Vivyan Adair

Vivyan Adair is proof that higher education can improve and transform women’s lives, their earning power and the lives of their children.

Yet, she and other veterans of the pre-1996 welfare system, as well as advocates for the currently poor, worry that welfare law may preclude others from following in Adair’s footsteps. (See cover story: Campaign Begins to Reform Flawed Welfare Law.)

With the need for the law to be authorized by the congress elected in November, many are gearing up to alter what they consider one of the current law’s more egregious shortcomings–the rules and practices that virtually bar women on welfare from higher education.

Adair, a former welfare recipient, is now a professor of women’s studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and co-director there of a group that helps low-income parents complete post-secondary education, the Academic Coalition for Full Citizenship through Education and Social Support.

Her mother, a single parent of four children, worked nights earning poverty wages as a seamstress. Adair went on welfare as a young mother after leaving a damaging relationship.

While receiving assistance, she was able to earn an associate of arts degree, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. She then went on to get a doctorate in women’s studies. That was before the 1996 welfare reform.

For Adair, and women like her, a college education pays off, literally.

Her position now permits her to live a relatively comfortable life. In fact, a college degree is worth an additional $3.65 per hour for working mothers, compared with the wages of high school graduates, according to a study of 1997 and 1998 wages by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The comparative return in hourly wage increases for one year of work experience was only 10 cents an hour.

Besides improved economic well-being, mothers with higher education serve as role models of success for their children. “I have been a full-time professor for six years and my daughter knows she will go to college,” said Adair.

“The process of earning a post-secondary undergraduate and graduate degree can break otherwise inviolate cycles of intergenerational poverty,” she added. “Post-secondary education transformed the way I think, write, speak, act, work, parent, befriend and love.”

College enrollment of women on welfare dropping sharply

Adair is not optimistic about the future for women currently in the welfare system.

She and other researchers note that escalating work requirements, a bureaucratic morass of regulation and misinformation, and a “work-first” culture are driving many needy and talented women away from higher education.

Higher education as a pathway out of poverty, they argue, has been largely blocked by the “welfare-to-work,” 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act.

Welfare-to-work encourages rapid entry into the workforce, and critics say its emphasis on “work-first” swiftly pushes women into low-paying jobs while neglecting the long-term economic importance of education.

Official view: Post-secondary education does not count as work

When it comes to welfare reform, the U.S. government and states are emphatic that work and directly related work activity come first. With very few exceptions, post-secondary education does not count as work. (California involves the state college system in its welfare reform. The state of Maine uses its own dollars, not federal money, to assist parents in pursuing higher education.)

“There is opportunity for some education, but it is to enable people to complete a general equivalency diploma, or GED,” said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “But higher education . . . is not considered to fulfill the work requirement under the new 1996 welfare law,” he said.

“There is a philosophical shift,” Kharfen said, referring to the recent emphasis on work and exclusion of higher education as work credits. “But this reflects what welfare reform is intended to do and reflects mainstream values, to move as quickly as possible to work. It is not about sustaining a family in order for them to continue higher education.”

And the law has worked to do just that.

In Connecticut, the percentage of welfare-to-work recipients assigned to education and training dropped from 85 percent in 1994 to 31.7 percent in 1997, according to a 1999 study by the Children’s Defense Fund. In Maryland, participation in education and training dropped from 65.1 percent in 1994 to 10.5 percent in 1997, according to the study.

About 27,000 students receiving federal welfare were enrolled at the City University of New York when welfare-to-work took effect in 1996, but only about 7,000 students today are receiving comparable assistance, according to Marilyn Gittell, director of the Howard Samuels State Management and Policy Center at the city university.

“There has been an enrollment decline nationally of between 10 and 60 percent among this student population,” Gittell said in an interview.

Workfare requirements increase steadily

Escalating, restrictive work requirements appear to be a factor in declining enrollments.

A recent Michigan study describes the challenges faced by 10 women attending school while receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the authors argue that mandatory work requirements place intolerable pressures on many working mothers.

The study, “Struggle to Stay in School: Obstacles to Post-Secondary Education Under the Welfare-to-Work Regime in Michigan,” was written by Valerie Polakow, professor of education at Eastern Michigan University, and Peggy Kahn, professor of political science at University of Michigan at Flint.

Federal work requirements for single parents with children under six rose from 20 hours a week in 1997 and 1998 to 25 hours a week in 1999 and 30 hours in 2000, they report.

Increasing work requirements and the informal pressure from caseworkers to work as many as 40 hours a week have “brought many women to the breaking point as they juggle parenting, work and school,” Kahn said.

Required to work 25 hours, some informal pressure to work 40

“The 25-hour requirement pushed many women to the edge, and the informal pressure to work 40 hours has caused others to drop out of school,” Kahn said.

Michigan’s narrow application of federal policy leaves mothers on assistance torn between meeting work requirements, taking care of their children and pursuing education as a pathway out of poverty, Polakow said. While federal law allows states to give mothers of infants a one-year exemption from work requirements, Michigan offers only a 12-week exemption, she added. (A state-by-state comparison of requirements is available at

And a preliminary survey in 1998 by the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington, D.C., found that welfare recipients were “generally unable to count post-secondary education as a work activity, or were able to do so only on a very limited basis.”

“Although the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families plans in many states allow some access to post-secondary education, many local welfare administrators are nevertheless limiting participation in post-secondary education programs,” the study said. It reported a 50-percent drop by 1998 in the number of families participating in activities that would lead to a post-secondary degree.

Caseworkers often discourage women from seeking more education

Michigan researchers Polakow and Kahn describe how discouragement by caseworkers and an “epidemic of misinformation” impede women’s attempts to pursue higher education.

In a case study, Julie, identified only by her first name, carried a full load at school, worked 25 hours in a work-study program and tried to find time to spend with her two-year-old son.

While raising a child and dealing with threats from her ex-husband, after three semesters in college Julie heard from a fellow student that she could receive cash assistance for her child–no one had told her.

In addition, Julie was misinformed that she could not transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution, that her work requirements were increasing from 20 hours to 40 and that her work-study income counted as income and thus would reduce her food stamp benefit from $170 to $28.

Despite the roadblocks, Julie made numerous phone calls and continued to argue her case until she was back in school and getting credit for it. Other women were not told about benefits and policies that would make it easier for them to continue their education, such as new laws that allow women to count full-time required internships toward work requirements.

Women “have had to appeal and confront on a variety of issues, spending hours researching and teaching these caseworkers about legal requirements,” Polakow said. “They have shown incredible persistence, patience and perseverance.”

Ellen Birkett Morris is a free-lance writer based in Louisville, Ky. She writes about health, technology and public policy on the Internet.