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Trading Textbooks For Jobs

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 1997; Page A01

Stringent new welfare rules are prompting thousands of college students nationwide to trade their books for low-paying jobs, according to welfare advocates and educators.

Under the law, which Congress passed in 1996, recipients must work or lose their benefits, and college courses that are not considered to lead directly to a job no longer count as work.

Proponents of welfare changes are adamant that work must come before training, but critics say the new approach is shortsighted. Welfare recipients, they said, are destroying their long-term chances of self-sufficiency by taking jobs that do not pay enough to support their families, making them more likely to return to the rolls.

"It's unfortunate that people who formerly had an opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency by receiving an education have had that denied under the reforms," said Milton Little, vice president of the National Urban League.

The typical image of a welfare recipient is not that of a student poring over textbooks or struggling with term papers, yet tens of thousands of people on welfare nationwide do so each day.

But many, like Elana Groth, are being forced to downsize their dreams, setting aside studies they had hoped would put them on promising career tracks to instead take whatever work they could find at the moment.

Groth, a 35-year-old mother of three, put her plans of becoming a computer programmer on hold in May when she traded business classes at Charles County Community College for a minimum-wage job as a bartender that she sees as a dead end.

"It has no future, no medical benefits, no chance for advancement, and the hours are terrible for a family person," said Groth, who lives in La Plata and was on and off welfare for five years.

Welfare reform advocates contend that in the past, too much time and money was wasted on training that has not led to jobs.

"We're moving away from the traditional training and education model and focusing more on work-related activities," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "It's about immediate skills that get you to work."

Social services agencies and most community colleges do not keep track of precise numbers of students on welfare who leave college to get jobs. But there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence and, in cases where numbers are kept, startling proof that the welfare law passed last year has had an almost immediate impact on students.

At Baltimore City Community College, with overall enrollment steady, about one-third of the school's nearly 900 students on welfare quit taking classes in the last year.

"They were afraid to return" to school and lose their welfare payments, said Jean Wilson Richie, a Baltimore City Community College academic adviser who serves as a liaison to students on welfare. "If your total resources are threatened to be cut, you buckle under to the pressure. That's why we've lost students."

Drastic declines in enrollment also have occurred at City University of New York, where the number of students on welfare dropped from 27,000 to 14,000, and Milwaukee Area Technical College, the country's largest technical college, where enrollment of students on welfare dropped from 1,600 to 250.

Outraged by such declines, students on welfare at several colleges in Baltimore are organizing to bring their fight to Annapolis to tell the Maryland General Assembly that the new requirements are unfair and need to be changed.

"School must count," said Latonya Williams, a welfare recipient and 20-year-old mother of two who started at Baltimore City Community College this semester. She writes for the student newspaper, sits on the school's governing board and is a campus leader in the fight to convince government officials that school is important.

Williams said now she must find a job or risk losing her monthly benefits of $312 in cash, $320 in food stamps and medical services. She applied for a campus job and was denied, she said. If she must find a job for 20 hours a week, as required, Williams said she will have to leave school.

"I don't feel you should tell people they are not worthy of getting an education because they're poor," Williams said at a recent rally of about 200 people.

The rally in Baltimore was part of a lobbying campaign led by the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee, an alliance between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, an activist group formed by Baltimore's black churches and the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Maryland Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who is co-chairman of the legislature's Joint Committee on Welfare, said he agrees that school should count as work and is deciding whether Maryland legislation is needed to fix the problem. But the committee's other co-chairman, Sen. Martin G. Madden (R-Howard), is more reluctant, saying that a job is the best training a welfare recipient can get.

States do have some flexibility to address the issue. In Maine, for example, legislators recently approved a plan in which 2,000 of the state's 15,000 welfare recipients can attend school without risk of losing welfare benefits. Because the benefits will be paid only with state money, the recipients are exempt from the tough federal work requirements.

Other states are using discretion within the law to allow students who are close to graduation to complete their programs, said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), one of the principal authors of welfare reform legislation.

"People can clearly work 20 hours a week and still have plenty of time for education," Shaw said in a telephone interview. "The welfare system should not be used to support people while they are going to school."

But many advocates for the poor say the expectations are unreasonable.

"People in Annapolis and Washington said that welfare reform is a success because of the number of people leaving the rolls," said Alisa Glassman, an organizer of the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee in Baltimore. "It's not being judged by whether it's bettering the lives of people. If that was the intent, people would be allowed to stay in school."

Former student Groth plans to enroll once again at Charles County Community College, to pursue an associate degree in information systems. She has secured child care for her children, ages 3, 9 and 12, and will work fewer hours to fit school in.

She's happy to be off welfare. But she sometimes wonders where she would be if she hadn't quit school last May.

"I could have been, in the summertime, looking for that professional job," Groth said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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