With the 2013-2014 state legislative session over, we are excited to share news of expanded access to education and training for welfare recipients, a long-time priority for Empire Justice and for me personally. As is often the case for me, this was the work of a coalition, the Education Task Force, with crucial leadership and energy provided by the Welfare Rights Initiative.
For the first time, participation in a four year college program can now count towards a welfare recipient’s work requirement. Placing four year college on the list of “countable activities” is a crucial step in enabling individuals to receive public assistance and pursue a four year degree.
The details are somewhat complicated. Basically, for 12 months, college and related activities can comprise the bulk of a person’s work obligation. After 12 months, college must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in, for example, paid employment, work experience or on-the-job-training.
Another significant revision relates to work preferences. A rule stating that client activity preferences must, when feasible, be honored has long been the law for households with children. This rule now applies to all households. If the preferred activity is not assigned, the reasons must be set forth in writing.
Some comments about these amendments:
- These changes can significantly improve access to education and training for welfare recipients, perhaps the wisest investment that can be made with public assistance dollars.
- There is still considerable local discretion about assigning a person to college. However, we would argue that where college is an appropriate activity, it cannot be arbitrarily denied.
- Homework: We were unable to secure a mandate that districts count homework hours as work. But districts have discretion to allow homework hours to count, and some already do.
As I have often observed, the people we seek to serve may be unaware of rights such as these, and may struggle to advocate in support of their rights if confronted by an overworked, not very supportive agency staffer. I fear that these laws barely exist unless advocates educate their clients and local agencies, and demand that they be fully and fairly implemented.