Reforming Welfare Reform Postsecondary Education Policy: Two State Case Studies in Political Culture, Organizing, and Advocacy

Article excerpt

Welfare reform had the unforeseen effect of causing large numbers of public assistance recipients to drop out of college, discouraging their pursuit and acquisition of postsecondary education (PSE) credentials. There is a growing body of research that shows the value of postsecondary education in getting public assistance recipients onto a path toward occupational and social mobility. The restrictions of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families PSE policy, coupled with the recognition that college participation should be an option for qualified welfare recipients, influenced the emergence of many successful state and county-level movements focused on reforming welfare reform PSE policy. Their work provides the few contemporary examples of civil society groups shaping welfare policy through advocacy and organizing. This article summarizes some of the issues and research on welfare and PSE, and chronicles the activities of TANF PSE reform movements in Maine and Kentucky. The case study conceptual framework draws upon Daniel Elazar's (1972; 1994) conception of political culture to provide historical, institutional, political and social context. Through documentation of how reform occurred in different states, the account provided may be useful to people interested in welfare reform and PSE, especially in regard to the lingering uncertainty of what will be the final provisions that constitute the reauthorization of welfare reform.

Keywords: welfare reform, higher education, public assistance, welfare recipients, organizing, political culture


During 1995-96, more than 650,000 welfare recipients were enrolled in postsecondary education (Department of Education, 1999). The total is likely far greater than this since many colleges and universities do not identify their public assistance-receiving students, and some students prefer not to be identified as welfare recipients. By 1999, however, the number these students had been nearly halved, declining to almost 358,000 (Department of Education, 1999). This pattern materialized across the country. For instance, the City University of New York (CUNY) saw its enrollment of public assistance recipients plummet from 27,000 in 1996-97 to less than 10,000 by 2000 (CUNY Office of Institutional Data, 2001). What caused such a precipitous decline in the participation of public assistance recipients in postsecondary education (PSE)?

Welfare reform was the reason that so many public assistance recipients were leaving college. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), also known as welfare reform, marked the end of welfare as an entitlement. PRWORA mandated a new form of block grant-structured assistance, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), that put, among other things, maximum limits on receipt of assistance and participation in PSE. Assistance was restricted to a lifetime maximum of 60 months, and participation in PSE limited to one year of vocational education. Most states interpreted TANF stringently, offering far less than the maximum limits.

The TANF proscription on higher education became another barrier to poor women's social and economic advancement. TANF's mandatory work requirements began at 20 hours in 1997 and incrementally increased to 35 hours in 2002 (the rules are slightly different for two parent families). For single parents, coordinating child care, course schedules, study time, attending mandatory meetings with social service agencies, and getting to a TANF work placement, meant that many were pushed beyond their capacity to cope with so many challenges. TANF's emphasis on labor force attachment embodied a view that any job is better than none, and that the poor need to learn discipline, workplace norms, and middle class behaviors and values, even where recipients have work experience or desire education over work (Riemer, 1997). To further dampen participation in PSE, case workers unaware of the new rules often told recipients that they could not attend college at all if they wanted to continue receiving public assistance. …