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Amendments to the Welfare Work Rules: Financial Literacy and Non-Traditional Jobs

September 28, 2017

Author: Don Friedman

On September 12, 2017, Governor Cuomo signed into law a modification of the public assistance work rules aimed at helping women gain greater access to jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields, and encouraging participation in financial literacy and personal finance instruction.  To some degree, the structure of the new law may limit its effectiveness, but advocates and welfare recipients should be aware of the possible opportunities the legislation may offer.  In addition, advocacy may be needed to ensure that local districts make the optimal use of these new provisions in the law.

I have previously described this law in some detail; see Policy Matters, July 2017.  In this article I will briefly review the main features of these Social Services Law amendments, point out some features of the law that unfortunately may render it less effective than I think the sponsors intended, and suggest ways that advocates and public assistance recipients can work to maximize the opportunities presented by these statutory changes.

NON-TRADITIONAL EMPLOYMENT

The Social Services Law (SSL) sets forth a list of work-related activities that local districts may assign to PA recipients.  The list includes “job search and job readiness.”  The new amendments add to the job search/job readiness description by stating that the local district may work with the state Department of Labor to provide workforce guidance and information regarding “higher paying jobs and careers including jobs traditionally dominated by men.” [1]

FINANCIAL LITERACY/PERSONAL FINANCE 

In addition to the general list of work-related activities cited above, the SSL also provides a list of educational activities that districts may offer. [2]  Effective March, 2018, the amended SSL will add to this list “…education or a course of instruction in financial literacy and personal finance that includes instruction on household cash management techniques, career advice to obtain a well-paying and secure job, using checking and savings accounts, obtaining and utilizing short and long term credit, securing a loan or other long term financing arrangement for high cost items, participation in a higher education course of instruction or trade school…”

THE GOOD NEWS, THE NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS

Promising opportunities

On the positive side, it is quite likely that in the near future, some districts around the state will offer guidance about gaining access to historically male-dominated jobs, and courses in financial literacy and personal finance.  Some of these program offerings may indeed be effective and valuable to participants.

That annoying discretionary verb “may”

I believe that the new SSL amendments are less promising than they might have been, largely because of a three-letter word that appears and reappears in the Social Services Law.  That word is “may.”  So the local districts may work with the local department of labor to provide information and guidance concerning jobs traditionally dominated by men; the districts must make educational activities available, but as to any specific activity on the list, such as financial literacy, the district may include it.  Thus there is no mandate that districts take any action at all in response to these amendments.  The Assembly’s Memorandum of Support of the amendments inaccurately states that financial literacy training is now added to the list of “…activities that social services districts must make available…”  Unfortunately, it is added to the list of activities that districts may make available.

As many advocates have argued over the years, if particular activities, programs and rules are critical or of indisputable value, then it should be mandated that they be offered, at least once a determination has been made that the activity, program or rule will benefit the individual.

The looming threat of sanctions

This is a more general critique of the welfare work rules:  Even when high quality, worthwhile programs and activities are involved, they tend to be assigned or mandated, rather than offered.  As a result, a failure to fully participate, even for very understandable reasons, will likely trigger the sanction process, threatening the loss of benefits for a designated period of time.  Bear in mind that a state law applying only to New York City has dramatically diminished the punitive aspect of the work rules.  It is absurd that it does not apply statewide- a battle for another day… [3]

Will clients know about these programs?

The Social Services regulations direct districts to inform applicants and recipients of “activities… for which they are eligible, including… education, employment and training opportunities… under the local plan…” [4]  Will clients be adequately informed about these options?  As is so often the case concerning this type of legal requirement, the quality of information provided to clients is likely to vary significantly from one district to the next.  And in this case, if individuals are not properly advised, there is little probability they will have any chance to avail themselves of these opportunities.

Engaging in training for those traditionally male-dominated jobs

Finally, the SSL amendments allow for guidance and information about jobs not traditionally held by women, once the individual has received such guidance and information, will she be authorized to participate in whatever training, education or other assistance may be essential to enable her to secure such a job?  The amendments are silent, though there may be remedies, as discussed in the following section.

WHAT CAN ADVOCATES AND RECIPIENTS DO TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE CHANGES?

I fear that the preceding section might cast doubt on the value of these work rules changes.  I am hopeful that the amendments might in fact be of some value, contingent upon advocates and recipients having knowledge of the new options and persuading reluctant districts to ensure that they are offered and live up to their very positive objectives.  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Familiarize yourselves with the new provisions and take steps to ensure that your clients are aware of them as well.  A simple one-page flyer can easily convey the basics (I’m happy to help!).  Make sure that the districts provide the information in various, accessible ways.
  2. Perhaps most important, the local districts are given complete discretion whether to offer guidance about historically male-dominated jobs and financial literacy instruction.  If you think some folks might benefit from these programs, urge your district to add them to their list of countable work activities.  I know that in some districts that is a tough slog.  On the other hand, these activities should be less politically charged than others.  They are very practical, and either completely job-oriented (guidance about traditionally male-dominated jobs), or focused on financial management skills for folks seeking employment (financial literacy).  Since the bill has just been signed, there are no regulations yet, but I expect that regulations will be adopted that require districts that wish to offer these programs to add these activities to their biennial employment plans.  The districts should be strongly encouraged to do this.  Local district employment plans are available on the OTDA website, http://otda.ny.gov/resources/employment-plans/.
  3. If the district does decide to include these programs in their activity lists, make sure that recipients have a reasonable chance to have them included in their individual employability plan.  The Assembly Memorandum of Support states that the law will allow “…caseworkers to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether participation in financial literacy and personal finance courses would be of additional benefit.”  It is true that caseworkers may ultimately decide whether the activity will be authorized.  But the Social Services Law actually affords some concrete rights to the recipient:


SSL §§335(2) and 335(a)(2) require first that, based on the individual’s assessment, the worker must develop an employability plan “…in consultation with…” the individual.  Admittedly, that terminology may be somewhat vague.  But a bit further along in the same sections, the law mandates that “to the extent possible, the employability plan shall reflect the preferences of the participant…”  And if the plan does not reflect those preferences, the reason must be set forth in writing in the employability plan.


There is room for both policy advocacy and individual client advocacy to ensure that the objectives of this legislation translate into meaningful opportunities for public assistance recipients.  If we at Empire Justice can be of assistance, please feel free to contact us.

End Notes:
 [1] The list of work-related activities is set forth in SSL §336(1).  Job search and job readiness, with the new provision concerning historically male-dominated jobs, are described in SSL §336(1)(f).  Actually, the section (f) cross-references §10-c of the Labor Law, which is where the language about this employment can be found.
 [2] The list of educational activities can be found at SSL §336-a(1).
 [3] Compare SSL §§341 and 342 (rest of state) with SSL §§341-A and 342-A (NYC).
 [4] 18 NYCRR §385.5(1).

 





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