Hello, Minimum Wage

Single mothers receiving welfare who are trying to better their lives by earning a two- or four-year college degree recently got a lifeline in their continuing struggle to stay afloat. But it appears their time is running out.

Congress extended the current welfare program on March 14 for three months, staving off the latest attempt by House Republicans to make it more difficult for low-income single mothers to take college and community college classes. The goal of Republican welfare reformers is "work first," meaning that jobs -- no matter how dead-end and how low-wage -- are preferable to education and training. (Welfare has never paid college tuition; at issue is whether recipients can enroll in classes or must enroll in work programs, and for how many hours a week.)

Shutting down educational and vocational opportunities for struggling single mothers seems particularly perverse; welfare advocates call it a surefire way to drive low-income families permanently into the ranks of the working poor.

"We should be promoting post-secondary education for low-income women," says Jennifer Tucker, vice president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. "It's poverty prevention."

In January, House Republicans introduced legislation that would reduce the amount of time a welfare recipient could attend a full-time vocational program from a year to four months every two years. (Welfare benefits expire after five years.) At the same time, the bill would ratchet up the time spent in work or work-related activities from 30 to 40 hours weekly, no longer exempting parents with children under six years old.

Work requirements have been in place since the sweeping welfare reforms of 1996, but 49 states have modified them so that vocational training and, less commonly, college could fulfill part or all of the 30 work-hours currently required, according to the Center for Women Policy Studies.

These modifications were possible under the 1996 law, but, in contrast, the recent Republican proposal allows no such flexibility. Of the 40 hours mandated, 24 would go toward work only, which means that all but one state conceivably would have to scale back its postsecondary initiatives.

In fairness, the other 16 hours of the mandated 40 hours could include vocational training. However, it's hard to imagine that a single mother living in poverty would be able to pay for after-hours babysitting (or even find it). Scheduling classes around the 24-hour minimum work schedule just adds one more factor to the already-demanding equation of balancing child care, daycare and studies -- and that's not counting any personal hardships that led to welfare dependency, such as illness or domestic abuse. Research shows that single parents already take much longer than average to complete a two- or four-year program.

"In a real-world context, you can't go to your prospective employer and say, 'I need 24 hours of work, and they can't conflict with my class schedule‚'" explains Julie Strawn, senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). States will only be able to create so many work-study programs allowing a flexible work schedule, she says.

The House legislation would mean the end of extended full-time vocational training for single mothers while on welfare, and a much-reduced chance of completing part-time studies or job training. The bill that would implement these changes, HR 240, has a good chance of becoming law, Strawn and other experts believe, because earlier versions of it have passed in the House in 2002 and 2003. Also, the bill is in sync with the Bush administration's welfare policies.

The Senate has not made comparable progress on its own legislation, leaving Congress little option but to extend the 1996 welfare provisions under Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which first expired in 2002 and has been living off extensions.

But the issue of work first v. training and education can't be avoided forever.

For the welfare-dependent single mothers who would be affected, college is a means to long-term economic self-sufficiency -- a way out of $7-an-hour and no health benefits for the rest of their lives. But they also see the achievement of skills and education as the chance to set a powerful example of empowerment for their children. As documented in the recent book, Shut Out: Low Income Mothers and Higher Education in Post-Welfare America, higher education is the path to self-respect, a zealously guarded goal for many welfare recipients enrolled in college or occupational training programs.

Lovida Bondoc, 28, a single mother of three boys in Irvine, Calif., is a case in point. After an abusive marriage in her late teens and early 20s, "My self esteem was destroyed," she remembers. "I felt I was crushed, and I had nothing to show for it ... I felt school was my only hope."

In five years, education has helped Bondoc totally transform her life: from a high school dropout to a college senior majoring in political science. She couldn't have done it, she says, without receiving welfare during the early part of her education. (Her now-ex-husband was eventually forced to pay child support, and she receives $800 a month from him, which covers less than half of her rent and family expenses.)

But welfare is only one part of the story; it doesn't explain the considerable drive and courage it took for Bondoc to flee her marriage, earn her GED, care for her kids (one of whom is mentally retarded), take college classes and squeeze in odd jobs like cleaning houses, temping and babysitting. Bondoc, who will graduate from the University of California, Irvine in June, is pursuing a teaching credential. She hopes to find a job in a school serving disadvantaged students.

"I came from a poor neighborhood," says Bondoc, who looks like a kid herself and originally hails from the Philippines. "I know what it's like to be an immigrant."

In some ways, Bondoc's situation is atypical. For one, her children's father can now be counted on to pay child support. In addition, low-income single mothers more often seek vocational training than a four-year degree. This is often because states allowing long-term higher education often define it to mean a program with a focus on job skills.

"In this context, post-secondary education is not typically art history but one or two years toward an occupational certificate," Strawn says. "Long-term training means occupational studies at the community college level. We're talking about LPNs, health and office work."

These professions, while they may not open as many doors as a bachelor's degree, still represent a step up for low-wage earners, and research proves the economic payoff of a two-year program. Meanwhile, a four-year degree goes even further; it is practically an antidote to welfare dependency, research shows.

It has been a hard slog for educationally ambitious single mothers receiving public assistance since welfare was reformed in 1996. Even though states have preserved access to job training or college in varying degrees, it's gotten much more difficult for women in these programs: confusion over the new rules ushered in by the '96 reforms, the aggressively work-first attitude of welfare caseworkers, and stricter work-hour minimums have taken a toll.

A recent study reported a 46 percent drop in enrollment of welfare recipients in 15 Massachusetts community colleges between 1995 and 1997, for example. The enrollment of welfare recipients in the City University of New York dropped 77 percent, according to a 2001 study.

Meanwhile, work-first advocates in the House hope this most recent extension of current welfare policy will be the last, and they have plenty of time, will and support to press their agenda. Opponents are hoping that states will want to avoid the proposed law's new demands and that the Senate will favor less harsh measures.

"The House is so conservative that the Senate is where we're going to put our time," says Jennifer Tucker of the Center for Women Policy Studies.


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