. According to the Post, the point of welfare policy should be to send this one simple message: "Get a job. Not: Get a high-paying job.Not: Make sure it offers good dental. Not: If you're a woman, go for a traditionally male job. Just: Go to work."

Forget the fact that this is paternalistic and condescending and mean, it ignores the fact that most people on welfare work.

Secondly, it ignores the structure of welfare policy. Federal regulations state that the focus of welfare programs needs to be on work. After families are stabilized, assessments and employability plans have the potential to connect heads of households to the workforce through a variety of means, including access to education and training. Yet, the federal department of Health and Human Services (the federal welfare regulatory agency) made the damaging decision last summer to take away the ability of the states to shape policy that works for their families. This is unbelievably unfortunate because on the state level we have seen different set-ups that actually included the practical steps to building skills and credentials for work is access to education and training. Now, nationwide we are left with a uniform system that restricts access to education and training for everyone receiving public assistance.

There are individual and collective responsibilities which compel us on the national, state and local level to create and support social structures that make life better for us all.

To Governor Spitzer I say, be not afraid. The legislation that currently awaiting your signature (S3201/A3366) does not build on stereotypes like those espoused in the Post editorial, but rather on the practical experience of families living in poverty, advocates who work with them and the realities of the volatility of economies. Sign the bills into law, Governor, let New York move forward to a better economic future for all.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 1:20 PM, Jul 05, 2007 in Welfare
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