Women in Poverty - Tales from the Recession's Front Lines

Part: 2

Scholarships Help Work Around Welfare Limits

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Patsy Takemoto Mink Fellowship each year extends grants of $2,000 to assist low-income women to achieve an educational objective. Brittney Ferara used the money to rent an apartment, where she now has a safe, quiet place to study.

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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


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Series Overview

Poverty - Tales from the Recession's Front Lines

Part: 12

Welfare Recipients Enjoy Bright Spots of Support

Part: 11

Health Reform Reality Kicks In: Costs Still High

Part: 10

Welfare Job Rules Hit Women With Disabilities

Part: 9

Federal Job Funding Opens Doors for Single Mothers

Part: 8

Diapers Not Eligible for Food Stamps? Crazy!

Part: 7

U.S. Law Puts Credit Card Debt Before Single Moms

Part: 6

Need Welfare in Bronx? Come Back Tomorrow, Maybe

Part: 5

Hard Times Test Obama's Promise of More Medicaid

Part: 4

Marriage Loses Ground as Anti-Poverty Panacea

Part: 3

New Health Law Could Shield Women from Poverty

Part: 2

Scholarships Help Work Around Welfare Limits

Part: 1

At Welfare Hearings, Calls to Help Single Mothers