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A Dangerous Intersection

Public policies and public shared values can intersect at unforeseen points.  Too often, these intersections can be negative consequences for all of us.  One collision between policy and public value is welfare regulations and education.

For example, the organization of which I am a part, Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI), sees too many young adult students (often fresh out of high school) told that they cannot attend college because they reside in households receiving welfare. Most of these students are dependents on their parent’s budget, have aged out of foster care, or are on their own for other reasons.

At welfare centers, students are told that work first is NYC’s welfare policy.  This policy is based on the assumption that work and education are conflicting values.  My experiences over the past 17 years with WRI students have only made clear that the two should not be mutually exclusive.  In fact, it’s because our students value work that they’re determined to stay in school and obtain necessary skills and credentials, which would prepare them for paid employment and reduce their dependence on welfare.  NYC’s work first model prioritizes “dead-end” Work Experience Program (WEP) assignments, or “job search” that mostly equates to spending the entire work day in a room with other unemployed peers waiting for a computer. These welfare recipients, instead of opportunities for education, are given training on how to set alarm clocks and “show up” to non-existent jobs.

Our students, who based on existing potential are accepted into Hunter, Baruch, and other 4-year colleges, are forced not to attend because NYC’s welfare policy won’t approve 4-year colleges as a qualifying activity. These students are told they must do job search or WEP.

I am thinking any graduating high schooler who is accepted into Hunter or Baruch ought to have the whole city encouraging them to attend.

Those unaware of the pitfalls of the welfare system insist, of course, that “Work First” is a good policy.  NYS Human Resources Commissioner Robert Doar believes “people should work for any benefit they receive”; others persist that those who need welfare really need some training in dignity and not education.  Many do not question the real reason why welfare roles are down 70%, and believe that this must be a good thing for taxpayers. All this blinds the public to realities – that welfare numbers are down because policies are intolerant. That ordinary people are often caught in extraordinary conditions. That moving permanently out of poverty contributes to increases in economic security for all families and taxpayers.

Recent studies show that attaining college degrees virtually guarantee movement from welfare and out of poverty.  CUNY studies showed that almost 90% of women receiving welfare who attained a college degree moved permanently out of poverty. The US Department of Labor shows that higher levels of education increase earnings: bachelor’s degree recipients earn $1,012 a week from employment, compared to high school or GED graduates at $618 a week.  That is a difference of $394 per week, or $20,488 a year.  In addition, college graduates get jobs that last.

According to January 2010 figures, the rate of unemployment during this current economic downturn was highest for people without a college degree: an education level less than high school held a whopping 15.2% unemployment rate; compared to the 4.9% unemployment rate of bachelor’s degree or higher.

Despite these facts, current city and state welfare policy has driven over 20,000 students receiving public assistance away from CUNY. It appears that welfare reform paradoxically closed the door on the best-known route out of poverty–access to education from GED to college.

NYC’s welfare policy, one that de-values access to education across the spectrum, currently dangerously intersects with New York State’s future. Our harsh economic times insist we cannot afford to be passive bystanders while this collision takes place. The New York State constitution demands that we provide for the poor, and the work first program claims its priority is to help people receiving welfare move to employment. How is blocking access to higher education helping either of these missions?

Here’s what can be done right now in NYC and NYS:

  • Change NYC’s current 35/40 hour work requirements to 20/30 hours. Federal and state laws require no more than 20 hours of work activity for families with children under the age of 6, and 30 hours for all others.
  • Count Homework assignments in higher education and other programs towards the work requirement.  Federal law allows it.  Other states count homework and report great outcomes.
  • Fully implement the Work-study/internship law.
  • Support the NYS legislature to pass S2323/A2471 which broadens access to education from ABE through to college and counts 4-year college as participation requirement conforming to current federal regulations.

Signed and authored by:

Dillonna C. Lewis
Co-Executive Director
Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI)
Hunter College
695 Park Avenue, Room E1222
New York, NY  10065
Phone: 212-650-3569
Fax: 212-650-3845
www.wri-ny.org

 

Jessica Song
Policy, Advocacy & Research
Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies
Phone: (212) 777-4800  x 315
E-mail: jsong@fpwa.org

 

Maureen Lane
Co-Executive Director
Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI)
Hunter College
695 Park Avenue, Room TH 207
New York, NY  10065
Phone: 212-650-3494
Fax: 212-650-3845
www.wri-ny.org
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