Angry Mothers on Welfare Must Fight For Education Funding -- Diana Spatz's story

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - February 2000

Diana Spatz was a single mother on welfare. She encountered many barriers when she tried to get an education to become self-sufficient, but she found ways to overcome them. She now works to help other parents on welfare gain access to funding that is available from for their education.

Diana says:

In 1981 I was a single mom living in California trying to exist on welfare. When I learned that California had education and training programs for people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) I decided to sign up. I learned about a federal Family Support Act (FSA) that established the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) training program requiring states to design their own job-training and placement programs.

For poor mothers who relied on AFDC, the Family Support Act offered the chance to become self-sufficient -- but only in theory. The gap between the rhetoric of encouraging self-sufficiency and the way the services were administered became clear to me when I tried to get into the California program.

I wanted to learn word processing. It paid around $15 an hour, far better than my last housecleaning job, where I'd earned a little over minimum wage. Tired of struggling on a welfare grant that barely paid the rent, I jumped at the chance to get training -- but the state agency turned me away. According to the intake worker, my case wasn't a priority since I had a 10-month-old child. Her suggestion? "Check back in five or six years."

Facing the prospect of six more years on welfare, I put my child on the two-year waiting list for subsidized child care and made plans to enroll in a community college to learn word processing on my own. But shortly after I began classes, my caseworker decided to count financial aid as income. She cut off my welfare benefits and ignored all my calls.

With no money for rent or food, and no medical coverage just as my daughter became ill, I was almost forced to quit school. Instead, assisted by the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation (funding to such groups, not incidentally, was gutted by Congress in 1999), I represented myself, won my appeal and had my benefits reinstated. I was then able to continue my education and eventually win a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. I graduated with honors and secured a stable, well-paying job.

A national study of barriers to post secondary education faced by mothers receiving AFDC found that two-thirds of the thirty-two states surveyed allowed college only if JOBS caseworkers determined it to be "relevant" to the participant's employability plan -- even though 40 percent of the states surveyed provided no training for caseworkers in post secondary options.

Federal regulations are interpreted differently from state to state. Caseworkers unfamiliar with federal welfare rules on college attendance will still count student financial aid as income to justify canceling student mothers' welfare benefits -- just as mine did to me.

Lack of support services leaves low-income student parents susceptible to dropping out, as I almost did, or applying the same strategy they used to get their education -- doing it themselves. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, holds final exams on Saturday, yet child care centers are closed that day. Enterprising student moms wrote grant proposals and contracted with the city-run child care center to supervise kids whose parents had weekend exams -- for only $2 a day.

In recent years I have encouraged and organized groups of angry moms to speak out. They are learning that they can challenge rulings that take away benefits while they are in school. They can persuade commissioners and trustees to remove irrational barriers. By organizing and declaring what they need they can succeed in becoming educated, employed, and self-sufficient.

Diana Spatz is an advisor to the Student Parents Program at the University of California at Berkeley. She is Executive Director of LIFEtimE--Low-Income Families' Empowerment through Education.

Diana Spatz's article "Welfare Reform Skips School" in the June 2, 1997, issue of The Nation is available on-line at http://www.thenation.com/.

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