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Lessons—Let Education Guide Welfare

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JANUARY 23, 2002]

Let Education Guide Welfare

By Richard Rothstein

SAN FRANCISCO — We urge young people to get more education, arguing for example that women with college degrees earn 48 percent more than similar women with only high school diplomas.

But such advice did not guide the 1996 federal welfare reform. With a time limit of five years for receiving benefits, the law says that only one of those years can be used for education.

As a result, many recipients looking immediately for work got jobs in the booming economy of the 1990’s – but these were often low-wage, dead-end jobs. Now, in a recession, the retail, restaurant and hotel industries that hired many welfare recipients are those with the most employment losses. Welfare recipients, the last hired, have been the first fired.

In the long run, it might have been wiser for more recipients to improve their skills before going to work. With more education, they might have been able to keep jobs in bad times as well as good.

Community colleges can offer the education, but an associate degree takes at least two years, not one. Some of these colleges, however, have gone beyond the limits in federal law, taking advantage of more flexible state and local rules.

City College of San Francisco, for example, provides added support services to help single mothers stay in school. It benefits from California’s use of state dollars, not federal ones, to allow welfare recipients to add an extra year of education to the one allowed by Congress. And then, when state time limits have also been reached, the college helps students apply for a local scholarship established for welfare recipients by the City of San Francisco.

Brandy Orge was a beneficiary. Neglected by her parents, Ms. Orge lived at friends’ homes as a teenager, never enrolling in high school. An aunt and uncle eventually sent her to a program that prepares students for a diploma-equivalency exam.

In 1999, 24 years old and on welfare, Ms. Orge realized she needed a well-paying career to support her 3-year-old daughter more responsibly than she herself was reared. She met with a City College counselor who reviewed the vocational certificate and two-year academic programs available. Ms. Orge said she decided “there will always be a need for nurses.”

The counselor guided her choice of classes, organized federal and state  financial aid and sent Ms. Orge to a City College center that gives students on welfare help with child care, transportation, extra family and academic counseling, and even priority registration for classes.

Ms. Orge graduated last month, after three years at City College to earn both associate of science and registered nursing degrees. Because this exceeded education time limits under California’s welfare law, she used a San Francisco city scholarship to finish her studies.

Tomie Craig, 27, was City College valedictorian when she got an associate of arts degree in June 2000. Ten years ago, pregnant with the first of two children, Ms. Craig had dropped out of high school and gone on welfare. She, too, passed a diploma-equivalency exam, and in 1998 was urged to get further education by a City College counselor she met through an organization of Head Start mothers.

Ms. Craig is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a scholarship from Golden Gate University. She reached her education time limit last month and was cut from the welfare rolls (the payment attributable to her children continues), so Ms. Craig expects to finish her baccalaureate using a city scholarship to make up the loss in benefits.

In 1996, Congress was influenced by anecdotes and research showing that many welfare recipients did not make effective use of additional education and would be better off if they were disciplined immediately by regular work – even if it was unskilled. But while Brandy Orge and Tomie Craig are not typical of all welfare mothers, there may be more like them than Congress believed.

The law is up for renewal this year, and some in Congress will try to raise the federal education cap to two years from one. They will also seek to raise a 30 percent cap on the number of recipients permitted to use even this limited educational option.

Certainly, caseworkers must judge if any particular recipient can benefit from school. And education can work in such cases only if states, counties, cities and community colleges together provide extra services and guidance to single mothers pursuing degrees or vocational certificates.

With national unemployment now up to 5.8 percent, the low-wage jobs on which welfare reform depended are less available. But the job shortage means there is little risk in testing whether some welfare recipients, and society, might benefit more than expected from the value of education, which we preach in other contexts.

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