BANGOR, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)--Welfare recipient Laurie Stratton, 33, is on her way, taking the education train to what she hopes will be a better life.
She received her associate's degree in liberal studies from the University of Maine-Augusta with high honors in May. She plans to enroll in a bachelor's program at the University of Maine's flagship campus in Orono and finish a degree in business.
And the state of Maine is going to help pay her way while she does. Maine's creative regulations allow her to receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits as she works on her degree.
"In order to be self-sufficient and not having to depend on a man, going to college is a necessary thing to do," said Stratton in an interview. "I've worked minimum wage jobs in day care, in a wood factory making Popsicle sticks, picking potatoes, you name it. It just didn't get me out of my rut."
Stratton was able to qualify for continued welfare benefits while in college and become much more self-sufficient and remain so because she lives in the state of Maine, which sponsors the one-year-old Parents As Scholars program.
Only Maine and Wyoming stop the clock on time limits for welfare recipients who pursue post-secondary education, since the national, work-or-else welfare reform law passed in 1996.
When the national reauthorization of welfare is debated next year, the issue of education and how much to encourage it will be hotly debated. Although studies consistently show that post-secondary education is instrumental in helping people leave welfare, education has been treated as a luxury in the work-or-else approach to welfare reform.
Twelve other states give full work credit for post-secondary education within the five-year lifetime limits of federal law. They are: Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Education for Welfare Mothers Is Emerging Issue
In Pennsylvania, women can now receive some scholarship support while working for pay half-time and attending classes. The New Choices/New Options programs are designed to help low-income women and other nontraditional students get training for careers in well-paying jobs. For these students and most others around the country, the federal time limits still apply.
In California, the Oakland-based group Low-Income Families Empowerment through Education, or LIFETIME, is organizing training sessions and a speaker's bureau of former welfare recipients statewide to advocate for expanded access to higher education. LIFETIME, headed by Diane Spatz, a welfare mother who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley already has won the legal right for welfare mothers and others to get work credit not only for classroom time but also for the time it takes to study for classes and exams.
In that state and others, students are often pushed into short-term training programs and discouraged from choosing their own course of study, according to advocates.
The California organization's message this year that "education works" was a political success in Maine five years ago, and it is becoming a nationwide battle cry for advocates gearing up for the welfare reauthorization debate next year.
The issue of encouraging education will figure prominently in the debate over reauthorizing welfare legislation in 2002. The current, work-or-else welfare provisions treat education almost as a luxury, but advocates for women and welfare rights say that enlightened public policy requires facilitating education so that recipients can get secure jobs that pay enough for them to be ineligible for federal assistance.
Currently, most welfare recipients have little choice but to take dead-end, minimum wage jobs that put them below the poverty level and functionally tie them there. Data show only tiny improvements in earnings for minimum-wage workers trying to work their way up.
Less Than Half The States Give Recipients Some Relief to Attend College
Unlike Maine or even California, fewer than half the states allow recipients some relief from work requirements in order to attend college, and nearly all limit post-secondary education to two years or less.
Without higher education, welfare recipients' economic prospects are bleak. About half of parents on welfare today lack a high school diploma, which limits their ability not only to get a job but also to get one that pays more than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Even a worker earning the minimum wage in the rare job that offers 40 hours per week year-round would earn just $10,212 in a year. The federal poverty level for a family of three is $14,150.
Other research has shown that welfare recipients who pursue higher education are far more likely to become and remain economically independent than people trying to survive on minimum wage jobs. Studies from the Howard Samuels State Management and Policy Center at the City University of New York, using data from 1980s and 1990s, indicate that former welfare recipients who earn a bachelor's degree remain economically independent nearly 100 percent of the time.
Those who earn an associate's degree remain independent of the welfare system about 88 percent of the time. Other studies yield similar results.
"A college education is a positive investment toward a person being economically viable," says Charles Price, a senior research associate at the Samuels Center. "It makes a tremendous difference in earning power."
Despite the research by federal agencies and scholars nationwide, federal lawmakers treated higher education as a luxury in the 1996 welfare law and limited welfare recipients to one year of training or education, though states can spend their own money to support parents seeking higher education, as does Maine.
Study Says Higher Education for Welfare Mothers Is Win, Win, Win
And a forthcoming scholarly article by Sandra Butler and Luisa Deprez, declares Maine's Parents as Scholars program an unqualified success. Butler is an associate professor of social work at the University of Maine-Orono and Deprez is director of the Women's Studies program at the University of Southern Maine. Their study will be published in the summer edition of the national journal, "Social Politics."
Maine's Parents As Scholars program counts about 1,100 participants, out of 7,000 parent-headed families receiving welfare benefits--most of them headed by single mothers. The program is limited to 2,000 participants, though it has never approached that level. Many of the 7,000 parents lack a high school diploma and a large number of others are considered "multiple barrier" parents who would be unlikely to go to school. Another 3,000 families receive welfare support for children who are reared by grandparents or others in the absence of parents.
The Parents As Scholars program works by stopping the clock on federal time limits for post-secondary education. So a mother who wants to go to technical school or to college could continue to receive welfare benefits at Maine's expense, even if her five-year federal time limit is up. Data about the program's success is largely anecdotal, scholars and officials say, though they know that recipients and caseworkers are enthusiastic. The parents usually pay their tuition and related expenses through a combination of student aid and loans.
Even with state support, Butler says, many mothers face insurmountable barriers in the combination of school demands, low-paid work-study jobs, low- and unpaid on-the-job training and low-income single parenthood.
In the majority of states where outside work-for-pay is required, study time is not counted, and even internships and work-study jobs are not recognized as work, single mothers have no real choice to attend school, advocates agree.
Maine Program Means More Self-Esteem, Fewer Family Crises
Maine's supportive approach has had positive results for families, bureaucrats and state budget hawks, Butler and Deprez say.
The parent-students have "increased self-esteem and confidence, fewer family crises, and strengthened family interactions, particularly around issues related to education," Butler and Deprez write.
"Department of Human Services staff find that participants require fewer support services and less employee time and energy; employers have access to a more well-rounded and educated work force; and the State of Maine sees genuine prospects of higher earning power and a stronger tax base as well as a more viable citizenry," the report states.
Despite the initial positive findings about Maine's Parents as Scholars Program, the state's two Republican U.S. Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have been noncommittal about changing welfare laws to encourage post-secondary education and expanding work credits to include education. Sen. Snowe's office issued a brief written statement saying she supports education. She sits on the Finance Committee which bears critical responsibility for the policy. Sen. Collins said through a spokeswoman that she needs to study the issue and would not comment before hearings in 2002.
Nationwide, advocates have launched a campaign to use the 1996 law to actually help women achieve the economic self-sufficiency that is supposed to be a key goal of the law.
Education An Emerging Issue in National Welfare Reform Debate
Rep. Lynne Woolsey, D-Calif., a former welfare recipient, and others are calling for changes that would allow education to meet the work requirements of the law, as in Maine. Other priorities are expanding child care for infants and children whose parents work nights and weekends.
Maine has taken its unusual approach of encouraging welfare recipients to pursue education as result of an intense campaign on the part of advocates to educate their state legislators and journalists about women's position in the labor market, according to Butler and Deprez.
"Dozens of women came to the State House to oppose stereotype-based legislation," Butler and Deprez write. "Their message was clear: Welfare reform must raise families out of poverty, a goal which requires changing the economic position of women in the labor market."
That concerted lobbying effort and a series of editorial board meetings, combined with feminist leadership in the legislature, put Maine in a position to serve as a model for the rest of the country in the coming debate about federal welfare policies.
In the meantime, the women who are able to pursue post-secondary education while receiving welfare benefits say the experience has changed their lives and the lives of their children.
Now, Stratton doesn't expect to work for minimum wage ever again. "When I'm done with college," she says, "there's really no limit on what I can do."
Marie Tessier is an independent journalist who lives and works in Bangor, Maine.
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