It's Also 'Back to School' For Those On Welfare

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New federal rules are opening the door for New York state to allow more residents who receive public assistance to obtain education and training, the state's welfare chief said last week.

Yet the state's uncertain budget climate and questions about implementation mean the fate of such reforms are uncertain, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Commissioner David Hansell told a group of welfare advocates – many of whom have long held that better integrating education into public assistance would help people get off welfare.

On Oct. 1, the federal Department of Health and Human Services puts into effect its final rules governing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which since 1996 has been the primary federal welfare program. As expected when HHS first floated its initial revised regulations more than two years ago, they significantly tighten what states can do to be considered in compliance with federal welfare law. The percentage of welfare recipients in specified work activities must increase, while what counts as “work” has been restricted, and municipal reporting requirements have grown.

Yet the final rules issued in February also take into account criticism that strict “work first” rules made it impossible for people to study their way out of poverty, and loosen restrictions around entering educational programs while on welfare.

Hansell, who was elevated from chief of staff at the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) to the state's top welfare position at the beginning of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration, made clear the state intends to leap at the chance to expand educational opportunities for the poor.

“We're trying to balance what has been a very strong work focus of our public assistance programs in New York state with a greater emphasis on education and training than we've had in the past,” he told a meeting of the Welfare Reform Network, a 19-year-old coalition of antipoverty groups. “Our goal is to give all public assistance recipients the opportunity to engage in programs that will help take them to the next educational level [and] increase their earning capacity.”

Advocates for the poor have long asserted that education is the surest route out of poverty. Hansell noted that among full-time workers, high school graduates see an average 41 percent increase in their earnings over non-graduates, and a two-year college degree is accompanied by an additional 21 percent earnings bump. Census data likewise show that while just 9 percent of children of college-educated parents in New York state live below the federal poverty line, 30 percent of children of parents with just a high school degree –and 54 percent of those whose parents didn't complete high school – are officially poor.

Hansell said in the next month or two the state will issue its own proposed regulations under which the local social services districts that actually implement welfare programs will be asked to:

• Assess the educational level of all welfare recipients, assigning those not at a 9th-grade reading level to basic education programs, and placing those with basic literacy but no high-school diploma into GED programs.

• Count unsupervised homework time (up to a maximum of one hour per hour of class time) as “work activity” hours for welfare eligibility purposes, as will now be allowed under the new federal regs.

• Increase by 20 percent the number of clients enrolled in vocational training.

Other new initiatives described by Hansell include setting up the state's first transitional jobs program – an RFP is out now that resembles the city's much-lauded Parks Opportunity Program, which provides six-month temporary positions that can lead to full-time paid jobs – as well as a Career Pathways program designed to provide targeted occupational training for jobs in high-demand. (The latter, he noted, will come at a price: it's being funded with money that was previously slated for a variety of intensive services to help welfare clients found noncompliant with work requirements.) Gov. Paterson's administration also hopes to get state law changed to make attending a four-year college an allowable activity while receiving welfare, as is permissible under the new federal TANF rules.

Federal law still limits welfare recipients to counting college studies as “work” for a single year, though, meaning after that, they must find time for their studies on top of their 30 hours (35 in New York City) of work activities. Despite that restriction, Hansell characterized the new initiatives as “a sea change around education and training for public assistance.”

While those in the room seemed excited by the new spirit of detente over education for the poor – the mere appearance of the state's welfare chief at a meeting of welfare advocates would have been unthinkable during what WRN panelist Don Friedman of the Empire Justice Center half-jokingly referred to as “the dark years” under Governor Pataki – there were concerns as well. The state's budget woes, Hansell acknowledged, could yet throw cold water on some of its ambitions, especially where expanded educational programs would be needed to meet increased demand: “We are going to have to implement these initiatives with less resources, at least for the new term, than we've had in the past. That's not going to be easy.”

Though Friedman said the new federal rules give reason for “cautious optimism” about expanding educational options, he and others also wondered aloud whether state reforms would necessarily trickle down to the ground level without increased oversight. A bill developed with the help of WRN's Education Task Force and introduced during the last legislative session, he noted, would have not just added four-year colleges, but also added a clause that agencies can't “unreasonably deny” a request for education and training by clients – a clause that Hansell's OTDA opposed as too restrictive of local districts. “Are they reserving the right to unreasonably deny people?” asked Friedman, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

“The biggest issue,” Friedman continued, “is will HRA and the local districts around the state really implement what they're being advised to do?” The answer, he said, could rest on such small details as a line in the draft regs that allows agencies to deny access to education to anyone who's been “sanctioned,” meaning they had their benefits reduced or cut off, for failure to comply with work requirements. “If you look at the sanction data for New York City, you know that everybody's been sanctioned at some point” – often for something as simple as failing to receive notice of a pending appointment – “so that could be an open door to really not letting many people engage in these activities.”

Most of those who spoke at the meeting agreed that while the state's moves are a step in the right direction, the devil will be in the details. HRA, however, did not respond to a request for input on its implementation plans.

Dillonna Lewis of the Welfare Rights Initiative, an advocacy group for CUNY students receiving public assistance based at Hunter College, told City Limits that being able to count homework time as work time, in particular, is “going to be huge,” especially for the 90 percent of her group's members who are currently juggling school, work and raising a child. But she echoed worries that commitments of change from Albany won't mean much on the ground unless local agencies like HRA are forced to get on board.

“It's one thing to have a 'sea change,' but you have to bring the counties to the table,” said Lewis. “The folks who are at the front line, the case workers, if they don't have a different way of interacting, not much is going to change.”

– Neil deMause