Mixing education and welfare payments. Federal regulations raise questions about what's permissible

Should mothers remain on welfare while they work for a college degree? The federal government, in effect, says ``no.''

David Siegel of the Family Support Administration explains that the legislative intent of the programs designed to provide training for welfare mothers ``is that employable AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] recipients be placed in employment in the shortest possible time.''

A requirement for retaining AFDC is ``brief and infrequent absences,'' since ``the expectation is that you are receiving AFDC because you are taking care of your child,'' according to Mr. Siegel.

These strictures, both hard to reconcile with acquiring a college degree, spring from a policy change made in 1981. Before that time, government training funds could assist a woman on welfare with her tuition at a four-year institution.

The argument against allowing women to combine college and AFDC is philosophical rather than financial. It isn't costing the taxpayer more either way, since the same person would be getting the same welfare check in any case.

Most current AFDC student-mothers use their welfare money for living expenses. Then they apply for student grants, loans, and scholarships available to any qualified low-income person.

The federal government's view, at present, is that a woman on AFDC should go to college ``on her own time'' - that is, without dependence on public subsidies.

A difficulty with the present approach is that for a single parent to support and care for a child while working at a minimum wage job is often not a permanent solution. According to a Ford Foundation study prepared by Marilyn Gittell, professor of the Graduate School of the City University of New York, many women occupy a kind of twilight zone, shuttling between welfare and temporary, low-paying jobs.

Enforcement of the federal regulations has been slow and spotty. This has meant that in a few states favorably inclined toward it, women on AFDC are still enrolling in four-year colleges. States and individual caseworkers have always had discretion in interpreting federal regulations, according to Ms. Gittell's study.

In the case of Wisconsin, however, one of the more liberal states, a recent crackdown by the federal government means that a less liberal interpretation will be enforced in the future.

The present policy in New York is a pragmatic one. Federally funded training services are first offered to women who are not at the moment engaged in any kind of employment or training. ``If we have 100 people and 10 of them are in college, why don't we first worry about the 90 who are not,'' explains Michael Dowling, a deputy commissioner with New York's Department of Social Services.

Carol Sasaki says she has found single parents who either are or have been on welfare going to college in every state.

The climate surrounding this issue could change if a provision now in the text of the proposed Fair Work Opportunities Act becomes law. That provision would consider a person who's participating successfully in post-secondary education to be participating successfully in the welfare work program as well.

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