Upward Futility

Everyone agrees that welfare mothers need marketable skills to succeed in the workplace. So why are "reformers" forcing them out of school? So far, Jan's life has not been the stuff of which American dreams are made. A single mother who fled an abusive relationship when her now-teenage children were still infants, she has been trying to get off welfare for years. Many times she took low-skill, minimum-wage jobs, only to return to welfare when her income proved inadequate to sustain a family of three. Self-sufficiency continued to elude her.Then she enrolled at North Shore Community College. As a successful student, Jan allowed herself ambitions, and the hope that she'd be able to continue beyond her associate's degree in the liberal arts to a certificate in occupational therapy, and then to a job that would pay enough finally to free her from what has seemed an inescapable cycle of welfare dependency. She was on the verge of becoming a testament to the up-from-the-bootstraps American dream. Then along came welfare reform, designed to get recipients like Jan off the rolls and into a job -- any job. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), formerly the Department of Welfare, now requires Jan to do 20 hours of work or community service a week, in addition to her coursework."I am unsure as to how I could accomplish an extra 20 hours per week," she told a group of state legislators at a hearing on welfare reform a few weeks ago, "unless I forfeit sleep altogether or compromise my children and my educational endeavors. If I was allowed to complete my education, I would then be in a financial position to support my family independently."Education, that linchpin of the American dream, is fast becoming one of welfare reform's earliest casualties. Politicians of all persuasions are fond of preaching the importance of education: school is the path to self-improvement, to independence. Yet even as politicians demand that welfare mothers become self-reliant, they are making that task virtually impossible.The federal welfare-reform bill, which passed last August, places a five-year limit on benefits, and demands that each state have half of its total number of welfare recipients either working or doing community service for 20 hours a week by the year 2002.Massachusetts welfare-reform legislation, which passed in February of 1995, limits benefits to just two years out of any five, and the DTA has been vigorously complying with federal rules to put recipients -- 94 percent of whom are women -- to work.A bill currently before the Massachusetts State Senate would make education count toward that 20-hour work requirement for welfare recipients, but it faces some tough opposition. If the bill is unsuccessful, its advocates say, more and more women will be penalized for -- and discouraged from -- getting the education that could permanently free them from the welfare system.Of course, not everyone believes education is that important. "We believe a quick attachment to the labor force is the best way to move people off the rolls," says DTA commissioner Claire McIntire. "Welfare was never intended to subsidize people in college."The justification for welfare reform is that the country should expect more from welfare recipients. But the "get-a-job-any-job" requirement has a flip side: from many welfare recipients, we expect too little. Forcing them out of classrooms and into whatever jobs are available puts recipients in a situation that many believe is bad for mothers, worse for their children, and, in the long run, potentially disastrous for everyone.By ruling out education as a possibility, says one advocate, "We're not giving the poor the stepladder they need to get out of poverty."Few issues marry the potential for grandiose rhetoric with the guarantee of hot-button relevance as well as education and welfare do. So in his State of the Union address this winter, President Clinton -- like every other politician in this country, lately -- vowed to make education his top priority from now on."Higher education," he said, "is more important today than ever before." Last June, while unveiling his master education plan, he declared, "Our goal must be to make the 13th and 14th years of education as universal to all Americans as the first 12 are today."But in his State of the Union address, Clinton also counted the federal welfare-reform legislation as one of his administration's signal achievements -- even though that legislation would make community college an impossibility for tens of thousands of welfare recipients across the country.Under the new reform, the federal government will divide an annual $16.4 billion block grant for welfare among the states, ceding each one full control over welfare administration and spending. The federal regulations require that states put 25 percent of their welfare recipients to work this year, and an additional five percent to work each year until 2002, when fully half of all of America's welfare recipients will be doing at least 20 hours of work a week. If recipients cannot find paid work, they must do unpaid community service. And if a state fails to meet those requirements, it will suffer financial penalties in the form of reduced block grants.In Massachusetts, welfare reform is further along than in most states, and its impact has been more evident. Already, since early 1995, the number of welfare recipients here has dropped more than 25 percent, from about 103,000 then to 77,118 as of this past March. For more than half of this state's welfare recipients, the DTA set the two-year clock ticking in December of 1996. Come December of 1998, welfare rolls will shrink even more dramatically. Right now, 15,000 welfare recipients in this state are subject to 20-hour-a-week work requirements.Given the official aims of Massachusetts's welfare reform -- for instance, "to break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency, and assist families in achieving self-sufficiency and personal independence" -- it is odd that education is not a bigger part of the formula. The DTA has devoted much energy to, and expanded budgets for, brief job-training programs. But basic education and post-secondary education -- both of which can take years for single mothers juggling responsibilities -- have become less accessible under the new work rules. Yet, according to several studies, education is one of the best routes to self-sufficiency and personal independence for welfare recipients.According to Washington's Center for Women Policy Studies, 75 percent of women receiving welfare who had completed at least one year of college would willingly leave the welfare rolls after two years. By contrast, only 47 percent of those with just a high-school degree would do so.And not only are better-educated women more likely to get off welfare, but they also land jobs that are more likely to keep them off. Census statistics cited by the Center for Women indicate that an associate's degree raises a woman's income by 65 percent over her earnings with a high-school diploma. And for women who start in low-paying jobs, those without a high-school diploma see their hourly wages climb only nine cents between the ages of 21 and 29, whereas women with one to three years of college can expect their incomes to increase by 46 cents an hour in the same period.Welfare recipients with an associate's degree are more likely to avoid what many welfare-reform critics predict will be a glut in the unskilled labor market. Sue Jhirad is co-chair of the Welfare Education Training Access Coalition (WETAC), formed by Massachusetts educators in January 1996 to help keep welfare mothers in school. Jhirad, who teaches at North Shore Community College, says a legal-assistant training program there has a 100 percent job-placement rate. The program has 30 vacancies right now -- for jobs that pay between $12 and $15 an hour -- that cannot be filled. "It's very tragic," says Jhirad.Although it will not hit hardest until December 1998, welfare reform is already having an impact on colleges, as DTA regulations effectively force recipients to drop out if they are to continue to hold their lives together."[Welfare reform] has made women in college extremely anxious about whether they'll ever be able to finish," says Erika Kates, co-chair of WETAC. "We hear from faculty and staff from at least 20 colleges, and they say that their number of new enrollments are dropping, and that women are terrified and giving up."Before the new legislation, college enrollments in Massachusetts among welfare recipients had risen steadily. In the two years since, they've plummeted. Today, 3506 Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) recipients are enrolled in two- and four-year colleges, compared to 5800 in February 1995. And community colleges, on average, have 36 percent fewer welfare recipients than they did in 1994.Even though DTA commissioner McIntire says the new legislation doesn't prevent recipients from attending two-year colleges (four-year colleges are officially ruled out for recipients enrolled after January 1, 1995), education advocates say the new work regulations, which increase mothers' child-care needs and reduce their parenting time, give many of them little choice.Advocates say that women have also been discouraged by caseworkers who try to dissuade them from considering general education and who increasingly shunt them into job-training programs in order to shrink the rolls.Some women who have left their studies have already taken on low-skill, low-paying jobs. That might make the state's numbers look good, but the effect, advocates say, is only temporary. "The tragedy is that most welfare recipients do work at one time or another," Jhirad says. "But they go into minimum-wage jobs and wind up cycling back on welfare."As difficult as welfare reform has made the lives of many TAFDC recipients in college, new legislation has given women at the other end of the education spectrum -- women who need the most basic kinds of skills -- even slimmer chances of realizing Clinton's community-college ideal.Saidyah, a 36-year-old single mother with five children between the ages of six and 13, is way behind Jan. She is just now completing a course in basic education at WAITT (as in, We're All in This Together) House, in Roxbury. It took Saidyah a year and a half to get the necessary literacy and numeracy skills to qualify for a high-school-equivalency program. Eventually, she wants to work with computers. But she probably won't get that far: her benefits clock is also running down, and since she's struggling to study, be a mother to her children, and work her 20 hours of community service every week, she'll probably have to find a full-time job before she gets her high-school diploma."I'm trying to do something with myself and move forward," she says, "and [the DTA] is leaning on me instead of helping. I've got to be there for my kids and help with their homework, plus I go to school. Why can't their fathers do community service?"For many women on welfare, simply mastering basic literacy and numeracy skills will take them beyond the limits of the DTA's guidelines. Half of the welfare recipients in this state have no high-school diploma or equivalent. Fifteen percent -- approximately 11,500 -- have fewer than nine years of schooling. Welfare recipients between the ages of 17 and 21 read, on average, at the sixth-grade level, and many social-service providers in Boston have clients who can hardly read at all. (The DTA does not keep literacy figures on its clients).Ruth Rubalcava, program director at Project Hope, a shelter and resource-and-education center in Dorchester, sees about 10 women a week who don't read or speak English, or don't know how to read and write, or lack any job skills. "For many of them," says Rubalcava, "benefits will run out in December '98, and they'll still be heads of households. They'll have none of the skills they need to be self-sufficient."Already, as in the colleges, students in basic-education courses are dropping out. Laurie Jones, coordinator of economic-development programs at the Elizabeth Stone House, a resource center and women's shelter in Jamaica Plain, says she lost between 10 and 15 of her 40 students this year because of DTA work requirements. Anna Brassard, of WAITT House, says five of her 15 high-school-preparation students dropped out because of DTA pressures.They leave, human-services providers say, to take minimum-wage and/or low-skill jobs. Activists say the DTA pushes TAFDC recipients into jobs that are completely impractical and unsuitable in light of their circumstances. Several of them recounted stories of DTA clients -- all of them single mothers -- being strongly encouraged by caseworkers to apply for $6-an-hour jobs at the airport, cleaning aircraft or working security -- on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. "They can do all the overtime they want," says one community worker, "but the problem is finding daycare. And they call it daycare for a reason."The women who most need to develop their skills are being placed in jobs and community-service positions that for the most part require no skills at all. But even unskilled laborers need to be able to understand safety procedures and rules. And for some recipients, that will take schooling which the current climate makes impossible. All of this plus the much-documented fact that the welfare poor are now competing with the working poor for unskilled jobs (and welfare recipients doing community service will work for free), advocates say, means that what looks good on paper for the short term will be disastrous for society come December 1998. Many former welfare recipients will end up in shelters or right back on welfare.Not so, counters Claire McIntire. "We believe there are plenty of jobs for everyone out there," she says. "Our expectation is that people leaving welfare for work won't walk into $30,000 or $35,000 jobs." But she hopes they'll get there in the end. It does happen sometimes, starting in the mailroom and ascending through the ranks, but such Capra-esque scenarios are usually contingent upon workers' being able to read the envelopes.Even if McIntire is right about jobs for TAFDC recipients, the shift away from education costs another important group of people: the children of those recipients. Without a high-school diploma, the prospects for a woman like Saidyah, with five kids, might be limited. And, more to the point, so will her children's.According to the National Institute for Literacy, as adults attain higher levels of education, their children become more successful in school. Indeed, according to the NIL, a mother's education is the single most important predictor of a child's success in school -- even more important than income or marital status.By focusing on jobs over education, welfare reform produces short-term results with serious long-term costs, its critics say. To reduce those costs, WETAC and other advocates for welfare recipients have proposed state legislation that includes a measure to make education satisfy the 20-hour work requirement for welfare recipients in Massachusetts.Representative Anne Paulsen (D-Belmont), one of the sponsors of the legislation, says it would give those women subject to the work requirement more time with their children -- as well as the opportunity to stay in school, "to make sure the next generation of children has a higher standard of living."Similar legislation was proposed last year, and got all the way through the House and the State Senate, only to be vetoed by Governor Weld (supporters were just six votes short of an override of that veto). Paulsen says they've done nothing differently this time, but she's confident the legislation will get through on its second try. It is currently before the State Senate, and a line item to the same effect was added to the state budget two weeks ago.DTA commissioner McIntire, however, says the state is standing firm. "We are hopeful the Senate will take appropriate action on this bill," she says. "We don't want to see anything that will weaken the work requirement." Ask McIntire why recipients shouldn't be allowed to take all the time they need to get a decent education, and she points to the federal block-grant penalties hanging over DTA's head for failing to meet its work quotas. "We certainly don't want to do anything that would jeopardize the maximum amount of money coming into Massachusetts," she says.And here's where welfare reform takes on a disorienting quality. The president calls for community-college education for every American. The DTA makes that nearly impossible for many welfare mothers, who need it as much as anyone else, if not more. The DTA's unshakable, it's-out-of-our-hands justification? The federal welfare-reform bill signed into law by the very president who called for that education in the first place.

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