New York

Struggling to Study


This week Nichole Thomas had expected to get off the treadmill of poverty and start covering real ground.

“I’ve worked odds-and-ends jobs, cashiering, doing inventory at warehouses, floor sales, making food for the airlines. I even did the U.S. census,” says the 29-year-old mother of two young sons. “I’ve worked so hard, busting my butt, but I just don’t get ahead. The girl behind me with the GED always gets the promotion.” And, she says, her family “still needs welfare in order to survive.”

On and off public assistance for years, Thomas describes the city system as one that promotes running in place over making progress. She longs to earn her high school equivalency degree, saying she “messed up” by dropping out of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens as a 10th grader. Yet she has been slowed by the demands of parenting, keeping up with her welfare work assignments, and being restricted by the city’s welfare agency to just two days of classes a week.

Thomas brings up a widely accepted socioeconomic theory: the greater a person’s education, the better her chances of supporting herself. Some 60 percent of adult welfare recipients in New York do not have even a high school education. “If we’re only allowed to go to school two days a week, when are [we] going to get a GED?” she says.

A new city law, scheduled to take effect this week, would answer that concern by permitting nearly everyone on welfare to receive some education and training and count more education hours toward their 35 weekly hours of required welfare activity. But the Bloomberg administration refuses to implement the law, claiming the City Council lacks the power to tell the mayor’s welfare commissioner what to do.

The council overrode a mayoral veto by 46-5 on April 9, making Local Law 23, the Access to Training and Education Law, official after its many years lying dormant in the previous council. To the shock of elated welfare recipients, the mayor then sued the council in State Supreme Court, accusing it of usurping his powers and, moreover, making bad policy. A court date has not been set.

The law eliminates the current 20-hours-a-week work requirement in favor of an individualized mix of work and education. The change puts the city at risk of losing state and federal dollars tied to work quotas, the mayor’s lawsuit claims. There is no court-ordered stay on the law, but Bloomberg’s Human Resources Administration, which runs the welfare system, clearly will not abide by it.

The standoff marks an unusually thorny moment in relations between social welfare interests and the mayor—generally considered to be smoother than under the previous administration. Rudolph Giuliani’s laser focus on forcing recipients to work for their benefits dazzled conservatives nationwide and sliced New York’s rolls by 60 percent, or over half a million people. But education and support services like child care are also important, Mayor Bloomberg has said.

HRA spokesperson Frank Sobrino stresses that the administration already pursues a mixture of work experience and education. He said 92 percent of participants in the Work Experience Program—dreaded by recipients because it has been known to entail menial labor and mindless busywork—are also enrolled in some type of education or training.

When told that some recipients had complained of attending HRA classes only to sit all day knitting or making cold calls from the yellow pages, he said people should tell their caseworkers. “We are happy to look into any and all situations.”

But a council spokesperson says the suit over Local Law 23 shows the mayor’s actions do not necessarily follow his gentler rhetoric. The legal problems Bloomberg raises were addressed long before passage, the rep says. In fact the law specifies that changes should comply with existing state and federal rules.

Administrations typically look at the size of the caseload as a measure of welfare policy’s success. Despite the city’s high unemployment rate—8.1 percent in May—Sobrino says the rolls have declined since last year. Some 423,000 people, over half of them children, were on public assistance as of May.

The administration worries that recipients, given the chance to fulfill their work requirements solely through education, will forget the value of work, says one official. The law’s supporters say very few recipients meet the standards necessary to qualify for full-time study—intended for college students—and attendance and grade requirements will direct education benefits toward motivated students.

Welfare advocates prefer to measure the success of policies by the quality of people’s lives, an arguably elusive standard by government terms. Recipient Thomas—who recently became a member of the Brooklyn-based grassroots group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality—says minimum-wage jobs, which are the pickings for those without a high school degree, cannot sustain a family in the long run.

“On a little McDonald’s job, we’re still going to need food stamps and welfare,” she says, as someone who has tried that route many times. Her family receives $203 in cash assistance every two weeks.

Says Thomas, if welfare recipients were able to spend more of their days on education, “you would see more minority people being doctors, lawyers, and good teachers, and you would see less poverty. [Bloomberg’s] holding back future leaders out here.”

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