(WOMENSENEWS)–Brittney Ferara was one of five recipients to win an annual $2,000 scholarship last year to help low-income women achieve an educational objective.
It’s not a lot of money, but it meant a lot to Ferara.
She used it to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit on a two-bedroom apartment.
"I now have a place to study and my daughter has her own room," said Ferara, who is earning her associates degree in social and human services from Seattle Central Community College.
Ferara’s award came from the Patsy Takemoto Mink Fellowship, named for the woman who represented her native Hawaii in the U.S. Congress from 1965 to 1977 and then again in 1992 to 2002, the year she died.
Widely known as the driving force behind Title IX–which requires funding parity for the sexes in educational institutions that receive public funding–Mink also actively worked on welfare policy.
In her vision, welfare should go beyond helping low-income mothers care for their children. It should also open opportunities to education at all levels, provide child care and assistance in overcoming personal barriers to employment.
In line with that, the former version of welfare–Aid to Families with Dependent Children–featured training and education for recipients and permitted the completion of four-year college degrees.
In 1996, however, in what Mink would call "welfare’s end," the program was overhauled as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.
Glimpse of New Hardships
Ferara’s story offers a glimpse of how much tougher the 1996 overhaul made life for someone in her position.
In a personal essay to apply for the award, she described growing up with a negligent mother and an alcoholic father. For a while she was able to escape by living with grandparents in Montana. While there she developed a drug habit. She got hooked on methamphetamine.
She returned to her mother’s home to discover her father gone and in his place a new live-in man, who would eventually become physically and sexually abusive. By the time she was 14 she left for good, preferring to take her chances in the streets of Seattle in 2004.
Even though by 16 she had managed to gain entry into college, Shoreline Community College in Seattle, worked three jobs and took up photography, she was only going through the motions. Living with sexual assault, homeless and with no one to turn to–she said her mother did not believe her when she revealed that her companion had raped her–she grew suicidal.
"In the end I knew I could not let myself become a victim of what happened to me. I had to be a survivor," said Ferara.
By 2006 she and her male partner got clean together and Ferara was pregnant. "We decided to keep the baby even though everyone told us it was a mistake," Ferara said.
Sleeping in Mall Bathrooms
Ferara’s partner went to work in Alaska during the last five months of her pregnancy so they could afford a place to live when the baby arrived. While he was gone, she continued to work but was still homeless.
"I slept in mall bathrooms, under bridges, squats," she said, referring to abandoned houses. "Sometimes I would get lucky and be able to sleep at a friend’s house."
A year after the baby arrived, Ferara decided to go back to school, re-enrolling at Shoreline Community College.
Ferara’s partner, who is still part of their daughter Zora’s life, was working 40 hours a week. "We were not eating that much, just buying diapers and food for Zora."
That’s when a counselor at Shoreline told her about Seattle Education Access, a nonprofit focused on higher-education opportunities for low-income young people. Polly Trout, the group’s director of advocacy and outreach, granted Ferara a scholarship to continue her education. She also gave her a paid work-study position as an outreach coordinator.
Shortly after receiving her scholarship, her housing was in jeopardy. Ferara had only recently moved into a YWCA housing shelter. To stay there she had to have an income, and financial aid and scholarships did not count as income.
She sought help at the Department of Social and Health Services. She was eligible for daycare services and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal welfare grant. Many states require participants to work immediately after gaining assistance and to participate in a work-related activity, such as a job search or educational training approved by the state guidelines.
Ferara’s attendance at Shoreline Community College in a degree program wasn’t among TANF’S approved programs, since Seattle’s program requires participants to be working within one year.
Encouraged to Drop Out
"The first week I received welfare benefits my case manager told me to drop out of school and go to work," said Ferara. "It made me angry. I felt I had no choice, but I decided to get a part-time job and barely eat to feed my daughter, but that is what I had to do."
Ferara also said her case manager suggested that she leave college and attend a vocational school that met the approval of Department of Social and Health Services.
Instead of dropping out, Trout’s advocacy group stepped in, providing Ferara with academic advising, social support and a scholarship, so that she could transfer to the degree program she preferred. Ferara withdrew from TANF two weeks after getting accepted, and took the first job she could get; working at a fast-food outlet.
"Many agencies try to railroad low-income people into short-term vocational tech certificates," said Trout.
The arrival of the Mink Scholarship enabled Ferara to move from a housing program called Homestep–a low-income housing program that is supportive of low-income students–into a two-bedroom apartment, her first permanent residence.
Trout said TANF’s educational restrictions, which limits cash benefits to mothers in a program of one year or less, are short sighted and unjust.
"A two- or four-year degree for the parent not only increases the family’s independence and income, but also sets a great example for the kids," she said.
Trout is Ferara’s supervisor and is presently working with her on leadership skills to become a peer mentor to other students.
Ferara said she was surprised to get the Patsy Mink Foundation award. "It meant I was deserving and mean something."
Mink Highlights Injustices
Mink, who has written extensively about the injustices of the 1996 TANF law, opposed the dismantling of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and fought to maintain its key elements by drafting a reauthorization TANF bill in 2001-2002.
"Obviously, it didn’t pass," said Gwendolyn Mink, her daughter, in a recent interview. "But it did garner 90-plus co-sponsors, indicating ongoing concern among progressive legislators for the negative effects of the 1996 law on the well-being, security and opportunities of low-income single mothers and their children."
After Mink’s death her husband and daughter, Gwendolyn, started the Honolulu-based foundation to honor her memory.
"Some of the trustees were close to my mother, others were close to her work on poverty and welfare," said Gwendolyn, a coordinator and trustee at the foundation, in an e-mail.
Gwendolyn said the need for educational access is great and that last year 1,100 applications were received, the most since the grant was created in 2003.
"We’re a small nonprofit, always in need of contributions," she said, explaining why the grant reaches only a handful of women a year.
Anna Limontas-Salisbury is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her interest in welfare reform and poverty issues stem from experience as an adult literacy instructor in welfare-to-work programs in New York City. Her video segments can also be seen on Brooklyn Independent Television’s Caught In the Act and Brooklyn Review. She lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.
For more information:
Patsy Mink Foundation
Welfare’s End-Gwendolyn Mink
Seattle Education Access