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Denying Welfare Mothers the Right to a College Education

The U.S. Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRW) and the accompanying block grant, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which became the most dramatic restructuring of federal aid to mothers and children since its beginnings in the Great Depression of 1929 (Personal Responsibility Law 1996). These laws limited welfare to a total of five years over an individual’s lifetime. TANF effectively allowed only one year of post secondary education, and only vocational education was accepted under the statute. Although TANF did not specifically prohibit welfare recipients from attending any other type of higher education program, the statute put states under such enormous pressure to fulfill work requirement quotas so that it became a practical impossibility for states to offer four years of higher education to their welfare recipients. The states were mandated to have 50% of welfare recipients working by FY2002. Consequently, states had a strong disincentive to help welfare recipients attain higher education. The Catch 22 was recognized: “If you’re on welfare, you probably need more education in order to get a good job – a productive job that will move you out of poverty and dependence and off welfare. But if you stay in classes to get the training you need for the good job, you will lose the welfare benefits that support you while you go to school” (Buffalo News 1997, 2B). Fundamentally, the work-first ideology “emphasized rapid entry into the labor force and penalized states for allowing long term access to education and training (Adair 2003, 248). Indeed, a wealth of evidence demonstrates that higher education improves the financial opportunities and enhances the quality of life for those who are able to attend college. Ann Reynolds, former Chancellor of the City University of New York, reported: “Our research shows that people with bachelor’s degrees from CUNY earn $690,000 more over their lifetimes than high-school graduates — and, obviously, pay much more in taxes” (Reynolds 1997). A 1995 study by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that for every year of postsecondary education, earnings increased by 6 to 12% (Boggs 2001). Research demonstrates that welfare recipients benefit significantly from higher education. In 1990, a New York City study found that of 158 former welfare recipients who were college graduates, 83% were working and 87% were off welfare (Gittell 1990). The study was replicated in Illinois, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wyoming with similar results (Dann-Messier 2001). A 1990 Ford Foundation study showed that welfare recipients who completed a two or four-year degree earned significantly more than other former welfare recipients (Boggs 2001). Another study of 253 welfare recipients who graduated from college in 1995 and 1996 found that seventeen months after graduation, 88 per cent of the students were off welfare, and their median wage was $11 an hour. “It appears that the benefits of a four-year college degree … lead to a rapid reduction in welfare dependency” (Editorial, Knight Ridder Newspapers 1998, K8). In response to the passage of TANF, broad-based advocacy coalitions formed in many states to lobby for meaningful college programs for welfare recipients. These advocacy coalitions, including Democratic and Republican legislators, advocates for the poor, college officials, state and local officials and foundation leaders, rose above partisan politics and became active and far-reaching lobbyists. State by state, these advocacy coalitions wrestled with the problem of creating mechanisms that would allow welfare recipients to pursue four-year college degrees. However, only a handful of states managed to develop programs that allowed welfare recipients to pursue four-year colleges after the passage of TANF (See Appendix A). What alignment of power, perseverance and good fortune was required to cause these states to implement a progressive educational agenda for their welfare recipients? This paper compares the successes and failures of advocacy coalitions in two states, Maine and New York, where welfare advocates struggled to achieve progressive state welfare higher educational policies, and, in some instances, succeeded in keeping welfare recipients in four-year colleges. Studies of the successes of the advocacy in Maine reveal circumstances that fairly quickly resulted in the development and implementation of a successful program, which was then replicated in other states. The successes in Maine are in stark contrast to those in New York, a state in which advocacy coalitions fought hard, over many years, to eliminate, reduce and contain draconian state and local welfare policies, and managed to win limited opportunities for welfare recipients who wished to pursue higher education. An implementation study of two states’ approach to welfare restructuring can lead to a better understanding of how advocacy coalitions can succeed in getting welfare recipients in college, and what strategies can be used to fight more conservative forces in focus upon work first rather than education. It is in the strength of the organizations with like values operating as a coalition that can make great strides helping welfare recipients to enter and successfully complete college. Such a framework means that coalitions can reach out to a broad array of organizations in different levels of government and throughout other sectors such as universities, churches, and foundations. Narrow alliances will not be as successful in the state legislatures as organizations broadly based. In order to build a wide-based coalition, members must be willing to reach out and talk to others outside of their traditional circles. Maine demonstrates that wide-based coalition building works. Although New York is much larger, more complex and ethnically diverse, the coalition building was similar. New York demonstrates that, even on very barren soil, successes can be celebrated if members broaden their membership. The mistake coalition building often makes is that there must be complete agreement on every value. Not all members will have the exact same belief systems but their primary belief systems are similar. Organizations may choose to disagree on other subjects but on the subject of the coalition there are shared beliefs.


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