Evolution at last? Is Spitzer going to help positive change develop out of the primordial ooze of bad policy?
This week David A. Hansel, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA,) clarified Spitzer's goals for welfare. There are some clear differences between Spitzer and the previous administration, at least in the language that is used.
In a nut shell, the governor believes that helping people move from welfare and out of poverty will frame the work and policies of New York and OTDA. This is a sea change. In the past, policies were focused on getting people off welfare, based on the premise that people receiving welfare just needed to get a job. Ostensibly, if they were forced to move off of welfare, the marketplace would absorb them and they would be able to move out of poverty. That premise was false.
Most families come to welfare because of a crisis (housing, health or employment). After families are stabilized, the government has a serious role to play in providing access for the education and training that will help the family find a family sustaining job and not end up in crisis again.
The governor is clearly acknowledging that work alone is not always a route out of poverty. He knows family-sustaining wages are essential for people receiving welfare to move out of poverty, and that work-first just doesn't cut it. Many people in poverty, certainly in New York, are working and still living well below the federal poverty line. These jobs usually pay close to the minimum wage, and provide no benefits or chance for advancement. So often, it is education, credentials and skills training that determine access to living wage jobs, leaving families in poverty cut off from jobs that will ease their situation and help them make better lives for themselves.
According to federal welfare regulations, New York can have 30% of the families receiving public benefits in educational and vocational programs, but comes nowhere close to reaching that percentage.
In addition to the 30% in education and training, federal welfare regulations give states the flexibility to allow a combination of activities as work (such as school and work, training and work, or job search and community service) to reach their required work participation hours.
According to Commissioner Hansel, Governor Spitzer has instructed OTDA to find ways for people to access education and training to "provide [people] with the skills to succeed."
However, right now, people receiving welfare are being hamstrung. Pursuing GED classes, literacy training, vocational programs, and college is all but impossible because of wrong-headed left-over policies that force poor families, mostly women with children, to complete many hours of make-work tasks in order to receive benefits. Not only do these tasks not contribute to assisting women move towards economic security, they actively reduce the chances that they will be able to obtain the skills they need.
Even worse, Gov. Spitzer's own actions in vetoing a bill that had the potential to encourage expanding non-traditional job training for women receiving welfare shows a susceptability to bowing to conservative political pressure that must be overriden if we are to have welfare policy that facilitates moving families out of poverty. Translating talk about moving towards economic security into productive public policy is a must for the Governor right now. Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI), an organization dedicated to providing people receiving welfare with the support that they need, knows what can work better.
The students at WRI – participating in welfare while working hard every day to earn a college degree--are faced with an uphill battle to stay in school because of destructive public policies. After bitter trials and much experience, WRI students have some suggestions for the governor and OTDA to make the sea change real. I'll just state two for now.
First: the state can instruct localities to implement the work study law and give education and training providers procedures for using the law. [The law provides that work study and internships hours count towards participation rate that state's have to meet so as to receive federal dollars and that individuals have to meet to receive assistance.] Too often, providers are not informed as to work participation requirements, and unprepared to face the complicated requirements that the law entails. Simplifying the process, and helping providers better meet the needs of students, will allow more students to move towards economic security.
Second: the state can implement the federal law fully by fashioning clear guidelines to ensure that families with children under the age of six with twenty hours of activity fully meet the number of hours of work they are required to do by the government in order to earn public assistance. Currently, New York City requires people to work 35 hours, regardless of the age of their children. Not only does this policy needlessly take parents away from their children, but the 15 hour difference for families with small children can make or break a family's ability to move out of poverty through the hard work of education and training.
It's encouraging to know that Spitzer wants to move away from a work-first model and towards one that builds economic security for families receiving welfare. If this dream is to be realized, however, residual policies left from decades of poor welfare law will have to be reexamined and changed, and we must rectify the language of reform with policies that we know work.