Welfare Recipients Attending College: The Interplay of Oppression and Resistance

By Christopher, Karen | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Welfare Recipients Attending College: The Interplay of Oppression and Resistance


Christopher, Karen, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This qualitative study uses Patricia Hill Collins' "both/and" conceptual framework to explore experiences of both oppression and resistance among welfare recipients attending college. It examines how children, social networks, integration into campus life, and interactions with caseworkers affect welfare recipients' college attendance and college persistence. As is well established in the sociological literature, having children complicates college attendance and persistence. But this research shows that children also provide the predominant incentive for poor mothers to attain higher education. Moreover, this study reveals complexities in welfare recipients' experiences with their social networks, work-study jobs, and caseworkers that are often overlooked by current research on higher education and welfare reform.

Keywords: welfare recipients, higher education, welfare reform, matrix of domination

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When asked to name the most important reasons why she attended college, Seana, a Black mother of one, replied, "because I wanted a career, not a job." Seana and the other participants in this research are among the one-fifth of welfare recipients nationwide with some four-year college or university experience (Peterson, Song, and Jones-DeWeever 2002). Seana is well aware that postsecondary education confers substantial benefits to welfare recipients. Those with higher education are more likely to find jobs, work in their field of study, earn higher wages, and report greater family well-being than welfare recipients who lack higher education (see Kahn, Butler, Deprez, & Polakow, 2004 for a review of this research).

However, recent policy changes made it more difficult for welfare recipients to attend college. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), or welfare reform, requires that welfare recipients engage in work-related activities within two years of receiving assistance. Most states allow only one year of higher education to count as work-related activity (Pandey, Zhan, Neely-Barnes, and Menon, 2000). Thereafter, a welfare recipient who attends school must do so in addition to work requirements. Moreover, under welfare reform, states enacted "work-first" programs that emphasized job searches and job placement rather than higher education (Golonka and Matus-Grossman, 2001). After welfare reform, welfare recipients' enrollment in higher education dropped considerably (Center for Women's Policy Studies, 2002); as Jacobs and Winslow (2003) conclude, "the result of welfare reform has been to reduce overall access to postsecondary education for welfare recipients" (p. 212).

Given the unequivocal benefits of college attendance for welfare recipients, and the decreasing numbers of them who are attending college, research on welfare recipients who make it to college is especially important. This research explores college attendance and persistence among seventeen single mothers--most women of color--who receive welfare and attend an urban university in Kentucky. It uses Patricia Hill Collins' (1991) "both/and" (p. 226) conceptual stance to explore the multiple axes of domination and resistance experienced by poor, single-mother college students. As revealed below, these students' narratives question many of the theoretical assumptions and empirical findings of the existing sociological literature on higher education. Their experiences can also enhance the literature on welfare reform, which until recently rarely examined the experiences of welfare recipients attending college.

Collins is one of several multiracial feminists who emphasize that race, class, and gender form a "matrix of domination" (1991, p. 225) such that these three systems of oppression interact to affect people in distinct ways. Most students in this sample are disadvantaged in educational institutions because they are poor, single-mother students on welfare. …

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