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The key to welfare reform is postsecondary education – Speaking of Education – importance of welfare reform in education

In early December, my travels took me to Gateway Technical
Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. I’d expected it
to be a campus trip like any other campus trip, where a speaker
comes in, hangs out a bit, gives a talk, entertains questions, packs
up her glad rags and goes home. This doesn’t mean that the
lecture circuit is rote.

Every location brings interesting people
with memorable personalities. Some trips bring reunions with old
friends, and others bring contacts that sometimes develop into
rich friendships. There was much of that in my Gateway trip,
but there was something more, as well.

One of the deans at Gateway Technical Community College
shared her powerful personal story with me and reminded me
that, in these days of “welfare deform,” postsecondary education
ought to play a much greater role than it currently does.

Dr. Susan Lincoln married early and had four small children
and a broken marriage by the time she was twenty years old. The
child of Maryland migrant farmers, she also had tenacity and a
determination not to be defined by her circumstances. So she
collected public assistance from a system she found “harsh and
humiliating.” But she also finished high school, then college, and
then earned a Ph.D. (Her neighbors watched her children during
the day in exchange for her watching their children at night.) Now
she is Dean of Student Services at Gateway Technical
Community College, an institution she has served for more than
twenty-five years.

In her late fifties, Dr. Lincoln has the energy and attitude of
someone a decade younger. But she has the warmth and
compassion of a woman who has raised children, who enjoys two
grandchildren, and who has seen quite a bit in her time. To talk
with Dr. Lincoln is to envy the nurturing wisdom that she so
clearly shares with her students, a group of folks she speaks of
both fondly and sternly. She is dismayed that more African
American and women students aren’t immersing themselves in
technology, disturbed that more women on public assistance
don’t investigate the community college option as a ladder out of

“Believe me,” she told me in a crisp voice reminiscent of
Eartha Kitt’s storytelling voice. “If I could make it, so can
they. They just need to understand that education
is an option.”
Women on public assistance aren’t the only ones who need to

Policymakers bent on punitive versions of welfare
reform need to be clear that low-wage jobs are a
revolving door For poor women and no way to
encourage self-sufficiency. Pathways to education and
decent paying jobs are permanent pathways
out of poverty Researchers at the Washington, D.C.- based
Center for Women Policy Studies have been making this point for
years. But the point is made more clearly, more compellingly,
when someone like Dr. Susan Lincoln tells her story.

problem is that there are lots of Dr. Susan Lincolns out there,
women who saw the welfare system as a means to an end, not an
end. But many of these women are ashamed to tell their stories
because there is a stigma attached to having received public

It is a false stigma. If there is any shame in public assistance,
it is the shame that our country does so poorly by those who are
at the bottom. There ought to be shame in the way people are
treated when they go to get aid, as if they are contemptible human
beings, not people in need. There ought to be shame in the media
portrayal of people on welfare. And there ought to be shame in
the people who have become rich from their exploitation of the

A woman who receives public assistance, who raises children
with the few resources, ought feel no shame, but a motivation to
improve her circumstances.
And the motivation must now be compounded by the
mean-spiritedness with which some states approach “welfare

In California, for example, welfare checks will be cut by a flat
10 percent on January 1, except for people who live in large cities,
who will see cuts of 4.6 percent. The cost of living will rise, but
people on public assistance will he cut and they have no choice
but to “live with it”.
Eloise Anderson, the head of the California Department of
Social Services, says that poor people need to “learn how to be
poor” and cites her own case of rising early to bake bread and
make cupcakes to save money when she had to stretch a check
after her divorce.

California Governor Pete Wilson seems to have a talent for
finding African Americans with iconoclastic views like Anderson
and University of California Berkeley regent Ward Connerly. I’d
love to sit Anderson and Dr. Susan Lincoln in a room and watch
the fur fly or, at least, find out whether Eloise Anderson has
considered the redemptive power of postsecondary, education in
the welfare reform discussion.

And I’d like to put women like Dr. Susan Lincoln on a
poster to tout her achievements and accomplishments
and to remind people that public assistance, for many,
has been a means to an end, not an end. Sisters like
Susan Lincoln ought to be the ones leading the welfare
reform debate. Sisters like her ought to be the ones
shaping the reforms. After all, Susan Lincoln survived
public assistance, and triumphed over it, with the help
of postsecondary education.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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