Virtually all city welfare recipients are now able to spend up to 12 months pursuing education and training full-time under a new city policy, City Limits has learned. The city already had to allow single parents on welfare to pursue education as part of their welfare-to-work program under the Davila decision of 2003, but adults without children were not afforded that option. In January, the city voluntarily changed its policy to allow childless adults to enroll in educational or training programs for up to one year.
It’s a welcome change for Ama Shields, 27. When she first got on welfare five years ago, after she and her mother became homeless, she asked her caseworker about taking classes at a local college instead. “They told me I would have to go to school on my own time, so I participated in their programs and I didn’t go to school,” said Shields. It wasn’t until last year, when Shields went on medical leave for back and neck problems, that she was temporarily exempted from the work requirements and able to enroll in communications classes. Now recipients would have opportunities like that from the outset, without jeopardizing their public assistance grants.
The policy shift, notes advocates, closely tracks the Council Access to Training and Education (CATE) bill, mired in litigation since its passage in 2003, which would allow all welfare recipients to pursue count education and training towards their work requirements. “They implemented by policy large swaths of what would have been granted by CATE,” said Wendy Bach, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center who backed the legislation. “It doesn’t include 4-year college [like CATE], but…it’s an enormous step forward.”
According to HRA statistics, the number of recipients engaged in education and training increased by 21 percent from February to March, even while the overall welfare caseload dropped.
Advocates hope caseworkers will actively offer the option to those who are eligible. “If the agency really wants this to happen, they’re gong to have to invest significant resources in training,” said Bach. The city did not return phone calls by press time.
With Temporary Assistance for Needy Families still ensnared in reauthorization, education options for most welfare recipients could diminish once a new law takes effect. Though changes to the federal welfare law are still being negotiated, the Senate’s proposed bill would extend current education provisions, while the House proposal would limit welfare recipients’ activities to those that are strictly work-related.
For now, Shields is counting her blessings. “I think it’s good,” she said. “They’re giving people an opportunity to go back to school.”