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Off Welfare, On to College

By Mary D. Janney
Wednesday, July 15, 1998; Page A17


A recent General Accounting Office report on the progress of the welfare reform law passed two years ago found a sharp decline nationwide in the welfare rolls. The number of people on welfare has fallen 37 percent to 8.9 million in March 1998 from 14.1 million in January '93. The report also found significant increases in the numbers of welfare recipients who obtained jobs.

Getting off welfare is one thing. Getting out of poverty requires training and education.

Research shows that 85 percent of women on welfare who go to college and graduate get off and stay off welfare. The more years of education they have, the better the outlook is for their future. By the year 2000, the vast majority of new jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary education.

The welfare reform law states that in order to keep welfare benefits, people on welfare have to work 20 hours a week. The federal law is clear, however, that going to college does not count as work. The law must be changed.

I direct a program called the Women's College Assistance Project, which helps women on welfare in the District go to college. The project provides small academic-related grants and holds monthly meetings for information sharing and support. Believe me, having to pile 20 hours of work a week on top of child care, housekeeping on a subsistence check and challenging college material puts an undue burden on the poorest of our population.

Women on welfare have had plenty of experience trying to support themselves and their children without depending on welfare. Before welfare reform, the stereotypical view was that of a large stagnant welfare population for whom welfare had become a way of life. But the facts are that the welfare population was a mobile, changing one.

Women cycled on and off welfare trying to make it on their own by working. Because they couldn't care properly for themselves and their children while holding down a job that paid between $5 and $7 an hour with no benefits, they returned to welfare. Nationwide, 50 percent of welfare recipients left welfare in the first year, and 75 percent exited the rolls in two years. Forty-two percent returned to welfare within two years of leaving it, and 75 percent of those reentering the system left again.

There is no reason to believe that the kinds of jobs that the GAO reports welfare recipients are getting today are any different from the ones they have already had. The difference is there no longer will be any welfare to return to.

The women in the Women's College Assistance Project want a college degree because they believe it will help them break the welfare cycle and get out of poverty. One of the women in the program just graduated from UDC with a two-year degree in medical radiography -- reading X-rays. She says:

"I went to college to be a role model for my kids. . . . With my degree, I'll make $18 to $19 an hour, which will be quite a bit better than my welfare check of $463 a month. I can't wait until I have enough money to get a nice place of my own for me and my kids."

When I tell friends about my work, it seems to strain their credulity that people on welfare would even consider college or that indeed it should be available to them as a matter of right as it is to all other American citizens. In fact, President Clinton has made higher education a centerpiece of his second term, promising the American people that a college education will be accessible and affordable to everyone. Changing the welfare law will help fulfill that promise.

The writer is director of the Women's College Assistance Project.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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