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Spring/Summer 2004

Volume 33
Numbers 3-4

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Welfare Reform Jeopardizes Women's Access to Education
By Vivyan Adair, The Elihu Root Peace Fund Associate Professor of Women's Studies, Hamilton College

  Vivyan Adair

In 1997, Leslie Wolfe and Marilyn Gittell of the Center For Women's Policy Studies warned that "the work requirement of the new federal welfare law is causing thousands of low-income women to drop out of college to take dead end jobs with low pay and no future. This exodus of welfare recipients from the classroom must stop." The hope among committed educators and social activists was that this failure would be remedied in 2002 when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) came up for reauthorization. A record number of educators, educational administrators, and students lobbied for reauthorization that would include post-secondary education as an option for welfare recipients. Despite their efforts, reauthorization of welfare reform's key legislation has proven to be even more punitive for low-income women who are attempting to earn educational degrees in the U.S.

The House of Representatives' welfare reauthorization bill, passed on May 16, 2003, put greater limitations on individuals by allowing a maximum of three months of vocational training during a two-year period and counting only "job readiness education"--and not education and training that would lead to career development and sustainable wages--as work activity. The bill (HR 4092) also increased Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) participation rates that all states are required to meet and increased the required hours each TANF recipient must work.

House bill 4092 requires unrealistic work requirements for many families without necessary support services. The new TANF work goals requires almost all parent recipients to work and increases their work from 30 to 40 hours a week regardless of the ages of the children in the household. At the same time, the bill provides only a fraction of needed childcare dollars and restricts childcare payments to hours actually worked, leaving low-income working parents to pay for their portion of the childcare costs in addition to the costs of childcare during transport to and from work. In addition, the bill imposes sanctions on entire families (including children) if parents fail to meet work participation requirements and gives states the right to override protections for families under federal law with a "super-waiver" provision.

Four months after passage of HR 4092, the Senate Finance Committee approved a reauthorization bill, dubbed the PRIDE bill (Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone). The Senate's PRIDE bill also increases both work hours for individual recipients and states' participation requirements, fails to allocate sufficient childcare funds, and allows state super-waivers to take precedence over federal protections. For many, the most egregious components of both the House and the Senate bills are the reductions in allowances for recipients to enter into education programs and in childcare funding, coupled with the ground-breaking earmarking of $1.5 to $2 billion dollars in federal TANF funds over the next five years for a narrow set of rigidly defined "marriage promotion" activities.

At the forefront of efforts to decrease funding for educational opportunity and increase pressure to fund marriage promotion programs were Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and Wade Horn, the Bush administration's "fatherhood czar." According to Barbara Ehrenreich, Rector, who has written extensively on the alleged pathology of low-income single mothers, has suggested that the government provide welfare recipients at a "high risk of bearing child out of wedlock" with cash payments of $5,000 if they agree to marry a man--"any man." Horn is well known for proposing that the government "give preference to two-parent married households" for scarce services like public housing and Head Start." After the passage of marriage legislation backed by Rector and Horn, Republican Rick Santorum (R-PA) filed an amendment to the bill to increase marriage related funding in TANF by $40 million per year for the next four years.

Take Action

AAUW's Two-Minute Activist allows you to send personalized e-mail messages about women, welfare, and higher education to your member of Congress. Visit AAUW's Web site to voice your support for increased funding and services non-traditional and parenting students and for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

As many welfare analysts and recipients argue, welfare reform in 1996, and the reform reauthorization in 2003, was designed to control, regulate, and somehow "neutralize" poor women's "illegal and unruly" bodies through the institutions of marriage and work. Indeed, the first sentence in welfare reform's key legislation proclaims that "marriage and work are the foundations of a civilized nation." From the perspective of welfare students, this prohibition against both personal fulfillment and independence through education and single motherhood has dangerous implications.

While being denied support with which to feed and care for their children and prohibited from entering into educational programs, welfare recipient parents are encouraged and rewarded for attending marriage formation clinics and workshops (for which childcare and lunch are provided). During the last family formation seminar that I attended with student recipients in the basement of a church in Utica, New York, we were treated to a complimentary set of artificial fingernails, as we were reminded by a very enthusiastic pastor that a good wife yields to both God and her husband, sometimes even against the perceived needs of her own children. When a student participant from our group asked the Department of Health and Human Services Director, who was observing our seminar, his thoughts about higher education for the poor, he replied without irony:

"Education is necessary in order to support and nurture your families. I strongly encourage you to support your husbands in going to college and doing whatever they can to make you and your children healthy and happy. Millions of wives--even my own mother--helped put their husbands through school on the GI bill, and they wouldn't be where they are today if it weren't for that sacrifice."

Obvious questions arise from these mandates: Who are poor women going to marry? Why would poor women want to marry? How does marrying a poor spouse and risking more children lift anyone out of poverty? Ehrenreich cleverly addressed this question in reminding us that,

"Sadly enough, welfare recipients are unlikely to marry CEOs or even the residents of conservative think tanks; they're likely to marry blue collar men--a group whose wages have been declining since the '80s. So, the real question is: How many such men would a woman have to marry to lift herself and her children out of poverty? By my calculations, approximately 2.3, although, strangely enough, the conservative marriage advocates are not offering to abolish the laws against polyandry."

More fundamentally, legislation that denies poor women the opportunity to earn educational credentials, to be fulfilled as individuals, to be able to stand on their own two feet and care for their own children, coupled with rhetoric that says that all single mothers are bad mothers and that as a nation we can only value "legitimate" married mothers and their children is, or should be, a problem for all Americans.

As educators, we stand at a critical juncture. If we challenge ourselves to champion and support this vulnerable population in their attempt to negotiate punitive welfare restrictions in order to earn college degrees, we will take a step toward insuring that education remains a truly democratic project that has the potential to enact social change and foster economic equity. By failing to act, we acquiesce to the production of a two-tiered system that increasingly widens the gulf between the educated and economically viable and the undereducated and economically underprivileged.


Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Prodding the poor to the altar. The Progressive, 65(8):14-15.

Wolfe, Leslie and Marilyn Gittell. 1997. College Education Is a Route out of Poverty
for Women on Welfare
. Washington, DC: Center for Women's Policy Studies.

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