(WOMENSENEWS)–Single moms who want to further their schooling while receiving public assistance in New York City got a major boost recently when city officials agreed to settle a long-standing lawsuit by providing more opportunities for federal welfare recipients to participate in education and training programs.
“This will make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of women,” says Henry A. Freedman, the executive director of the WelfareLaw Center, a New York-based organization that filed the lawsuit. “It means that many women will be able to get the benefit of an education program and bring themselves out of poverty.”
The fourth TANF Annual Report to Congress indicated that women represented 90 percent of all adult recipients.
The settlement also represents a victory for advocates working to increase access to higher education for welfare recipients nationwide. Since the passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996, many municipalities around the country have steadily moved toward a work-for-benefits or “work-first” approach. As a result, fewer welfare recipients are attending college. The National Urban League, a New York-based organization committed to the economic empowerment of African Americans, estimates a 20 percent drop in college enrollment for all welfare recipients and a 16 percent drop for African American recipients over the first two years of welfare reform. In New York, enrollment of welfare recipients at the City University of New York decreased from 27,000 in 1995 to 5,000 in the year 2000–nearly an 80 percent decline.
Settlement Reverses Work First Program Under Giuliani
As part of the settlement in the class-action Davila vs. Eggleston, approved last month by a New York County Supreme Court judge Richard Braun, New York City welfare recipients can no longer be forced to leave an education program or be denied the right to enroll without a valid assessment showing that the program is not appropriate for them.
The Welfare Law Center, along with The Legal Aid Society of New York and the law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell, first sued the city in December 1996 on behalf of all single parents on welfare. They claimed that the city, under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, steered nearly all welfare recipients into a work program instead of allowing them to pursue education or job training.
“What happened was a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter model,” says Marc Cohan, director of litigation for the Welfare Law Center.
The named plaintiff, Evelyn Davila, was a single mother on welfare who had enrolled in an 11-month state university program to become a phlebotomist, a medical technician who draws and tests blood. But the Human Resources Administration, which oversees the city’s public assistance program, insisted that she give up her studies and instead participate in its Work Experience Program.
“She would have been required to clean the park and sweep the streets in exchange for her welfare grant,” Cohan says. If she had refused, she would have risked losing her welfare benefits.
“Her belief was that in terms of preparing her to enter the job market, she would have been far better off to continue with her education,” Cohan says. But, he says, the Giuliani administration’s philosophy was that the government should not be paying for someone to continue their education. “They didn’t believe going to school was a way of working for welfare,” he says. Instead, welfare workers were assigned to pick up leaves and trash around the city in exchange for their benefits–the kind of work, Cohan says, that rarely leads to private employment or allows a person to leave welfare.
“Our basic philosophy is that people are more likely to get jobs if they can be educated rather than doing just workfare,” Cohan says. Statistics show that 50 percent of adults on public assistance nationwide lack even a high school diploma.
Instead of abandoning her studies, Davila turned to the Welfare Law Center. As it turns out, she was one of several individuals facing the same situation. The center filed suit on December 19, 1996, in state court, arguing that the city was flouting a New York State law, which allows welfare recipients to participate in a variety of activities, including education programs, based on individualized assessments of their needs, abilities and preferences. The Supreme Court of New York County agreed and, in March 1997, granted a preliminary injunction against the city.
Davila was able to complete her coursework and graduate from the program. By mid 1997, she got a job at a hospital making $13 an hour and left welfare. “She was very much a success story,” Cohan says.
Nonetheless, the city appealed the court’s decision. The case went back and forth to court over the next two years and was headed for trial in July, even while a settlement was being discussed. Cohan says that with the election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and change in administration, the attorneys were finally able to reach an agreement under pressure from the court.
Under the agreement, the city must assess the needs of welfare recipients and come up with “employability plans,” which may include job training or additional schooling. Recipients can appeal those plans if they disagree with them. The settlement also allows attorneys from the Welfare Law Center to monitor the city’s efforts.
A representative of the city’s Human Resources Administration turned down a request from Women’s eNews for an interview. But in a speech last November, Seth Diamond, the executive deputy commissioner for the Family Independence Administration, which oversees education and training programs for the city’s welfare recipients, said Mayor Bloomberg was committed to using education as a way to keep recipients in the job market and help them upgrade their skills.
In a speech last May regarding the reauthorization of federal welfare reform, Mayor Bloomberg said, “Like President Bush, I believe we should ensure that welfare recipients who work should also be able to participate in job-training, education and job placement programs. Training and education should be closely tied to the needs of city businesses and lead to real jobs.”
Access to Education Varies Nationwide
The federal government provides funding through a block grant for welfare recipients and sets policies on how the state can spend the money. The Center for Women Policy Studies, an organization in Washington, D.C., performed a state-by-state survey in 2002 that found that 49 allow post-secondary education to count as work activity. But it ranges from enrolling only short term in vocational programs to completing a four-year degree. Eleven states allow post-secondary education to count as work activity for 12 months, 15 states allow it to count for 24 months and 19 states count it for more than 25 months. The majority of states require that recipients’ education be directly linked to employment, either upgrading their skills for the current job market or preparing them for an occupation in demand. Many states require recipients to combine work with their studies.
As Congress continues to debate the terms of welfare reauthorization, the debate over whether welfare benefits should include education continues.
Lawrence Mead, a professor of politics at New York University, says research shows that putting people to work first is a more effective way of getting them to leave welfare than putting them in school. He says the reason many welfare recipients dropped out of high school to begin with is because they did not like school or struggled in school. For them, it is more important to build a work history.
Mead also points out that it is not fair for people on welfare to get taxpayer money to go to school. “If you allow people on welfare to go to school, then they have a privilege that others don’t have,” he says. “You turn a welfare grant into a college scholarship.” He says recipients who want to further their education will find a way to do so, including after their work hours. “There is every encouragement for them to do that but they are not supposed to do it in preference to work,” he adds.
But Judy Williams, the director of Maine’s Bureau of Family Independence, which oversees the state’s education programs for welfare recipients, says it is important to offer choices to people on public assistance to help them leave the welfare rolls. “One approach does not fit all,” she says.
Through its Parents as Scholars Program, the state pays for recipients to get two-year and four-year degrees in fields such as accounting, nursing, education and social services. After a screening process, that sometimes includes assessment testing and remedial classes, scholars are expected to complete their studies on time. For that reason, they are not required to work the first two years while pursuing their degrees. According to Williams, 95 percent of the scholars graduate.
“I think it’s important for states to have the option and the flexibility to design their programs to include post-secondary education and use federal dollars to fund it,” Williams says.
Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, has proposed legislation that would allow other states to use federal dollars to replicate the Parents as Scholars program. Meanwhile, Freedman of the Welfare Law Center is working with Legal Aid lawyers across the country to expand education benefits for people on welfare.
Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer in the New York area.
For more information:
Welfare Law Center:
Maine Equal Justice Partners–Parents as Scholars:
“Report Says Welfare Laws Hinder Self-Sufficiency”: