Jessica Rivera (not her real name) is a slight, composed 20-year-old Hunter College student. She grew up in the Bronx, raised by her mother and extended family. No one in her family has completed college, so Rivera was thrilled to get accepted to Hunter College, one of the best schools in the City University of New York. “It was my top choice,” she says.
In the legendary heyday of City College in the 1930s and ’40s, Rivera’s could have been a classic story of upward mobility. Had she enjoyed similar opportunities, she might even have wound up with Irving Howe and Daniel Bell, “arguing the world” in the cafeteria alcoves. But Rivera’s mother–who was injured at the Bronx factory that she worked at many years ago–is on public assistance. When Rivera turned 18, welfare caseworkers told her she would have to report for twenty to thirty hours a week to the city’s Work Experience Program (WEP) if she wanted to keep collecting the benefits she and her mother depend on. “They offered me jobs working in the park, cleaning toilets, cleaning transportation.” The long hours would have made it nearly impossible to continue at Hunter as a full-time student. At 18, Rivera was faced with a choice between quitting school for a dead-end job and losing her family’s income.
For middle-class Americans, society offers myriad incentives for higher education: scholarships, interest-free loans and the “Hope” tax credits. But for women on welfare, it’s a different story. In September the 1996 welfare reform law was up for Congressional reauthorization. The vote did not happen then, because of divergences between a bill in the Senate, written by moderate Republicans and Democrats, and the Bush Administration’s vision of welfare reform, reflected in a House bill. The welfare law expired September 30, and no compromise bill or temporary legislation is yet ready to take its place.
One of the sticking points was that the Senate legislation would have made it easier for welfare recipients to go to college. Bush, however, told the New York Times in July that he does not think a college education teaches “the importance of work,” nor does he think it can “[help] people achieve the dignity necessary so that they can live a free life, free from government control.” Now that all three branches of government are controlled by Republicans, it seems likely that the Bush Administration’s vision will soon be reflected in law.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 mandates that recipients of public assistance work in return for their checks. They must either find jobs or, failing this, participate in state-run work programs for a minimum of thirty hours a week (split between twenty hours of paid or unpaid work, and ten hours of participation in other programs like job-search services). Should states fail to meet this work requirement, they face the loss of federal grants. (Many cities, like New York, have raised the number of required work hours above the federal minimum–in the case of New York, to thirty-five per week. It’s called a “simulated work week.”)
Under the 1996 law, college education cannot be substituted for any part of the primary work requirement. In New York City the result is clear: Before welfare reform, 28,000 CUNY students were on welfare. By spring 2002, 5,000 were–a decline even steeper than the celebrated 60 percent drop in New York City’s welfare rolls. Today, although nearly 60 percent of welfare recipients in the city lack a high school diploma or a GED, only 2 percent are enrolled in ESL or GED programs, and fewer than 4 percent are engaged in full-time education or training. “New York City has one of the most sophisticated systems of higher education in the country, but welfare recipients are essentially shut out of it,” says Wendy Bach, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center who works with welfare recipients.