A New Beginning for Welfare?
This week the New York Times ran a front page story on welfare. The last time I saw a front page article on welfare it anticipated many of policy changes I have seen devastate the students, families and advocates I work with at CUNY’s Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI).
In 1995, when welfare reform was hotly debated, CUNY statistics showed that 88 percent of women on public assistance who graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree move permanently off welfare within a year of graduation. Years later, in April 2006, studies conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research showed similar findings on the positive impact of education for the entire family.
In the past decade, welfare reform has virtually eliminated access to education, a proven path out of poverty. Since 1996, more than 21,000 CUNY students alone have been forced to drop out of school because of new workfare laws, not to mention the literacy and other education and training programs that have been decimated.
And now, Ron Haskins, a key architect of welfare reform in the 1990s, is having second thoughts. “There is ample reason for concern here,” he admits in the Times article. He acknowledges, all-too-belatedly, that the very reform he helped legitimize has left states ill-equipped to help poor families make it through the current recession.
In New York City, people receiving welfare have suffered too long from a punitive policy that sanctions, rather than strengthens, families, forcing them to appear in court to fight for housing assistance and other basic benefits. Most sanctions, when aggressively contested at a fair hearing, are revealed to be illegal. But reinstating benefits often requires an endless series of bureaucratic interventions at the state and city level. What sense does it make for students struggling to earn degrees and pursue a career to spend all day in court or in government offices?
But I remain optimistic. I view the Times article as the harbinger of a new policy discussion focused on what will help stabilize families on welfare and lift them out of poverty. In the coming weeks, I will highlight model welfare policies and explain how they have served families in need. I look forward to working with government representatives, advocacy organizations, and grassroots groups on replicating those successes. And I welcome comments from readers.