Getting Beyond Dead-End For Welfare Workers' Jobs

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Efforts to require welfare provider agencies to inform their clients of education and training opportunities for sustainable-wage jobs have not ceased, despite the veto of a bill meant to require just such activities. In August, Gov. Spitzer vetoed the sustainable wages and nontraditional jobs bill (S.3201/A.3366) after it had passed both the Democratic-majority Assembly and Republican-led Senate – a win that welfare advocates were sure would lead to better job opportunities and higher wages for families seeking escape from poverty.

But rather than start from scratch to train social service agencies in the habit of informing clients about jobs that include skills training and pay above minimum wage, advocates said last week that they see opportunity in Spitzer’s veto message.

A standard communication that accompanies many vetoes, the veto message outlines the reasons why a bill was denied passage. “I think the governor tried to make it clear there was no disagreement about the goal” of the bill, said the state's top welfare official, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) Commissioner David Hansell. “The concern was about the specific mechanism of the legislation that could have resulted in severe federal penalties.”

That's because federal work requirements permit individuals to receive up to 12 months of training with additional training allowed as long as the individual also works at least 20 hours per week. Over the summer backers of the bill, however, maintained that the legislation could be implemented without incurring any penalties. (See “Welfare to Work, But Which Kind?” City Limits Weekly #597, July 23, 2007.)

In his veto message, Spitzer directed Hansell “to develop other avenues for increasing district use of job skills training, including establishing district plans for increasing the number of public assistance recipients placed in all federally-allowable education and vocational skills training.” Advocates plan to write to OTDA with recommendations for communicating this message to local social service districts. Their goal is to ensure OTDA has a sense of the types of support public assistance recipients should get in order to achieve economic stability.

Public assistance recipients “should know about availability of education and vocational skills training, and agencies should complete a more comprehensive assessment of people who come in,” said Jill Poklemba, coordinator of the NYC-based Welfare Reform Network. Agencies should also work to identify the specific barriers individuals face and the skills they already possess to find higher-wage jobs. Advocates also would like to see agencies working with clients to create manageable schedules that allow for work and education or skills training programs, Poklemba said.

Legislation is not needed to achieve that. But it was one way to emphasize the need for the poor, particularly women, to have greater access to and support for higher-wage jobs, said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat who represents much of Manhattan's east side. Krueger and State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Democrat from the West Village, are both supporters of the bill and spoke to a small audience at a Welfare Reform Network breakfast last week about their disappointment over the bill’s failure. Glick, who now chairs the higher education committee, addressed the need to improve access to higher education for the poor, removing financial barriers and increasing funding for child care.

Expanding work options for those who receive public assistance beyond “the three lowest denominator jobs” remains a priority, said Krueger. “The problem is that under the current administration, there is no plumbing option [or] construction option,” she said.

The website for the city's welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, lists approved training programs for public assistance recipients. They range from accounting to construction to veterinary assistant. The list also includes cosmetology, housekeeping, and restaurant staff – precisely those fields where advocates would like to see less emphasis. “We definitely hope this will lead to people getting jobs that pay higher wages and also lead to opportunities in fields of nontraditional work that they may not have known about or were prepared for,” such as construction and computer technology, Poklemba said.

As of March, 14 percent of people receiving public assistance in New York City were enrolled in education or vocational job skills training programs; statewide 11.5 percent of public assistance recipients were enrolled in such programs. In its own effort to increase those numbers, OTDA distributed $2.5 million in August to social service agencies across the state under a new program called Education for Gainful Employment (EDGE) aimed at providing education and vocational training programs to public assistance recipients. Of the 32 agencies that received funding, 13 are located in New York City. In addition to building a broader service base, Hansell said policy changes that address improved client and caseworker interaction for creating employment plans should also be expected. “I hope the development of individualized employment programs will encompass a broad array of options,” he said.

Targets for increasing the number of public assistance recipients engaged in education and training opportunities can be expected by early next year, Hansell said.

– Darise Jean-Baptiste