Heidi Hart

(WOMENSENEWS)–Heidi Hart was 15 and scared when she found out she was pregnant. The high school sophomore in Westbrook, Maine, had grown up with an abusive father, and her mother was struggling to raise five children with the help of federal and state assistance. The teen-ager was afraid of becoming an example of a failed teen mother.

“I was a kid dealing with a lot of crap,” says Hart, now 26. “I felt terrified that I was sentencing my daughter to a life like mine.”

With the help of at-school child care and a supportive family, Hart was able to finish high school.

Then Hart took a step for a teen-aged welfare mother that would be impossible in most of the nation. She enrolled at the University of Southern Maine as part of the state’s Parents as Scholars program and still received federal and state benefits, without time limits. She graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree, and now holds a job working with young parents at a social service agency. Her salary of about $30,000 carries full medical and dental benefits. Hart has also just received a grant from the Maine Women’s Fund to build a mentor network for welfare recipients who want to attend college.

Only Maine ‘Stops the Clock’

Many states and cities have also seen the benefit of permitting single parents receiving welfare to pursue higher education. Many allow education and federal welfare to commingle to a degree, but they impose time limits and work requirements that limit the extent to which recipients, in reality, can pursue higher education. In New York City, for example, it took a lawsuit for education to count as “work.” Advocates in California have won a similar battle over how to value the time spent doing homework. Only Wyoming and Maine “stop the clock” on the federal welfare time limits for recipients in college.

Maine’s program is small, with about 800 people enrolled each year in a state with just 1.3 million people. The program is technically capped at 2,000 participants. It has been possible through flexible federal rules that now apply to the money that states spend to match federal contributions.

Strong bipartisan support in the Maine legislature for the Parents as Scholars program has helped propel it to the federal level. Now, the effort in Washington is spearheaded by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe in the form of a provision in a Republican welfare bill in the Senate.

As if to demonstrate the power of a single senator in a pivotal position, Snowe used her seat on the Senate Finance Committee to block welfare legislation until the committee bill included a provision that allows all states to offer the Parents as Scholars program without a special waiver.

The bill, waiting to go into Senate debate, allows other states to adopt the program. It still faces many legislative steps in Washington and will still only be available in states that approve the program. The House has already approved its own, more conservative bill, with no similar allowance for higher education.

The House bill also has tougher work requirements and less assistance with health care and child care. Assuming the Senate approves the bill, a House-Senate conference committee will have the task of putting a reconciled version in front of both chambers for passage. From there, it will go to the White House, for the president to sign into law or veto.

Advocates for low-income women such as lobbyist Christ Hastedt of the Maine Equal Justice Project predict that a huge political effort will be required to keep the college provision in any federal welfare bill. “It’s going to take public support and Senator Snowe being persuasive with the conference committee and then with the White House,” Hastedt says.

Snowe had blocked passage of any welfare reauthorization bill that did not include a provision for post-secondary education, Republican and Democratic Senate staffers say. Her proposal for the Senate was based on the Maine program for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, as federal welfare benefits to single parents have been known since the passage of the 1996 welfare law.

“Increased education is a critical factor in whether a person will transition off welfare and keep a job with a decent income,” Snowe says. “Parents as Scholars has been wildly successful with graduates averaging a 50 percent increase in salaries and with 90 percent of working graduates leaving welfare behind permanently.”

Studies conducted of former welfare recipients in Maine show that the median hourly wage for Parents as Scholars graduates is $11.71, versus $7.50 for those making the shift from welfare to work.

Welfare’s Silver Lining

The college provision in the Senate welfare bill is widely viewed by advocates for low-income women as a silver lining to an otherwise dark legislative horizon.

Women’s groups, advocates for low-income people, community colleges and many Democrats in Congress have been fighting welfare bills in the House and Senate that impose higher work requirements without concurrent funding for the higher amount of child care that recipients would need to pay for.

Billions of dollars in such funding would be required to support parents who must work while receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to the Center on Law and Social Policy and advocates. Billions more would be needed for post-welfare and other low-income families whose wages can not cover the cost of full-time day care, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Advocates also cite many other problems with the welfare bills in Congress. These include funding for the Bush administration’s “marriage promotion” programs, which they criticize as untested, more restrictions on how states can structure their programs and a continued prohibition on providing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and other welfare services such as food stamps to many legal immigrants.

As well as adding the educational provision, Snowe, as part of a deal for her support for the Republican welfare bill, secured a promise from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, that she will be able to offer an amendment during floor debate that adds $5 billion or more in child care funding to the $200 million new funding per year over the next five years that is already included in both the Senate and House bills, aides say. Even with this $200 million added per year, advocates for low-income people say that nearly half a million children will lose subsidized child care by 2008 when stiffer work requirements will be in full effect.

Education Leads to Self-Sufficiency

Hart, one of a few thousand graduates of the Parents as Scholars program, was one of a group that met with Snowe last year as the senator prepared for the welfare debate. Hart used the opportunity to articulate the cost-effectiveness of a supportive welfare policy.

“By educating parents, it’s helping them to become self-sufficient,” Hart says. “I’ll pay far more in taxes than I ever got out of the system.”

Hart says that Snowe–who has made the same argument herself–made it clear she found the argument compelling. “She said, ‘Be careful, you’re starting to sound like a Republican.'”

“It was a funny moment, but the fiscal argument is true,” says Hart, echoing other Maine advocates. “It’s a lot more cost-effective to educate parents than when you’re just picking up the pieces all the time. People who have low-wage jobs are just cycling in and out of welfare.”

Marie Tessier lives in Maine and writes frequently about national and international affairs.

For more information:

Maine Equal Justice Project– Parents as Scholars:

Center on Law and Social Policy:

Women’s eNews–“Welfare + Education Leads to Jobs, Higher Pay”:https://womensenewsp.wpengine.com/article.cfm/dyn/aid/592/