Why Are We Denying Welfare Moms An Education?

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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.

This post originally appeared on Dana Goldstein's blog. Republished with permission.



Some fun facts from a reading for my Poverty and Child Development class:

1. Currently, the United States has the highest childhood poverty rate among the 25 richest industrialized nations.

2. Poor children in France, Germany and the Nordic countries are six times more likely to escape poverty than their American counterparts.

3. According to a 2004 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $750 per month. The same study found only one place in the country where people earning minimum wage could afford a modest 2-bedroom apartment without having to move or being evicted: a small town in Georgia.

4. Despite the commonly held belief that people in poverty have babies to get more welfare, the monthly welfare check only increases, on average, $60 if you have a baby.

5. In all but 5 US states, the federal government will lower your welfare check if you enroll in college because welfare recipients need to "be available for any minimum wage job" at any time. If you are in school, you are not available.

6. Only 14% of people who qualify for housing assistance get it.

7. The rate of people who fall into poverty in the United States is about the same as other industrialized nations, but we have the highest percentage of those who become permanently trapped in poverty.

8. Low-income single mothers in the US work more than single mothers in any other wealthy nation, but they have higher poverty rates.

9. Statistics on job advancement show that there is little, if any, correlation between hard work and wage increase for low-income jobs.

10. Less than 60% of eligible children are served by Head Start programs.

11. It is less likely today for a person born into poverty to get an education than it was in the 1940s.