Welfare to Work, But Which Kind?

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A member of Local 79 of the Laborer’s Union, Hell’s Kitchen resident Norene Walker helped build the new state-of-the-art 52-story New York Times building on Eighth Avenue. She’s earned her biceps and confidence, plus a salary track that’s above $40,000 now and could double as she advances in her trade.

With a past that includes periods on welfare, or homeless, “At 44 years of age I feel happier than I ever have in my whole life,” Walker told a group of “nontraditional work” champions last week. “I’m making more money than I’ve made in my entire life. I’m not living paycheck to paycheck.”

Walker said her path began with a course offered by Nontraditional Employment for Women, a nonprofit that helps prepare women for jobs in such fields as construction, transportation and facilities maintenance – which can provide training, pay and benefits packages much richer than the cosmetology, caretaking and service jobs that often are the province of poor women.

A bill passed by the state legislature (S.3201/A.3366), and delivered to Gov. Spitzer on Friday for his signature, would have welfare officers emphasize “nontraditional employment” and “sustainable wage” jobs – those paying at least 185% above the poverty line, or $31,764 for a family of three – as options for recipients of public assistance who are required by law to join the workforce, or at least take concrete steps in that direction.

The bill’s supporters rallied on City Hall steps Thursday to offset lobbying from major stakeholders against Spitzer’s approval. “I think this is a very important bill because women do not know about these opportunities,” said Francoise Jacobsohn, a project manager at Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group. (Supporters focused on women because they are the majority of welfare recipients.) Legal Momentum claims New York City’s construction boom, combined with anticipated retirements among unionized workers, will create approximately 20,000 construction trades openings over the next five years – and that “nontraditional jobs” pay 20 to 30% more than the top 20 women-dominated fields.

Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Public Welfare Association, representing the state’s county-level social services districts, have written to Spitzer asking for his veto, however. They say that education or training that puts off actual work is detrimental in the long run – sounding a lot like the “work first” approach that was a hallmark of former Gov. George Pataki and his most recent welfare commissioner, Robert Doar, who now heads up New York City’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration.

“In order to achieve jobs with sustainable wages and benefits such as health insurance and paid leave, people with limited experience often first need to build an employment history,” says Bloomberg’s letter. “Delaying entry into the job market until a ‘sustainable wage’ job is available could delay employment and is contrary to our philosophy of valuing all employment.”

Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Pritchard said the bill is under review. “Research has demonstrated that the most effective strategy for helping most clients achieve ultimate economic self-sufficiency is a combination of work experience and skills development through education, training or other activities,” Pritchard wrote in an e-mail, representing the viewpoint of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance as well. “Postponing work engagement doesn’t fit with a blended strategy of employment experience plus skills enhancement.”

Supporters of the bill, including City Council General Welfare Committee Chairman Bill de Blasio, the Hunger Action Network of New York State and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, are hoping Spitzer will “demarcate himself from the old ways – we want him to show some leadership,” said Federation policy director Jillynn Stevens. “We had 12 years of ‘work first’ under Pataki, and we expect something different from this governor.”

Philosophy aside, advocates and opponents see the practical aspects of the bill quite differently. Federal welfare rules require a certain percentage of the welfare caseload to be involved in work-related activities – and allow a percentage of them to be involved in education and training. The latter group has thousands of unfilled slots, say the advocates; filling them would help meet the quotas and stave off federal penalties. Yet opponents like Sheila Harrigan, executive director of the New York Public Welfare Association, say the bill would “jeopardize our ability to meet federal work participation rates placing us all at risk of facing fiscal penalties.”

Similarly, Doar of HRA said in a statement, “If this bill becomes law … it will make it more difficult for us to achieve federal participation rates and it will severely undermine our welfare reform approach that has been so successful in moving families from welfare to employment and self sufficiency.”

Spitzer has until midnight Aug. 1 to veto the bill; if he does nothing before or after that it will become law. Of the 605 bills passed by both houses and delivered to him since January, Spitzer has vetoed 74.

– Karen Loew

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