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"It makes you feel like you're in this box, and you're suffocating, because no one's opening the lid to get you some air," says Soto, an East Harlem resident, of the current rules. The city's Human Resources Administration allows people to count class hours from approved education programs toward the typical 35-hour weekly work requirement for up to 12 months. But the practice behind this policy, recipients and advocates say, is a test in itself.
Soto should know. Ever since she went on welfare, about a year and a half ago, she has single-mindedly focused on earning a college degree. But along the way she has encountered so many obstacles that are so typical, according to Wendy Bach, an attorney at the Urban Justice center, that they might as well be policy: disdain and misinformation from caseworkers, erroneous sanctions, unpaid child care, and, of course, snarled red tape.
"They're there to discourage you, to make you feel like a piece of shit," Soto says of HRA staffers, who never told her she could go to school. She learned differently when organizers from Community Voices Heard, a welfare rights group she has since joined, visited her center one day.
"I had to fight just to get my GED," says Soto. After a caseworker declared that GED classes wouldn't count toward fulfilling her work requirement, Soto requested a fair hearing and won. That was only the beginning of her battle to get an education without losing the biweekly $109 check that sustains her and her two-year-old daughter.
"I would go smelling like garbage to school," Soto says, since she'd have to rush daily from her workfare assignmentpicking up trash on Wards and Randalls islandsto class and back again to make her work quota. After obtaining her GED and enrolling at Borough of Manhattan Community College last winter, she juggled a five-course schedule with work and parenting.
She was repeatedly sanctioned or threatened with sanctionsreductions in cash assistance and child-care subsidiesfor errors she says were not hers. Like many welfare recipients, she says HRA accused her of missing appointments and flouting work requirementscharges that she says were untrue or ignored extenuating circumstances, such as the agency's failure to keep accurate records.
She has had to attend numerous fair hearings to retain her benefits, and at one point, she says, her biweekly checks were cut to $50. The city has failed to pay her child-care provider for months, she says, echoing a common complaint among welfare recipients. And at the moment, she's battling threats to slash her assistance because she took a temporary, minimum-wage city job, for which she insists she has permission. It's yet another complication that could jeopardize her plans to continue with school.
In fact, says Bach, HRA's decentralized, multi-step system is designed to trip up everyone, but especially those who want to study. "The number one priority of this administration is to cut the welfare rolls," she says. "If you don't do exactly what they say, they're going to sanction you. People lose their child care all the time if they're in school. They're constantly at fair hearings," she says. "That's the kind of thing that makes people drop out."
Considering the odds, Soto says she is pleased to have finished her last semester with "a 3.0 average." She's determined to complete at least her associate's degree and resents the popular notion that welfare recipients should confine themselves to vocational training. Her passion, reflected in her class schedule, is for liberal arts subjects like history, sociology, and philosophy.
But HRA's time restriction does not allow for the two years typically needed to earn an associate's degree. And federal and local policies expressly discourage liberal arts courses, restricting the approved list to job training and other practical programs.
The council bill, which welfare committee chair Stephen DiBrienza and Speaker Peter Vallone introduced July 26, would remove the one-year cap and count more school-related hours toward the work requirement. Under an amenable mayor, such reforms would ease many of Soto's troubles. But Giuliani, who has bucked other welfare rights measures, could force a long wait. In an election year when the bill's prime sponsors and many of their colleagues are busy campaigning, council sources say, there's no guarantee of a legislative override to the expected mayoral veto before year's end.
The most direct route for Soto, a passionate woman who wants to become a Legal Aid lawyer so she can advocate for others on welfare, might be to try for another mayoral face-to-face.