The Education of Jessica Rivera

The Education of Jessica Rivera

Trading in their books for buckets, welfare recipients learn “responsibility.”


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.

The basic presumption behind welfare reform is the harsh moral logic of the workhouse. Welfare recipients, so the theory goes, are poor because they lack the discipline to hold down a job. But women who are struggling to seize hold of a little bit of upward mobility have a different experience: They feel like they work all the time.

Patricia Williams, a 32-year-old Brooklyn native and mother of a gorgeous, energetic 18-month-old girl, graduated from Hunter last year. She plans to go back to school someday for a master’s. “I want to run a high-quality daycare center,” says Williams, who was orphaned at an early age. When she started working, she did temp jobs–“everything from assembling the folders for the new Macy’s event to setting up perfume samples to shelling nuts.” After a while she decided to get an associate’s degree in computer services. Lacking parents who could help her out, she applied for welfare as a kind of financial aid. “I went on public assistance to get ahead.” After completing her degree, she enrolled at Hunter. But then came welfare reform, and she had to enter WEP.

Williams’s first assignment under WEP was housekeeping at a community senior-citizen center in downtown Manhattan. It wasn’t a job she would have chosen–she lives in Brooklyn and commutes to Hunter, on the Upper East Side, for school. But she got up at 5:30 every morning to be at work by 7:30, “cleaning bathrooms and gathering garbage.” At noon, she went uptown for class, then back downtown in the late afternoon for another stint of maid work. At the community center, “they knew me as Pat the WEP worker,” she said. “They didn’t know that I had my associate’s, or that I was working toward my bachelor’s.”

The final straw came in her last semester at Hunter. She asked her supervisor for a change in her schedule, so that she could fulfill a student teaching requirement she needed in order to graduate. “I said I would work late, on weekends.” When WEP refused, she quit. Immediately, she lost her food stamps and Medicaid. At a hearing downtown, she says, she asked a city representative, “Is it fair that I am being pulled out of school to do a dead-end WEP job?” The city worker replied, “You need to know what commitment is and what it takes to report to work.”

Bush’s welfare plan would raise the federal work requirement to forty hours per week and mandate that 70 percent of a state’s caseload be enrolled in work programs. Currently the law allows vocational training in, for example, home healthcare or computers or funeral services–but not college education–to substitute for one year of the work requirement (even though most associate’s degrees take two years). But the White House-inspired House bill would revoke even this miserly provision, allowing welfare recipients only three months of “job readiness” training in their five years of government assistance.

“It is clear that the model for the Administration’s welfare reform is New York City,” says Deepak Bhargava, director of the Center for Community Change, a Washington-based think tank. The Administration’s proposal “will drive more work programs, and the work requirements will make it virtually impossible for women to seek higher education.” As he points out, “arguably the least successful welfare program in the country is being held up as the most successful.” While the census recently found that New York is the most unequal state in the nation, poverty rates in New York City have started to creep upward, according to the Community Service Society of New York. Studies have shown that more than one-third of people who leave welfare are unemployed. And there is no evidence that unpaid work programs like WEP by the Manpower Development Research Corporation lead to sustained employment or to higher earnings. It seems likely that New York’s dramatic reduction in welfare caseload is more a reflection of stringently applied rules than the well-being of poor families. Meanwhile, the city’s homelessness problem is once again reaching crisis proportions, with hundreds of families sleeping in public offices in the Bronx, while the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens have reported steady rises in use.

The Senate welfare bill–crafted in the bipartisan Finance Committee by Democrats and moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe of Maine–was slightly better than the House bill on the question of education, though it still left much to be desired. It contained considerable work requirements, but it did allow states to develop more generous educational policies, permitting them to substitute school for work for part of the caseload (30 percent for vocational training, 10 percent for college).

Even as New York moves to the center of the national debate over welfare policy, local politicians are starting to respond to pressure to change the law–much of which is coming from welfare recipients themselves. In 2000 the Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI), a Hunter-based organization of current and former welfare recipients, successfully lobbied the state legislature to enact a bill permitting work-study and internships to substitute for work requirements. In spring 2002 Gifford Miller, the Speaker of the City Council, proposed a bill allowing welfare recipients to substitute college course work for WEP. Meanwhile, in Maine, legislators have used state-level funds to support college students on welfare. The program (called Parents as Scholars) has been very successful. The women it serves earn a median wage of $11.71 upon graduation–compared with $8 for women before entering college; they are also more likely to work in jobs that offer health benefits. Ninety percent of Maine women who earned a degree while on welfare have left the rolls, with every indication that they will stay off.

But while innovative local programs are all to the good, the restrictive federal policies with regard to college for welfare recipients are part of a larger social shift toward a constriction of access to higher education for poor and working-class Americans: The number of Pell grants is shrinking, tuition is rising and budgets at public universities are being slashed. New York City’s university system is scandalously underfunded, and CUNY programs are on the chopping block. When Bush ran for President in 2000, he described himself as the “education President,” because ever since Horatio Alger, education has been touted as the key to upward mobility. But in truth, the question of who has access to college has always been deeply social and political. College enrollments exploded during the great postwar boom, in the heyday of high union density and the welfare state, and today’s college gap simultaneously reflects and perpetuates the haughty isolation of the rich.

Young women like Jessica Rivera, though, clearly benefit from whatever changes local organizations can make. Just when she was about to give up on school, Rivera learned about WRI. With legal help provided by the advocacy group, she successfully pleaded her case before a hearing officer to substitute work-study hours for WEP under the state law. The rising junior says she isn’t yet sure what she wants to major in, but she knows she wants to get a master’s degree–even, someday, a PhD. “Who wants to be on welfare? I’m going to have my own job and be independent–I don’t need to depend on anybody,” she says cheerfully. But, at the same time, when she thinks about her mother, Rivera’s face grows sad and reflective. With a gentleness that seems to contradict her spunk, she softly says, “Some people just have to be on welfare.” It is anybody’s guess what our President–whose Poppy surely paid for Yale–thinks young women like Rivera will learn about responsibility or commitment picking up trash in Central Park.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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