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Ten Years Later: New Census Data Supports View that Welfare Reform Failed by Denying Access to Higher Education

by Vivyan C. Adair - April 11, 2007

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the enactment of “welfare reform.” Although reform reduced welfare enrollment by as much as 60%, today the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients work but remain poor and dependent upon services including food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid. Vivyan C. Adair a former welfare recipient who is now a Professor of Women’s Studies and the Founder of the ACCESS Project at Hamilton College, argues that welfare policy that has prohibited many welfare eligible single parents from earning college degrees is one of the reasons that many in the US remain working but mired in economic instability. Ultimately she insists that welfare programs must be expanded to allow for access to training and higher education, illustrating that to prohibit those poor single parents who are willing and able to work, care for their families and earn college degrees from doing so is short-sighted, mean-spirited, and ineffective public policy.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) that underwrote “welfare reform.” This broad tangle of legislation, “devolved” responsibility for assistance to the poor from the federal to the state level, and through a range of sanctions and rewards, encouraged states to reduce the number of applicants eligible for services. Advocates of 1996 welfare reform quickly declared their program a success. And, in fact, as a result of reform, the number of families receiving cash benefits was reduced by a staggering 60% in 10 years. However, as a recent study by the Associated Press makes clear, reform pushed poor women into work but not toward self-sufficiency. As U.S. Census data reflects, the number of people relying on government services increased from 39 million in 1996 to 44 million in 2003.  Ten years later the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients work but remain poor and dependent upon services including food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid.

As a poverty researcher, an educator, and advocate for poor people, and as a former welfare recipient who escaped poverty through the pathway of higher education, I argue that if the goal of welfare reform was to move poor single mothers toward self-sufficiency, the program has failed. This lack of success is due in large measure to welfare reform’s focus on work and marriage at the expense of support for recipients who could otherwise both earn and learn their way out of poverty on a meaningful and permanent basis.

My personal story is relevant. I was raised by a poor, divorced, single mother of four, who worked at minimum wage employment her entire adult life. My intelligent and hard working mother could not afford the training or education that might have allowed her to secure employment with which she could have provided her children with even basic economic security, nutrition, health care, or safety. As a result, I dropped out of school and began my life on a pathway of insecurity and instability. Eventually I became a survivor of domestic violence and like my mother before me, a single mother without the education that would allow me to work productively and support my own family. However, unlike my mother and so many poor single mothers today, I was encouraged and supported in my efforts to go to college as a pre-reform welfare recipient. With the support of dedicated faculty, my life and the trajectory of my family were altered in profound, positive, and enduring ways.

As a result of that support, I earned a Ph.D. and have been employed for the past ten years as a tenured faculty member holding an endowed chair at Hamilton College I have the opportunity to work with supportive and brilliant colleagues and bright and earnest students.  Access to postsecondary education permanently changed my capacity to think clearly, critically, and creatively; my ability to care for my family; my commitment to citizenship; and my sense of responsibility to the world around me.

Education also enabled me to secure employment that has provided my entire family with stability and dignity. It is true that it cost my home state more than $30,000 to support me with food stamps, medical coupons, and housing and energy assistance while I earned college degrees. I am grateful for that support. But I also want to point out that within two years of working at Hamilton College I had paid back well over $30,000 in state and federal taxes. Today I pay double that amount.  If I am able to work for an additional 20 years, I will have paid more than $600,000 in federal and state taxes that I would not have paid had I not earned those degrees. Supporting poor single parents as they move from being tax liabilities to tax assets makes fiscal as well as moral sense.

After being hired as a professor at Hamilton College, in 2001 I developed a program designed to demonstrate the positive and life-altering effects of supported access to higher education for welfare eligible parents in the United States in an era of post welfare reform. The ACCESS Project adheres to the same rigorous academic standards for which Hamilton College is well known. Students in our program work 30 hours per week, attend classes, and care for their children, completing coursework with distinction and graduating at unprecedented rates.  For example, over 90% of our first cohort had graduated with a four-year degree by the spring of 2006. Almost one-third of those students are now enrolled in graduate programs in medicine, law, education, social sciences, humanities, and the arts and the other two thirds are working as professionals in our community. Crucially, all of the graduates in our first class are earning wages well above the poverty level; and in contrast to over 44 million working poor, none of them are receiving any kind of social service support.

In stark contrast, working poor, single mothers can barely cover their basic expenses, let alone pay for tuition and books. Any reduction in pay or benefits spells disaster as they choose between paying all of their rent or part of their heating bill. Additionally, child care assistance available to cover work cannot be used while mothers are in classes. Policy thus effectively prohibits working poor mothers from earning degrees and moving toward financial security and independence.  

Nevertheless, Welfare Reform authorization in 2002, allocated $1.5 billion in federal TANF funds for a narrow set of rigidly defined "marriage promotion" programs, while cutting almost all support for educational programs. Wade Horn of the Bush administration insists that we should not encourage education, since recipients have “failed in the past.” This is the “they are not smart or motivated enough” argument. Others suggest that these women belong in their place as low-wage workers. In Senator Russell Long’s now infamous words, “If all poor women get to go to college who is going to iron my shirts?” A third objection suggests that these women don’t deserve to go to college, that they have broken the rules by not marrying and engaging in “bad behavior.” This is the persistent theme of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. I reject all three propositions as unsubstantiated and insulting. Certainly these beliefs are shaky ground upon which to build law and policy.  

If, as Horn suggests “the true goal of welfare to work programs should be self-sufficiency,” these programs must be expanded to allow for access to training and higher education.  To prohibit those poor single parents who are willing and able to work, care for their families and earn college degrees from doing so is short-sighted, mean-spirited, and ineffective. As educators committed to fostering social and economic justice, we must challenge ourselves to understand how crucial post-secondary education is to low income single parents, and to work diligently to counter legislation and policy that at best discourages and at worst prohibits them from entering into and completing college and university degrees. In doing so we work to fulfill the promise of a truly free nation, actualize the potential of higher education, and re-invest a national ethic that rewards hard work, integrity, and responsibility in the United States today.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 11, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14194, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:13:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Vivyan Adair
    Hamilton College
    E-mail Author
    VIVYAN C. ADAIR, Ph.D is the Elihu Root Peace Fund Chair, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and the Founder of The ACCESS Project at Hamilton College. She is the Curator and Director of "The Missing Story of Ourselves: Poverty and the Promise of Higher Education." As well, she is the author of “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Class and Poverty in America” published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society; “Poverty and the (Broken) Promise of Education” published in the Harvard Educational Review and the co-editor of Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty and the Promise of Higher Education (Temple University Press, 2003).
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