Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Alligators, Wolves and Higher Education

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Alligators, Wolves and Higher Education

Article excerpt

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Alligators, Wolves And Higher Education.

Julianne Malveaux

The debate about public policy toward federal income-maintenance programs has been less about fact than about fiction, imagery and emotion. It has been most clear around the congressional debate about public assistance. Members of Congress have described welfare recipients as "alligators," "wolves" and people we wouldn't leave our cats with.

There are two missing ingredients in this story. One is the reality of welfare women's employment. The other is the role higher education can play in improving the status of women on public assistance.

The public rhetoric about women on welfare suggests that people who receive public assistance are lazy and don't work. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than half of the women who receive public assistance have worked at some point in the past two years. To be sure, they worked in low-wage jobs, as teaching assistants, as child-care workers, as private household workers.

These are jobs that are insecure, fragile and subject to market whims. Anything can happen to blow a woman away from these kinds of jobs. When a fast-food restaurant closes, the woman who flipped burgers has no choice but to find alternate transportation or lose a job. When a child is sick or falls off a swing, and there is no health care available on the low-wage job, welfare is the safety net.

At the top of the public-assistance totem pole are women who spend just a few weeks or months receiving aid. These are women who are abandoned by spouses, who are blind-sided by divorce or separation. They spend a little bit of time receiving help, then they move on. They aren't the basis of the problem.

At the bottom, there are some folks who probably don't want to work. But like the group at the top, they represent less than 20 percent of the total welfare population. They are the caricatures, but they are also a minority. The biggest part of the welfare problem is the people in the middle, the people who try to combine work and welfare. The issue is how one is able to combine work and welfare when policy makers treat the two as separate problems.

We want to put people on welfare to work, they say. At what? Those low-wage jobs can't sustain people or families. Where is the safety net?

Higher education has a role to play in this welfare conundrum. Many women who receive public assistance have aspirations for productive work in remunerative jobs. Some of them take seriously the challenge to find education and training. …

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