Public Assistance and Access to Education: the 2014 Amendments

Don Friedman July 03, 2014

The budget passed by the NY State Legislature on March 31, 2014, included some significant modifications to the law regarding public assistance recipients’ access to four year college and other educational activities.  This briefing paper provides some background on the welfare work requirements and describes the changes that have been made, with occasional commentary.  For a summary of this brief, click here. 


It is difficult to fully understand the import of these amendments to the Social Services Law without some background on the welfare work rules concerning the assignment of activities and counting of hours.  The following is a brief and hopefully reasonably clear explanation of the basic rules.  For greater detail, see An Advocate’s Guide to the Welfare Work Rules in New York State, Section V:  Work activities/assignments.

Able-bodied individuals receiving public assistance are required to engage in work related activities.  For a person to be counted as participating in work, he or she must be engaged for a designated number of hours in one or more of a specified list of activities, set forth below.

Activities (a) through (h) and (l), in bold, are “core activities,” discussed further below.

(a) unsubsidized employment;
(b) subsidized private sector employment;
(c) subsidized public sector employment;
(d) work experience program (WEP, workfare);
(e) on-the-job training;
(f) up to six weeks of job search and job readiness;
(g) community service programs; 
(h) vocational educational training (for no more than 12 months);
(i) job skills training directly related to employment.
(j) education directly related to employment;
(k) satisfactory attendance in high school or a GED program for recipients who lack a diploma or equivalent;
(l) provision of child care for the children of adults who are doing community service;
(m) job search and job readiness beyond six weeks;
(n) educational activities, which can include a range of activities, such as high school or the equivalent, basic and remedial education, trade schools, and two or four year college.

The general rule is that:

  • Single adults in households with children must engage in at least 30 hours per week of work activity, including at least 20 hours of core activities, that is, (a) through (h) or (l) on the above list.
  • Single adults in households without children must engage in at least 35 hours of work per week, including at least 20 hours of core activities.
  • Two parent households not receiving federally subsidized child care must engage in work for a total of 35 hours per week, including at least 30 hours of core activities.
  • Two parent households that receive federally subsidized child care must engage in work for a total of 55 hours per week, including at least 50 hours of core activities.

This background provides the context for analyzing the recent amendments to the law.

*Note that “district” refers to the local social services districts.

Amendment to §335-a(2)(a): Assessments and employability plans for households without children.

  • The sentence stating that districts can assign recipients to any activity is deleted.
  • A new sentence is added, matching the law for households with children, stating that the employability plan shall reflect the person’s preferences in a manner consistent with his or her assessment, but also taking into account the district’s need to meet federal and state participation requirements.  If the preference cannot be accommodated, the reasons must be written in the employability plan.

Amendment to §336(1)(h): The list of work activities.
This section has a list – though not an exclusive list – of the activities that a district can assign.

  • Section (h) describes vocational educational training that can be assigned.  A sentence that specifically excluded “baccalaureate or advanced degree” programs is deleted, and new language makes clear that vocational education can now include programs requiring up to four years of post-secondary education.

Comment#1:  Four year college is placed under vocational education because in 2008, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced that four year college can count as a “core” work activity if it is classified as vocational educational training.  Unfortunately, though, the 12 month limit on vocational education as a core activity remains in place.

Comment #2:  It must be remembered that this list only indicates activities that a district “may” provide.  A district does not necessarily have to offer college as an activity.  On the other hand, an argument can be made that the rule that employability plans should try to reflect participant preferences, now applicable to all households, means that a district cannot deny a request to participate in college or other educational activity simply because they refuse to offer it.

Amendment to §336(1)(i): List of work activities.
As with the preceding section, this amendment concerns the list of activities that can be assigned.

Section (i) discusses the activity called “job skills training directly related to employment.”

  • Section (i), as amended, now makes clear that this activity, job skills training directly related to employment, may include up to four years of post-secondary education, as permitted by federal and state law.

Comment: As discussed above, college can count as vocational educational training, a core activity, but only for a total of 12 months.  The particular value of allowing job skills training directly related to employment to include four year college is that this activity has no such time limit.  But the less advantageous feature of this job skills activity is that it is not a core activity, so if the individual is attending college and being credited with 10 hours of work activity for example, s/he must also engage in at least 20 hours of core activity.

Amendment to §336-a(1): Educational activities.
This section lists the vocational educational training and educational activities that may be assigned.

  • Up to four years of post-secondary school may be assigned.  Also, the list of potential providers of post-secondary education now includes four year colleges in addition to two year programs.
  • In addition, the part time equivalent of up to four years of post-secondary school may be
  • assigned.  Under the prior law, the part time equivalent could be assigned only if full time participation would cause hardship.  Now, part time participation can be assigned without requiring evidence that full time participation would cause hardship.
  • An assignment to education must be consistent with the individual’s assessment and
  • employability plan.
  • To continue in an educational activity, a person must document the hours of participation as required by state and federal law, and must maintain “satisfactory academic progress,” meaning at least a C average.  This satisfactory progress requirement may be waived by the school or by the district in cases of undue hardship, such as injury, illness or the death of a family member.
  • After the first year of college, any additional post-secondary education must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in “paid employment or work activities or community service when paid employment is not available.”

Comment #1:  This provision affirms that four year college is now one of the educational activities that can be assigned and count as work participation.

Comment #2:   The law now requires that a person in post-secondary education must maintain at least a C average, except in cases of undue hardship.  This is similar to a provision in SSL §335-b(2) concerning the counting of work-study and internship hours.  But in the case of work-study, the district may consider the issue of satisfactory progress; in contrast, to continue in post-secondary education, a person must maintain satisfactory progress.  However, this is also a condition of various college-related grants and loans, and should not have too great an impact on the ability to remain in school.

Comment #3:  The amended law requires that any post-secondary education after the first 12 months must be combined with at least 20 hours of paid employment, or other work activities “when paid employment is not available.”  This is, for the most part, consistent with existing state and federal law.  As explained above, after the first year of four year college, continued college attendance is not a core activity and the individual will generally be required to engage in core activities (see the list above) for at least 20 hours per week.  Although specific reference is made to paid employment and community service, the person can also be assigned to “work activities,” which encompasses, in this case, all of the core activities, (a) – (h) and (l) on the list.

Comment #4:  The provision that other activities may be assigned “when paid employment is not available” is potentially troubling, depending on how the district makes the determination that paying jobs are or are not available.  One historical note: §336(1), in its list of activities that can be assigned, includes “work experience,” or workfare, but only “if sufficient private sector employment is not available.”  It is doubtful that districts have made the determination that employment is not available before assigning people to work experience; hopefully, they will not make the determination that employment is available just to make it more difficult for a person to attend college.

Amendment to Social Services Law §131-n(1)(c): Exempt resources.

  • Under current law, a bank account with up to $1,400 to be used for tuition at a two year college is exempt as a resource.  The law is amended so that the exemption also applies to funds being saved for tuition at a four year college.

Effective date:  The amendments take effect immediately


Act I: 1st Year of College.  A single adult without children, Jane, is receiving public assistance and is taking 15 credit hours in a four year program at Hunter College.  Under the law, a single adult must engage in work for 35 hours a week, of which at least 20 must be in a core activity, that is, (a) through (h) or (l) in the list above.  The law as amended allows four year college to count as vocational educational training, which is core activity (h), above.  Jane’s worker decides that this activity is consistent with her employability plan, so she can assign Jane to, for example, 15 hours per week of class time and as much as another 15 hours of unsupervised homework, a total of 30 hours, all as vocational education.  The remaining 5 hours (remember that as a single adult without children, Jane must engage in 35 hours of work) can be in almost any of the activities listed above.

Act II: 2nd Year of College.  After 12 months of college, Jane still needs public assistance but is now in her sophomore year at Hunter.  We know that Jane’s first year in college counted as vocational education, a core activity.  But as noted above, vocational education only counts as a core activity for 12 months.  So for Jane, college can no longer count as vocational education, but it still can count as a non-core work activity, such as (i) on the list, jobs skills related to employment, or (n), educational activity.  But since these are not core activities, Jane must be assigned to at least 20 hours of one or more core activities, (a) through (h) or (l) on the list.

Epilogue:  Thus under the new law, the situation for the first year of college is vastly improved.  For the subsequent years, the ability to continue in college will still be a challenge.  But it can be done!  To give one example, under New York law, work-study counts as employment, a core activity on the list above, probably (b) or (c), and internships count as core activity (e), on-the-job training.  With these types of activities, Jane might be able, especially with the help of a supportive worker, to reach the mandated 20 hours of core activity.

And Furthermore:  Remember the other key feature of the amendments, that for all households, the individual’s activity preferences should be reflected in the employability plan, to the extent consistent with federal and state law, and with the person’s assessment.  We actually struggled to retain this in the bill.  It is now important that advocates, work participants and the districts are made aware and implement this provision!