In the past, when presidents entered office, public assistance was synonymous with unfair handouts, fraud, and abuse, thanks to years of alarmist media stories and manufactured controversies. Fortunately, the Obama administration has left all that behind and begun acknowledging the real struggles of low-income families. And in New York, Governor Paterson deserves credit for proposing a budget that includes the first increase in public assistance grants in over a decade. David Hansell, Commissioner of NYS social services, insisted in an editorial last month that the governor looks to improve the opportunities of people receiving welfare through education and training initiatives.
But the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency that manages welfare for New York City, remains resistant to granting education and training access for people receiving welfare benefits. HRA Deputy Commissioner Seth Diamond has asked, "If a middle-class family can't access education without working, is it fair for people on cash assistance to participate in the same services without working?
Diamond's question highlights some underlying assumptions: dehumanizing welfare stereotypes; and the conservative canard that government is always the problem, never the source of solutions. Paul Krugman addressed these assumptions head-on in a recent New York Times column, arguing against the notion that "government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People."
At a time of massive job losses, rising health care costs, and debilitating foreclosures, among many other pressing problems, “Those People,” need training and education as steps on the path to recovering a stable life.
Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI), the organization where I work, advocates for the education and training opportunities for people receiving welfare. Over the years, we have seen the positive results of education and training. We look forward to a new policy environment, a more progressive government in which the power to expand opportunity finally uplifts those who've been at the bottom for too long.
WRI is working now to build the political will needed to support the implementation of better welfare policy because we believe President Obama got it right when he said, “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”