Pell Grants as Costly and ‘Harmful’ Welfare?

As American politicians and educators continue to slice and dice away at higher education resources and programs using the hollow, yet sharp knives of austerity, the future of a diverse academy increasingly looks bleak and dreary.

The widely used justification — the need to cut costs and reduce the national deficit — seems so difficult to conceptualize each time I look at military expenditures, each time I hear about another country the United States has bombed.

From the standpoint of diversity, the reformers of exclusion have peeled away at the surface of many of the programs, funding lines and initiatives in higher education that the reformers of inclusion instituted over the course of the 20th century, climaxing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of the inclusive core is still intact, aside from the popular refashioning of affirmative action as fundamentally a reverse discriminator as opposed to a corrective for historic discrimination. But that core has continuously been attacked, and it appears the latest assault is directed towards Pell Grants, the nation’s largest financial aid program.

The cost of the program, which provides low-income students with grants to help pay for college, is primed to exceed $40 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, according to Higher Ed Watch. That is too much in the current fiscal environment, according to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. He voted for the House GOP budget resolution, which would decrease the maximum Pell Grant from $5,500 to $4,705.

“Pell Grants open a lot of doors, but they rely on a solvent government,” Rehberg said on his Web site. “Getting our deficit under control and making sure Pell Grants can be sustainably funded is the only way we can guarantee that they will still be around the for next generation.”

If the federal government can spend $2 billion per day in Libya (according to Forbes magazine), then I think if politicians like Rehberg wanted to, they could find the money to sustain and even increase Pell Grants. But it appears that, like welfare in the 1990s, the Pell Grant program could be scaled back significantly, as the GOP resolution also calls for the narrowing of eligibility requirements. In fact, in a recent interview with Blog Talk Radio, Rehberg classified Pell Grants as the “welfare of the 21st century.”

Yes, he really said that.

In popular thought, welfare is “bad” because it breeds dependency. Even though some statistics show otherwise, in today’s rhetorical context, welfare is ominous. Rehberg’s decision to drop Pell Grants in the welfare box was, of course, a shrewd political maneuver designed to put diversity champions on the defensive. It forces the reformers of inclusion to try to make the case that Pell Grants are not in “that category,” as an official for the New America Foundation did in the Huffington Post.

Interrelated to those defenses, the image of the typical Pell Grant recipient may become widely contested.

“You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, Section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college,” said Rehberg. “And there ought to be some kind of commitment and endgame.”

If Rehberg’s depiction becomes the prototypical Pell Grant recipient, then that construction could generate the popular will and political justification for its reduction and eventual elimination. In the 1990s, the champions of welfare reform normalized the abnormal Black jobless, single “welfare queen” who had plenty of wealth through cheating the system. Now, there may be a push to try to normalize the abnormal Pell recipient who never intended to graduate and instead merely lives as a government subsidized serial student.

It will be interesting to see whether the normal or abnormal Pell Grant recipient guides legislative discourse on this issue. If the welfare debate and media blitz of the 1990s is any indication, then the abnormal construction will probably be centered. And if Pell Grants are tied directly to achievement (as opposed to need), the successful and privileged will become even more successful and privileged. Pell Grants will morph from a program that equalizes to one that breeds inequality.

The aspiring students who are sometimes least likely to commit and reach “the endgame” should not be mandated to do so to receive (or keep or not have to pay back) a Pell Grant, nor should the doors to higher education be slammed in their faces with the winds of austerity. But with Rehberg’s notion of Pell Grants being the “welfare of the 21st century,” that is precisely what could happen.

I could only imagine what my classroom will look like in 2050, with Pell Grants all but eliminated. My guess is it will probably look more like 1950 than 1990. And tragically, some reformers of exclusion will call that progress.

— Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. He is on leave as an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.