Diana Spatz was a San Francisco welfare mom working as a housecleaner when, in 1987, she enrolled in a community college program to learn basic word processing skills. Her modest hope was to increase her earning potential from $7 an hour to $15 an hour, so as to better provide for her 10-month old daughter, Eden.
A few weeks after her classes began, Spatz was shocked when her caseworker cut off her welfare benefits and stopped returning her panicked phone calls. What happened? As Spatz recounted in a 1997 Nation magazine essay, her student financial aid was counted as income, and thus made her ineligible for the payments she relied on to meet her daughter's needs.
Twenty-four years later—and 15 years after the passage of welfare reform (TANF)—far too little has changed. As a new report from Legal Momentum makes clear, it remains extremely difficult for mothers on welfare to access the kind of education and training that lead to good jobs, the kind that pay a living wage and come with benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance.
The problem is the narrow definition of "work" according to TANF's "work first" requirement. If a recipient is over the age of 20, the program allows for just one year of vocational education while benefits are being paid. One year, however, is not long enough to earn occupational certificates in many growing professions, such as nursing and dental hygiene, especially if a mother is attending school only part-time because of childcare responsibilities.
Only six percent of adult TANF recipients are currently enrolled in some kind of educational activity. This is egregious; a workforce-relevant education is the single most transformative experience society can offer low-income adults and their children. Fewer than 50 percent of welfare moms who complete "Work First" programs find jobs, compared to 90 percent of welfare moms who earn a two or four-year college degree. The majority of TANF recipients earn just $7 or $8 per hour when they leave the program, while a registered nurse with an associate's degree can earn up to $30 per hour.
TANF is currently up for reauthorization, so this is all politically relevant. I'm not holding my breath waiting for the GOP to come to the table on any progressive improvements to the program, but offering greater educational opportunities to single moms on TANF would be an excellent way to fight intergenerational poverty and secure longterm cost savings. Currently, most former TANF recipients remain below the poverty line, so they and their children remain eligible for benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. In addition, we know that more educated parents raise more educated children, who in turn are less likely to depend on government to meet basic needs.
Diana Spatz, by the way, successfully sued the state of California to have her benefits reinstated, and eventually graduated from UC-Berkeley. Spurred by the desire to help other welfare moms get an education, she founded LIFETIME, a grassroots organization that provides social supports, such as childcare and career counseling, to welfare moms looking to achieve educational goals.
Government should be scaling up LIFETIME's successful model by supporting single moms who want to better themselves and their families through education.