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Session Wrap 2017: Employment & Financial Literacy

July 31, 2017

Author: Don Friedman

Just before the 2017 legislative session ended, a bill making two modifications to the public assistance work rules passed both the Senate and the Assembly and will now be sent to the Governor for his signature.  The prime sponsors of the bill (A.474A/S.1170A) are Assembly Member Paulin and Senator Carlucci.  This legislation is well intentioned, designed to facilitate women’s entry into non-traditional jobs, and to offer welfare recipients financial literacy education as a work activity, but some of the details may limit the effectiveness and impact of the law.

Part 1: Non-traditional Employment

In the Social Services Law, section 336(1) provides a list of activities that social services districts may offer, and to which PA recipients may be assigned.  The activities described in Section 336(1)(f) are job search and job readiness.  This bill would amend paragraph (f) to add that the local district may work with the Department of Labor to provide “workforce guidance and information” as described in Labor Law §10-C.  Labor Law §10-C discusses ways “to better educate and inform both women and men about higher paying jobs and careers including jobs traditionally dominated by men.”

In terms of implementation, it seems that a person might potentially be assigned to receive “guidance and information” about opportunities to prepare for and secure non-traditional employment, whether in the form of one session, or a course of instruction.

As described in the Assembly Memorandum of Support, “This bill is one more step toward helping provide low-income women access to better-paying careers with upward mobility.” [1]  Hopefully, the bill, if signed by the Governor, will indeed provide one more tool for accomplishing that goal.  The bill is, however, somewhat frustrating, as is so often the case in state welfare legislation, in that whether this activity is available is totally at the discretion of the local district.  It also suffers from the flaw inherent in many features of welfare law, that failure to fully comply can result in harsh sanctions (especially outside of New York City).  There is also nothing requiring SSDs to inform recipients of the availability of this activity, or to authorize it for recipients who actually request such guidance and information.  Under state law, districts are required to honor recipient activity requests, if appropriate, but the level of compliance with that rule is uncertain. [2]

Finally, there’s the looming question: once a welfare recipient participates in this guidance and information about non-traditional employment, will they be authorized to participate in whatever training or education may be essential for them to secure such a job?

Part 2: Financial Literacy

Section 336-a(1) of the Social Services Law mandates that social services districts must make vocational educational training and educational activities potentially available to public assistance recipients.  It then sets forth a list of such activities, stating that districts may offer but are not limited to, the activities on the list.  Recognizing that the lack of “financial literacy” can represent a significant barrier to a household’s well-being, this new legislation would add to the list of educational activities:

“…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…”

Ensuring that good quality financial literacy programs are available to public assistance recipients is a wise and long overdue policy.  But, suffering the same weakness as Part 1 of the bill, the local districts have complete discretion whether to offer financial literacy training at all.  The Assembly Memo of Support inaccurately states that financial literacy training is added to the list of “activities that social services districts must make available.”  But Social Services Law §336-a(1) states, unfortunately, that what follows is a list of activities that the district “may include…”

The Memo of Support somewhat accurately states that the bill allows “…caseworkers to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether participation in financial literacy and personal finance courses would be of additional benefit.”  As pointed out above, state law mandates that the recipient’s activity preferences should be granted, if appropriate.  But even the bill sponsors, in this Memo, seem to cede all decision-making authority to the caseworker.  To the contrary, the local district should, where possible, create a work activity plan that reflects the recipient’s preferences.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the critique of A.470A/S.1170A, this bill, if signed into law, can improve the prospect that a public assistance recipient will have the opportunity to receive guidance and information about non-traditional employment, and may be able to participate in financial literacy and personal finance training.  The reservations outlined above are, to a large extent, a function of problems with the overall bias of the Social Services Law, which (1) makes it more difficult for recipients to participate in education and training as part of their work activities, and (2) avoids mandating specific local district action, no matter how warranted it may be.

End Notes:
 [1] The Assembly Memo of Support discusses these changes as affecting and benefiting TANF recipients, but the laws being amended cover all public assistance recipients, and should apply fully to participants receiving either TANF (called Family Assistance in New York State) or Safety Net Assistance.
 [2] The requirement that the recipient’s preferences be honored, where appropriate, can be found at SSL §§335(2)(a), 335-A(2)(a).

 





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