After several years of activism, community organizer Rochelle Jackson is upbeat, enjoying one of the few victories that have come along for her constituency -- mostly female, mostly single-parent welfare recipients.
Last December, Jackson's organization, the Welfare Justice Project of economic-justice nonprofit Just Harvest, won a change in Pennsylvania state policy that will allow recipients of welfare aid from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to count hours spent as a student toward the program's work requirements.
"This will help people get to real self-sufficiency, which is the goal," says Jackson.
Just Harvest will host an informational session to promote the new policy next week, explaining the new rules and offering strategies for getting into, affording and succeeding at education and training programs. The discussion will feature attorney Peter Zurflieh from Harrisburg's Community Justice Project.
When "welfare reform" first came along in 1996, state welfare departments were under pressure to reduce caseloads as quickly as possible, Jackson says. Clients were pushed to "take a job, any job" -- even if that job was a dead-end, part-time job that didn't pay enough to support their family.
"I encountered people who didn't even have a GED who were sent off to the work force. Getting a GED is something you'd think they'd mandate. It may take someone two years to get a GED, but they needed to reduce caseloads and it wasn't about helping families achieve self-sufficiency."
Having an appointee of Governor Ed Rendell, Estelle Richman, as head of the state Department of Public Welfare has helped considerably, Jackson says: "She appreciates education and training 100 percent."
The change in policy, unfortunately, may be too late to help some. Welfare reform is now nine years old: Many former clients have exhausted their five-year lifetime limit for cash assistance. Because federal and state governments have made no effort to track the progress and struggles of former clients, "we know very little about them," Jackson says. "Whether they're self-sufficient or out of poverty -- probably not. But nevertheless, they've moved on."
Jackson seems almost giddily hopeful that TANF could become something better -- a real help into self-sufficiency and even social mobility. "I get a lot of young moms, 19 and 20, calling. We're able to catch those people early in their TANF experience, so they can make the most of it. They'll be able to earn an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree -- in five years, they even could be on their way to a master's degree," she says excitedly.
Yet, she emphasizes, "It's not a free ride. There are a lot of requirements." And a lot of payback for everyone: "You're making an investment that benefits not only that family, but the community, the county, the state. They're going to pay taxes."
Though the new rules give recipients the right to pursue higher education full-time, or part-time while also working part-time, they don't necessarily make the education itself more accessible. There's still the issue of tuition.
One program, the state's Single Point Of Service, makes one year's tuition available to eligible TANF recipients, which is enough for some vocational certifications, but not enough to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree. However, few people qualify for this benefit, including those poor enough to qualify for food stamps or housing subsidy but not destitute enough to be TANF clients. For instance, a two-person household (one adult, one child) with income as extravagant as $350 a month makes too much to qualify.
Jackson herself knows that education helps. She was a welfare recipient under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children rules, which had no work requirement, allowing her to earn an associate's degree while raising children, "and when I graduated, I got a job and I was able to leave welfare," she says. "It worked then, and it can work again."