And Welfare Justice For All?

Commentary by Lynn Williams

             Women who earn a four-year college degree have a 95 to one chance of needing to rely on welfare in the future.  Without that college diploma, a woman stands a five to one chance of needing welfare.  According to a report by Jobs With Justice, nearly all of the jobs that recipients are going into are entry-level positions and jobs that, lacking further education and training, will never lead to a higher salary at a livable wage level.

             A woman who works a full-time, round the year job at minimum wage ($5.15/hr.) earns only $10,300 gross income.  Deduct taxes and she earns even less that this amount!   She is extremely likely to lack health care insurance.  If she is in poor health, or needing medical treatment, medical gills could easily eat up a minimum wage budget. (See article on Health Care for Working Parents in Poverty)  With a minimum wage job, a family of three is living almost $3,000 BELOW THE FEDERAL POVERTY LEVEL!  Unless they are one of the lucky families with a Section 8 certificate or other housing voucher, market rate rent and utilities will drain a significant portion of the family’s income.  Families living at or below poverty level could easily end up on public assistance; if a crisis hits, they will not have savings to cushion them ‘til they’re back on their feet. (If their time limited for welfare is used u they won’t even has this option)

             This paints a pretty dismal picture, but there is something to be done about it.  If we are truly serious about lifting families out of poverty, we must:  1.  Raise the minimum wage to a livable wage for all workers.  2. Allow welfare recipients to count class and study time for a G.E.D. and college degree as their work requirement.  This is much more far-sighted than kicking women off now for temporary or low pay, “no future” jobs.  If a recession hits us, the recipients in entry-level jobs will be the first fired or laid off, probably without unemployment compensation.

             According to economist Rebecca in Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, “It would be foolish for work/welfare programs to assume that women who find jobs will make steady economic progress toward substantially higher wages.  Some welfare recipients will be able to follow this model (particularly those with more education), but this is unlikely to be the typical experience among women who lack high school

            S.B.123 currently in the Ohio Senate would change state welfare policy to allow for two years of Full Time College to be counted as the work requirement for recipients.  Currently, only one-year (or 1040) hours are allowed in this manner.  In addition, S.B.123 would require welfare departments to promote and clearly display this information in a “campaign”.  As it is now, many recipients in Ohio are not informed that they can count college hours for the first year as the work requirement.  This is a well-kept secret!

             The Ohio Empowerment Coalition believes S.B. 123 is a step in the right direction.  However, it should allow for additional years of college and study time to count as the work requirement.  This would allow a recipient to concentrate on her studies and successfully complete a four - year degree.  College is work and it should be counted as work time with a farsighted thought of its importance in moving families off of welfare (but not thrown off) and out of poverty.

             The following story from Jennifer of Findlay, Ohio is a story of a woman who has a bright future because of getting her degree.  “I am currently receiving public assistance through a local welfare department.  I began receiving assistance about six years ago shortly following a divorce.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would become a single mother of three children.  Then the unthinkable happened.  My husband quit his job and moved out of state.  He has not seen our children since that time, nor has he paid any child support.

             After the initial shock of this dilemma wore off, I started working minimum wage jobs while still obtaining welfare benefits.  I was hoping at the time that the extra money from work would help feed my family.  However, another disappointment came my way as I discovered that my benefits had decreased since I was earning an income.  It seemed the more I made, the further behind I became.  I knew there had to be a way out of poverty somehow, but didn’t know what steps I would need to take.

             Finally, after two years of working low-paying jobs, I decided to attend college.  I was scared at first, since nobody in my family had gotten a four-year degree.  In any case, through higher education I was able to face those fears and continue on with my studies.  It was a very difficult road since I was attending college full-time, working part-time, and raising three children alone.  The truth is I didn’t think I’d make it.  Many times I went without food and/or sleep in my quest to get off of the public assistance program.

             I officially graduated from school last week with a bachelor’s degree in social work.  I am currently looking for employment in my field, but will be free from public assistance very soon.  It is a very rewarding feeling to know that I will always be able to raise my children without assistance from the state.  I am very grateful for all the help that I received, but consider myself one of the lucky welfare recipients.  I as able to rise above my circumstances in hopes of creating a better life for my family.  However, many other welfare recipients may not fare as well.  I began receiving benefits before the state enacted the five-year limit on assistance.  Therefore, I had time to go to college.  Many other people will not.

             My biggest fear concerning the current welfare reform legislation is that too many people will be forced to obtain minimum wage jobs that will serve to keep them in their impoverished state.  I believe it’s time to find long-term solutions to this problem.  I believe that every welfare recipient should be afforded the opportunity for long-term solutions to this problem.  I believe that every welfare recipient should be afforded the opportunity for long-term education and, in some cases, this should be mandated.  What some people in the general public and political arena forget is that the new welfare reform laws impact children in a very negative manner.  Rather than teaching them and their parents the appropriate way of obtaining long-term self-sufficiency, these laws push fo immediate employment.  It is common knowledge that without a high school diploma and/or college degree, the chances of finding a job that pays over $5.50 an our decreases dramatically.  This leaves a person like me to wonder what is going to happen in another five years, when the recipients are booted off the program.  Will their children starve to death?  Will they be able to afford even basic necessities?  What will be society’s responsibility if these things happen? 

             As for myself and my family, we will continue to advocate for the rights of poor people and the need for continued public assistance for those people who simply may not be capable of helping themselves.

   Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 36  July - August 1999