Silly Robert Doar. The State Passed a Smart Welfare Bill. It’s Time to Get on Board.
As NPR noted this morning and Karen Loew of City Limits reported this week, a very promising bill has passed the state legislature and is currently sitting on the Governor's desk waiting for a signature. The bill's aim: to end the discriminatory process by which women on welfare are funneled into lower paying jobs than men, all because professions traditionally dominated by women pay less than professions traditionally dominated by men. This bill is needed on so many levels, and yet it's under attack by New York City officials. Mayor Bloomberg and city welfare officials have encouraged Governor Spitzer to veto the bill. My question is this: why or why would a policymaker stand in the way of welfare policy that might actually work?
I'm just going to put this theory out there, but maybe it's because these policymakers are too fearful of the prevailing and damaging stereotypes surrounding welfare to actually step up and make the changes the system needs.
Mayor Bloomberg and other city officials are asserting that the bill will make federal work quotas harder to reach and that a work-first policy is the way to go. Specifically, Robert Doar, the director of New York City's welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, claims that should the bill be enacted, "it will make it more difficult for us to achieve federal participation rates and it will severely undermine our welfare reform approach that has been so successful in moving families from welfare to employment and self sufficiency."
And here's why I simply don't buy what Mr. Doar is selling.
As I have written before, according to federal regulations, New York can have 30% of the families receiving benefits in educational and vocational programs. Policymakers have failed to enroll 30% of New Yorkers in education and training programs. And because we've fallen far short of this allowance, there is absolutely no danger of failing to meet federal quotas. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that state and city policies of "work-first" (the assumption being train later, but I certainly haven't seen it) have not led to employment in sustainable wage jobs and, in fact, may have broadened and deepened poverty and economic insecurity.
In the same vein as Doar, Mayor Bloomberg claims that "In order 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," and that "delaying entry into the job market until a 'sustainable wage' job is available could delay employment and is contrary to our philosophy of valuing all employment."
Again, this ignores the fact that most people receiving welfare assistance have recent work history , but in low-wage, dead-end jobs. These jobs do not, as Bloomberg claims, prepare people for future employment in jobs with sustainable wages and benefits. All employment should be valued, but encouraging workers to enter the job market at the expense of training and education that can promote economic security is foolhardy.
Policies work well when they address the problem at hand and don't increase problems in the future. As known or unintended consequences surface, policymakers want to be open-minded and create systems that make steady progress. Bloomberg, Doar, and other welfare officials and workers are not aiding steady progress given the facts of where we are right now with poverty in New York.
Policymaking benefits from fearless review and needs fearless commissioners, mayors, governors, and everyday citizens to aid these reviews. We cannot be afraid of stepping away from things we have tried, admitting our failures, and moving in a new direction towards policies that work. Too often I have seen policy become closed and stifling because there is little open review and analysis that allows for correction of regulation and purpose, and because legislators are afraid of stepping in new directions.
The current welfare policy and the bill awaiting Spitzer's signature deserve this fearless examination. I have seen the benefits of education and training through my work at the Welfare Rights Initiative, where we work with students who are receiving welfare and want to get the skills and credentials to move their families out of poverty. Despite the societal judgments, personal affronts, and onslaught of paperwork and appointments that most of our students face, at the Welfare Rights Initiative, they are challenged to find out what our government agencies are doing and help them do it better. Poor women seeking a better life for their families are perhaps the most fearless stakeholders in this debate, but their voices are not often heard, and policy that helps them succeed in their goals is elusive.
This legislation and policy change can help.
Governor Spitzer has a choice in signing this modest piece of legislation; he can acquiesce to political pressure and maintain the status quo, or he can promote policy that addresses the real causes of poverty. I urge him to be fearless and sign.