2001, A WELFARE ODYSSEY: CANDIDATES PROMISE CHANGE

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Got homework? Under the next mayor, the time a New Yorker on public assistance spends poring over her notes could count toward her required work hours, provided political hopefuls keep their promises. While everyone wonders what will happen to the city’s welfare system once its Godfather, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is out of office, three Democratic hopefuls spoke out for the first time last week on how they would reshape the program. And it certainly would look different.

The days of missing classes in order to keep up with job hours mandated under the Work Experience Program would be over. Prompted by questions at a forum orchestrated by welfare recipients from ACORN and Community Voices Heard, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Public Advocate Mark Green and Council Speaker Peter Vallone all pledged to count hours spent on schoolwork inside and out of the classroom toward the federal work requirements. (Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer was protesting in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and couldn’t make the event.)

They each guaranteed more and better on-the-job training than is offered in current parks and sanitation assignments, like English classes and computer workshops. “I promise to create real jobs for welfare recipients, not phony jobs,” said Vallone. Green added, “My administration will be a way station that moves people from welfare to work, not the serf-like system we have now.” And Hevesi: “We will move people not just off welfare, but to the next plateau of self-sufficiency.”

To top that, a Hevesi, Vallone or Green Administration would oversee the creation of 10,000 public works jobs for people on public assistance (funding details to come later). And for those times when the Human Resources Administration does not treat its clients well, a grievance procedure would be implemented, to go beyond the one-shot hearings now offered.

All this while trying to keep people off the welfare rolls: “Ideally, we will have nobody on welfare,” Hevesi said, echoing the sentiments of both Mayor Giuliani and his opponents. This last point makes some advocates pause, and wonder what the future holds for New Yorkers who can’t work. A recent report by the Independent Budget Office shows that a growing number of the city’s welfare recipients have barriers to working, whether they are illiterate or non-English speaking. As of December, only 44 percent of welfare recipients worked, says the study.

How much the issue will come up again along the campaign trail is unclear, but members of last week’s audience let the candidates know as they walked out the door that their words will not be forgotten with two powerful words of their own: “40,000 votes.”