The GOP Fights to Keep Women in Poverty


It doesn't take much to knock welfare off the front pages -- a Middle East in flames will do it. But the new comprehensive welfare regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at the end of June are a destructive force in their own right, and the mainstream media has so far done a poor job of illumination.

We've heard a little discussion about how the rigid new rules will affect what states can do in their administration of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, but not at all on what they'll mean for the actual families receiving public assistance and struggling to achieve economic security.

For these families, the rules represent a narrowing of the best opportunity many have of moving, not just from welfare, but permanently out of poverty. Study after study has shown that when people receiving welfare have the chance to get an education -- whether it's earning a college degree, securing a GED or mastering the English language -- their family incomes and long-term prospects improve far more than those families who remain trapped in low-wage jobs. Yet dead-end low-wage positions without benefits or security are frequently the only jobs people pushed off the rolls without education and training are able to secure in this economy.

After moving from welfare while working on my college degree, I can testify to the positive impact that education has had in my own life. As co-director of Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College in New York, every day I see the tremendous results that college produces in the lives of students now receiving public assistance. It's challenging work juggling a serious course load, family responsibilities and the bureaucratic demands of the welfare system, but the powerful permanent effect on the lives of entire families is well worth it.

Yet under a mandate from Congress' Deficit Reduction Act -- passed last year -- HHS has acted to further restrict educational opportunity.

When welfare reform became law in 1996, the states were deliberately given flexibility to implement the new regulations. They could experiment with different policies; for example, they could designate categories of work to allow more time for successful educational programs. At least in part, the idea was that the best and most innovative policies to emerge from the state "laboratories" could become new models for a national program.

But the federal government has done little systematic evaluation of which state policies best succeed in moving families out of poverty. Instead, in the name of cracking down on fictitious welfare stereotypes, HHS has curtailed state flexibility and made it harder than ever for people receiving public assistance to get the education they need to attain long-term, family-sustaining jobs.

It's true that states and localities have not always used their flexibility to its best effect. At the City University of New York, we lost thousands of students receiving welfare as the city's Human Resources Administration, under the direction of Mayors Giuliani and then Bloomberg, refused to count class time, work-study and internships as an approved work activity.

No matter how dedicated students were, many found pursuing a degree to be incompatible with fulfilling a workfare assignment to pick up trash for 20 hours a week on the other side of town. While some managed to persevere, many students who were close to completing their degrees were instead forced to drop out and accept dead-end jobs. Given this situation, new federal regulations that did more to encourage states and localities to facilitate education and training would have been a welcome change. But of course, that's not what we got.

Instead, the rules are a more stringent application of the idea that a job -- any job -- is better than another day receiving public assistance. No matter that the time spent getting education and training can be a cost-effective public investment in human capital and an important foundation for economic expansion. It is HHS's goal to serve an ideological agenda rather than an economic one. How else can they explain limiting education and vocational training to an absolute 12-months in a lifetime and English as a Second Language programs to a few weeks -- hardly long enough to effectively learn a foreign language?

The objective of TANF should be to stabilize families and help them move from poverty to self-determining economic security. Substantial evidence indicates that motivated students can achieve their economic potential and bring their families, neighborhoods and communities with them up the economic ladder. As a result, it is a crushing blow to read these regulations and know they translate into American dreams denied.

The Welfare Rights Initiative and other groups, advocates, coalitions and stakeholders will be responding to HHS' open comment period with our own vision for revamped federal welfare regulations based on access to education and other strategies that have proven effective at moving families not just from welfare rolls, but permanently out of poverty. By this standard, the welfare regulations set out by the present administration as currently constructed are going to fail. In school students are encouraged to learn from past mistakes. We urge HHS to do the same.

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