Student parent

(WOMENSENEWS)–Michigan welfare recipients are discouraged by the state from pursuing postsecondary degrees, according to a new report which says that state welfare policies contradict research that “overwhelmingly demonstrates that postsecondary education is the most effective way for a low-income person to become self-sufficient through long-term employment.”

Forty-five percent of the welfare recipients surveyed said that education is not a priority for the welfare agency, and only 7 percent said that their caseworkers encouraged them to pursue educational goals, according to a recent report from the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan.

One respondent said, “I feel like I am being penalized for going to school. No matter how I try to better my situation, all they care about is the number of hours I work.” Another commented, “There is no help or reward for those of us who are trying to get a college education so we can get better jobs and get off and stay off welfare.”

In addition, the report said that 13 percent of the survey respondents said that they felt pushed into low-wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement, even though they knew that they could obtain better jobs if they were able to pursue their educational goals.

Women make up 80 to 90 percent of the adults receiving federal welfare assistance nationally, and most heads of welfare households are single mothers. Before the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996–popularly known as “welfare reform”–welfare recipients could receive benefits while pursuing postsecondary education. Now federal law requires states to place increasingly larger proportion of the adults receiving assistance in “approved” work activities. In addition, one-year time limits for job training and education mean that states must strictly limit the amount of time welfare recipients can spend in postsecondary education or must use their own funds to ensure access to education for recipients. To continue to receive federal assistance, single parents are required to work for at least 30 hours per week and President Bush has proposed raising the requirement to 40 hours.

Despite recent policy changes in Michigan that were intended to improve the ability of parents to pursue educational goals, data indicate that less than 2 percent of welfare recipients are enrolled in approved postsecondary education programs, according to the report, which was issued last month by the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan. The survey of 98 students on welfare who were attending a variety of community colleges and four-year colleges and universities in Michigan pointed to several possible reasons for Michigan welfare recipients’ low rate of participation in education and training:

  • Welfare caseworkers rarely encourage welfare recipients to pursue higher education. Most recipients surveyed–89 percent–said that their caseworker provided no information about how to count education hours toward work requirements.

  • It is extremely difficult for welfare recipients to juggle academics, parenting demands and work requirements. Nearly one-third of the welfare recipients surveyed reported that they had to drop out of college because they could not satisfy work requirements while enrolled in school. In Michigan, only 10 hours each of class time and study time per week can count toward work requirements and only for approved education in the last year of a two- or four-year program.

  • Welfare recipients have little access to affordable, high-quality childcare. State policy provides childcare assistance only in limited situations and only in connection with educational programs that has been approved by local welfare agencies. Moreover, childcare is available only during class time, not for the hours parents need to study.

  • Welfare recipients receive inaccurate and inconsistent information about educational options, when they receive any information at all. Moreover, the focus is on high school or passing an high school degree equivalency exam, not postsecondary education.

Beth Sullivan, a program manager for policy and advocacy at the Center for the Education of Women, said that Michigan Gov. John Engler’s policy has been to get people into jobs as soon as possible and education is viewed as a delay to getting people into work.

“There hasn’t been the appreciation that education can increase job possibilities,” she said.

Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and a welfare researcher at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, sees the decline in welfare recipients enrolled in postsecondary education as a natural by-product of welfare reform’s success in decreasing the welfare rolls.

“A lot of women who leave welfare don’t leave for work; they leave for marriage, education, or other reasons,” he said. Moreover, Besharov said, the studies showing a correlation between college education and wages suffer from selection bias. “Women who go to college tend to have more going for them in the first place. Think how much it takes to graduate from college.”

Other Studies Find Single Parents Funneled into Low-Wage Jobs

The Michigan study is the latest in a series of reports assessing whether the 1996 welfare law assisted single parents in finding long-term financial self-sufficiency. Last year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women tend to be pushed toward low-wage jobs in customer service, patient care, clerical, child care, and restaurants. It also found that training programs emphasize traditional “women’s work” in cosmetology, hospitality, and childcare, rather than nontraditional fields, such as the building trades or the pursuit of education beyond high school.

For more information:

The Welfare Information Network
Education and Training Post-Secondary Education:

The Center for Law and Social Policy:

Center for the Education of Women:

Examples of state policies and programs that help welfare recipients obtain postsecondary education

Maine: The Parents as Scholars Program ( provides cash assistance and support services for welfare-eligible parents in approved two- and four-year degree programs. Benefits are provided at the same level as for other recipients.

Illinois: State policy supports up to four years of postsecondary education. Full-time enrollment in postsecondary education does not count against federal five-year time limits on welfare receipt. Students are not required to work as long as they maintain a 2.5 grade point average and continue to progress toward their degree.

Kentucky: Parents can participate in postsecondary education for up to 24 months without other work requirements, as long as they are making satisfactory progress in full-time study. The state welfare agency is required to notify parents of educational opportunities well in advance of the fall term, during self-sufficiency planning, and whenever clients seek information.

California: Education can be counted as work for 18 to 24 months if the client was already in school when he or she entered the welfare rolls. The program must grant a degree or certificate and must lead to employment. Class and supervised study time count toward work requirements.

“Access to postsecondary education is very limited across the board,” said M. K. Tally of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The focus on ‘work first’ has diminished the number of people pursuing education.”

Liz Accles, national coordinator of the Welfare Made A Difference National Campaign, which promotes a more supportive welfare system and educates the public about the consequences of punitive welfare policies, noted that welfare reform has had similar effects in New York as in Michigan.

Hunter College’s Welfare Rights Initiative, a program based in a college that is part of the City University of New York, reports that 28,000 students in the City University of New York system were receiving welfare in 1995, but now less than 10,000 are still enrolled in CUNY programs. “These were people motivated, interested, able to be in school. Their chance of getting a job that could sustain their families was undermined,” Accles said.

“The debate is twisted,” Accles said, noting that at the same time that Congress authorized restrictions on the ability of welfare recipients to obtain higher education, it also approved tax-free educational savings accounts and tax deductions for student loans that made it easier for others to attend colleges and universities. “There is a policy disconnect and it’s because of a stereotyping of people on welfare as being different from everyone else.”

Sullivan at the Center for the Education of Women added that since “students receiving public assistance pull their own weight by being employed at work-study jobs and taking out loans, just like other college students,” ultimately Michigan and other states would save money by facilitating postsecondary education for welfare recipients.

For every parent receiving child-care assistance who completes higher education, Michigan saves an average of $6,696 per year in childcare benefits alone that it would otherwise spend to help that parent if he or she remained in a low-wage job. In addition, the report points out, states benefit from increased tax revenues from workers making good wages.

Caroline Polk is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington.