Welfare recipients face uphill education battle

Education serves as a path out of poverty. Yet welfare-reform policies emphasize work over learning.

Education for single mothers is a low priority, says Pat Gowens, director of Welfare Warriors, an advocacy group in Milwaukee. "It's so ironic. What group of people ... needs education more than single mothers? It's survival."

In 1988, the Family Support Act expanded educational options for welfare recipients. It allowed them to attend two or four years of college, depending on state provisions, and to count higher education as work. But the 1996 federal welfare law does not permit college programs to be counted as work.

In Milwaukee, Ms. Gowens says, "We've had 16,000 moms who have been forced to drop out of college over the last three years." Similarly, three years ago City University of New York had 28,000 students on public assistance. Today their number has dropped by at least half, according to Mimi Abramovitz, a professor of social policy at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

"They pull people out of education into very menial, dead-end work programs, including workfare, where you work off your welfare benefits and don't get any salary," she says.

Gowens knows firsthand the difference an education can make. In the early 1970s, divorced and with three young children, she received public assistance. She applied for financial aid and attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. After graduating, she worked as a paralegal for a law firm, becoming self-sufficient.

Advocates want Congress to restore educational options to at least the level of 1988. "We're calling for all welfare recipients to have access to education and training activities," says Cristina Di Meo, coordinator of the Welfare Reform Network in New York. "That would count as their work requirements."

This year Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota introduced an amendment to the Higher Education Amendments of 1998 that would, among other provisions, increase from 12 to 24 months the limit on vocational education. And 24 months of postsecondary education would count as a work activity.

The amendment passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but failed in a Republican-dominated House committee. Opponents say the measure weakens the welfare-reform law's focus on work. Wellstone plans to reintroduce it next year. "The more people have access to higher education, the better off they're going to be," says Andrew McDonald, an aide to Senator Wellstone. "It's the difference between minimum wage with no benefits or pension and a job that pays a decent wage ... and puts people on the road toward economic self-sufficiency."

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