Social Work Student Legislative Action Day Paves the Way for Change

By Erin Moore, 2nd year MSW Student, Anthony T. McCabe, 2nd year MSW Student

On March 10th, 2015 Binghamton MSW students joined over 400 of their peers in Albany to lobby for the passage of the New York DREAM Act and an enhancement to the Social Work Loan Forgiveness program. The trip was meant not only to provide an opportunity for students to dip their toes in the political well, but to also get a more intimate understanding of the ways in which state policies impact their social work practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act – more commonly referred to as the DREAM Act – seeks to expand educational opportunity for the nearly 5,000 annual undocumented high school graduates in the state by extending access to New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  It also seeks to establish a Dream Fund Commission to raise private monies for the same population.

At the time of the MSW students’ visit to Albany, the bill had already passed the State Assembly 87-45. It currently awaits final resolution by the State Senate – but since the bill faces such formidable opposition from the Republican majority, Senate action is unlikely at this point. The DREAM Act’s last hope is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, in which he strategically linked the DREAM Act to a controversial education investment tax credit which is supported by Senate Republicans. The final deadline for a budget resolution is March 31st, at which point it will be clear as to whether or Cuomo’s coupling strategy paid off.

The Social Work Loan Forgiveness Program (SWLFP) hit a little more close to home for the student advocates. The New York State chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) sought a $500,000 increase to the current program, which allocates approximately $1.2 million dollars annually to eligible, licensed social workers.

The underpinning of the case for enhancing the SWLFP is that recruitment and retention of licensed social workers has remained an ongoing challenge in New York State in spite of a projected 25% growth in need of their professional services in critical human services areas. One way to incentivize licensed social workers to begin or continue their career in high needs communities is to offset diminished income potential through student loan forgiveness. This particular incentive has become increasingly important as starting salaries have stagnated at an average of $35,000 per year and student loan debts continue to increase. According to the NASW, over half of NASW social workers have loan debt upwards of $39,000.

As the program is currently administered, only 32 of the more than 1,000 annual applicants will be granted the award (which, over 4-years, has a maximum pay-out of $26,000). That’s less than 3% of all applicants — and the allocation of awards tends to be concentrated in New York City. For this, among other reasons, the NASW is seeking the enhancement to the SWLFP to ensure that more upstate social workers are brought into the fold so that they can work in the communities that need their services the most.

The student advocates each met with their elected officials in groups varying in size based on constituency. As representatives from Binghamton University, many students met with Senator Tom Libous and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo–both of whom represent the region where Binghamton University is housed and many students reside.

Senator Libous was not available due to health reasons, however a member of his staff was able to meet with the group. The staff member was receptive to the proposal of increasing the funds available for the SWLFP. While he did not expressly state Senator Libous’ position on the New York DREAM Act, he did tell the group that he sees a lot of opposition to the bill within the senate. The students and professors present took turns dispelling the myths around the bill that encourage opposition. The staff member promised to pass the message to Senator Libous, and he gave a bottle of Senator Libous’ “famous” steak sauce to anyone who wanted it.