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Welfare-to-Work Proposal Would Limit Vocational Training

Welfare-to-Work Proposal Would Limit Vocational Training

People who are receiving welfare may have a harder time attending college if proposed regulations aimed at tightening welfare rules take effect.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seeking comment through August on a proposed rule that would no longer count the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree as “work.” The proposed limits reflect efforts by the Bush administration to move people from welfare to employment by requiring that they work a specific number of hours each week in order to continue receiving financial assistance, food stamps and Medicaid under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act (TANF).

Some argue that, if the proposal is finalized, low-income citizens could have a harder time pursuing college degrees. Among the regulations being proposed is a 12-month limit on counting vocational-educational training as work.

“HHS has narrowed the act and wiped out any possibility to use education as a way to qualify for work,” says Dillonna C. Lewis, co-director of the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College in New York.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to push states to steer people from welfare to work. Under the act, state public assistance caseworkers were required to close a certain percentage of cases. States also began requiring welfare recipients to participate in work activities before they could receive benefits.

Overall, the reform was successful, and states cut welfare cases by more than half. But critics of the program say that once the state’s goals were met, they relaxed efforts to ensure that welfare recipients were still working. Now policy-makers say states need another push to continue reducing welfare dependency.

“On average, states reported that nearly 60 percent of able-bodied adult TANF recipients had not participated in even a single hour of activity related to work or preparing for work over the course of a month,” HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a June briefing at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research institute.
But college access proponents say the rules discourage college enrollment among people who would most benefit from a college education.

“College education … most likely would result in people qualifying for better, more permanent jobs and, it is to be hoped, they would leave the welfare rolls forever,” wrote John Dean, president of the National College Access Network, in an online op-ed for Diverse.

In proposing the new rules, HHS officials say welfare benefits should not be used to pay for college, because the Higher Education Act meets the needs of low-income students. Dean says that assumption is “simply wrong,” noting escalating tuition has priced many low-income students out of a college education.

In general, welfare recipients must spend at least 30 hours a week on work activities in exchange for the benefits.

New York City offers a preview of what could happen if college coursework no longer counts as “work.” The 1996 law allowed each state to decide what qualified as work, and New York chose to eliminate college coursework as an option.

Officials at Hunter College’s Welfare Rights Initiative say the program helped 169 people graduate from college over the past 10 years. During the same period, the colleges and universities of New York lost about 20,000 welfare students because the city’s policies made pursuing a degree too difficult.

“People on public assistance need to build skills and credentials to move themselves out of poverty,” says Maureen Lane, a former student and welfare recipient who now works with Lewis at WRI. “We have found in New York that education actually does help people move from welfare and into jobs.”

Comments on the rule are due on or before Aug. 28, 2006. To view the proposed rules, visit

— By Cassie Chew

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