Want to Reduce Poverty? Expand Education Access.
Tuesday’s Census release on 2007 data about New York’s poverty rate was reported as good news. After all, poverty has declined slightly in New York City and State. But this success is dwarfed by a larger policy failure: more than 1.5 million New Yorkers still struggle to get by below the official poverty line. One important reason is the inconsistency of our policy impacts. Last week a student walked into Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) at Hunter College. She had just turned 18 years old at the end of July, graduated from high school and enrolled at Hunter. A dream realized for any family, unless the family is receiving public assistance. The student and her two younger siblings are receiving public assistance due to their mother’s disability. Our student was called to attend an HRA (Human Resources Administration) center appointment and told she must do 35 hours of workfare or her family’s budget will be cut.
Just as students citywide begin to head back to school, our student’s story underscores chronic gaps in the city’s support of access to education as a route out of poverty. Two students who had the exact same circumstances over the last 5 years met this year’s student. All three told us similar things, “I got to meet the 35 hours work or my family will lose their benefits.” So, in addition to being given inaccurate information, all the students felt this enormous responsibility for their families--more than a young person should have to bear. The current student was lucky she found WRI but many thousands of others, including the two students now at WRI, dropped out of college to take care of their families. What kind of policy sense does that make?
As a society we acknowledge that education is an important step in ensuring young people’s ability to secure their own financial future. We are on shaky policy ground to withhold this same access from people receiving welfare, predominantly women with children. Access to education is a proven route out of poverty, across the board. What’s more, when mothers receiving welfare are able to get the education they need, their children are more likely to succeed as well.
Yet, for some reason, this most successful route is systematically blocked – whether it’s by the Mayor through HRA, which decrees that some small amount of education can count towards the work time required to receive benefits, but college cannot. Most of what counts is workfare. Eighty-eight percent of women who finish their college degree move permanently out of poverty. Education has been shown to have the greatest success at allowing people to achieve their own economic security. No workfare program can claim such a statistic or long-term success!
The city requires 35 hours of work as opposed to the federal and state laws, which allow families with children under the age of six to count only 20 hours. New York City needs to adopt the 20-hour rule. In addition, no young person should be required to drop out of higher education in order to sustain their family’s welfare benefits.
To be sure, policy pundits removed from the reality of people’s lives, declare that people receiving welfare are allowed to seek any education they want. Disingenuous slights that suggest a mother-- working 35 hours in a workfare assignment, raising a family at fifty percent below poverty and not receiving any child care beyond her work fare assignment – can attend classes at night. This mother is struggling to feed and clothe her family and there is no extra money for transportation or childcare.
From basic education along the continuum to college all education should count as work activity. It makes good policy sense. Neither welfare nor any other policy should construct obstacles to education. We can’t have education policy that is moving towards access to all levels of education and training and have welfare policy that prevents poor people from participating.
Moving from welfare through the hard work of education is a path we need to forge if New York is to get smart about stemming the poverty trend we are in.