Yvonne Shields was shocked when the city Human Resources Administration told her she would lose her welfare benefits if she enrolled in cooking school rather than continue her city-mandated workfare job cleaning bathrooms. “All I want to do is to start my program, get a job and get off welfare,” said Shields. “But HRA won’t let me.”
A new bill introduced in the City Council on Thursday would let her, however. The Access to Education and Training bill would force HRA to count hours spent in the classroom and on homework–whether for a class in sociology, cooking or English as a Second Language–toward the city’s 35-hour-a-week workfare requirement. The bill also mandates that HRA caseworkers clearly inform recipients of their right to education.
With sponsorship from Council Speaker Peter Vallone, along with Councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, the bill is expected to pass and even have enough votes to override a mayoral veto, if need be.
Of course the man who puts his John Hancock on the city’s laws is far from friendly toward the bill. Mayor Rudy Giuliani has yet to support any council legislation that calls for changes in the city’s welfare policy. That has not stopped the council from getting these changes on the books: Last spring, the members overrode the mayor’s veto of a pair of bills that established a grievance procedure for workfare participants and created 10,000 public works jobs for New Yorkers on welfare. More than a year later, however, the Giuliani administration has yet to implement those laws.
“It’s really frightening for democracy that this mayor can choose to implement the laws he likes and ignore the laws he doesn’t,” said Michael Polenberg, an aide to DiBrienza.
A handful of groups considered suing the mayor for ignoring the laws but decided there wasn’t enough time left in his tenure to justify the time-consuming legal process.
So supporters of the education and training bill are looking ahead. “Our focus is really the new mayor,” said Cristina Di Meo of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. Each of the four leading Democratic candidates, Vallone, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Public Advocate Mark Green and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, have publicly committed their support for the bill.
And they hope the apparent success of education and training in moving welfare recipients into long-term jobs with decent wages–87 percent of students on public assistance who get a four-year degree remain permanently off of welfare, according to the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College–will impress the other candidates.
In a take-off on “America the Beautiful,” some 50 demonstrators in favor of the legislation sang it succinctly: “To do more good/For our neighborhood/Let us earn a college degree.”