FouFoune Paul may have a long time to wait before she can devote her time to finishing up her degree at LaGuardia Community College while taking care of her newborn and 9-year-old. Right now, she has to work in order to continue receiving public assistance—and Human Resources Administration officials vow it’s going to remain that way.
Last Wednesday, Paul testified before the City Council General Welfare Committee in support of a bill known as Access to Training and Education. First introduced in the council last July, the legislation would allow New Yorkers on welfare to go to school or enroll in job training programs full time in lieu of working a job. Current city regulations require welfare recipients to work 35 hours a week, a policy the bill’s supporters say limits their ability to move toward getting better, higher-paying jobs.
“The way things are now, it doesn’t leave time for studying,” said Paul. According to the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College, the number of students on welfare at the City University of New York has dropped by 21,000 since 1995, when then-Mayor Giuliani initiated the so-called work-first policy, to 4,352 as of September.
Bloomberg administration officials vow to veto the bill, arguing that HRA already does facilitate job training and education. According to Seth Diamond, deputy commissioner for Family Independence at HRA, the average participant in the Work Experience Program—who comprise about one-quarter of the city’s 75,000 working welfare clients—works three days a week and spends the other two days with an organization that offers some kind of job training.
“People should be involved in training and work,” Diamond told the committee—both, he stressed, not one or the other. “We believe education alone is not the answer, just as work alone is not the answer… Allowing education exclusively would hurt people’s ability to be prepared for the workplace.”
But the bill’s sponsors—it currently has 26, including Speaker Gifford Miller—aren’t ready to give up yet. Councilmember Bill deBlasio, who convened the hearing, hopes that discussions with the administration will eventually result in new flexibility for welfare recipients to pursue an education. “This is not the Giuliani administration,” said Peter Colavito, deBlasio’s chief of staff. “There’s definitely, from his impressions of the commissioner, that greater openness… There is less of a strict ideological take on the world.” Diamond told deBlasio that his office is happy to consider any other proposals—so long as work is at their core.