The Ticktock of the Welfare Clock

Proposed legislation would allow recipients to count up to 2 years of postsecondary education as "work," up from the current limit of 1 year.
August 6, 2008

For welfare recipients, time really is money, some in Congress argue. More time in the classroom, they say, has the potential to transform current beneficiaries of federal aid into skilled workers and give them an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty.

Last week, in advance of Congress’s summer recess, twin pieces of legislation were introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate that would allow for recipients under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to count more of their time seeking postsecondary education as “work” under federal welfare restrictions. This program, created in 1996 by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act as a restructuring of the federal welfare system, requires that all welfare recipients meet set work requirements and limits the receipt of certain financial benefits. Welfare recipients may treat up to 12 months of postsecondary vocational education as “work” under the program. The proposed reform would double this allowance, permitting recipients to regard up to 24 months of higher education as official “work activity.”

TANF was originally introduced in 1996 to hold states more accountable for their welfare programs and to ease the cost of such programs to the federal government. It requires state governments to show their progress in helping welfare recipients enter the job market. If certain portions of their welfare populations are not engaged in approved "work activity," under which the current 12 months of postsecondary education would count, for example, states risk losing federal funding. At the time, proponents of the 12-month limit said it would ensure that millions of welfare recipients actually entered the work force in a timely fashion and that the overall TANF program would save the federal government billions of dollars. In debates since the program was established, critics have continued to argue that such a time limit was too short to achieve a proper and helpful education in today's working world.

More than 40 percent of adult TANF beneficiaries do not have a high school diploma, according to the most recent report to Congress concerning the program by the Department of Health and Human Services. It goes on to state that more than 15 percent of these same beneficiaries have nine years or fewer of proper education. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data demonstrate that the median income of adults with an associate degree is 30 percent higher than high school graduates or GED recipients who have not sought any postsecondary education. Still, as demonstrated by the percentage of adults without a high school diploma, a number of TANF recipients will require some remedial education if they seek the postsecondary vocational education allowed them by the program.

“Our students, particularly the TANF population, need longer than 12 months,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “In fact, they may need longer than 24 months to get enough postsecondary education to become self-supporting over the long term. Most folks on TANF are poorly educated. They have children to raise and are working in addition to getting government assistance. It’s not possible for them, given those constraints, to finish in a year.”

Time constraints aside, critics of the TANF program also cite its stringent reporting requirements as discouraging potential welfare recipients from pursuing postsecondary education. The program, for example, still requires that all welfare recipients pursuing education have their class attendance and all distance learning verified by their institution. Also, until the February rule changes to the program, recipients also had to have all of their homework supervised. Although these rigid program requirements are still an issue for TANF reformers, the simple extension of the time that recipients may spend furthering their education is a step in the right direction.

“When you have a mess, you say, ‘Where shall I start cleaning?’ " U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), who introduced the legislation in the House, said of the problems she sees with the federal welfare system. “I say anywhere. That’s my mantra. This is a good place to start. Some people need remedial courses even to begin a good program. This extra 12 months will make a difference in getting someone a good footing. Notwithstanding paperwork and the other things, there are a lot of things I want to change about TANF.”

Baime said that in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform that imposed work requirements, a number of the 1,195 community colleges that AACC represents anecdotally reported that a number of welfare recipients had to abandon their instruction, though he said the association did not have concrete figures of the extent of this reported exodus. If the new legislation were passed, extending the possibility of “work activity” to 24 months, Baime noted that community colleges would have to team up with state governments to promote postsecondary education as an option for welfare recipients, who might not otherwise consider it. The changes would have to be made on the “street level,” he said, adding that both community colleges and the federal and state governments would have to play “catch-up” to fully inform recipients of the possibilities available to them.

For the moment, however, Baime and other critics of the current welfare system note what they see as an inequality in the offering of federal resources toward those seeking higher education. He argues that welfare recipients are shortchanged in light of seemingly more generous programs for traditional student financial aid.

“We believe that the welfare population is treated extremely harshly under the current law in concert with existing regulations,” Baime said. “The idea that the government wouldn’t want to encourage people to engage in postsecondary education, as long as it would benefit them, is shortsighted. The government has no problem supporting students in the student financial aid system, as long as they make satisfactory academic progress. A harsher standard is applied to the welfare population. It’s not the interest of broader society.”

Almost 80 percent of the projected job openings between 2004 and 2014 will require at least some education or skill training beyond high school, according to a recent Workforce Alliance study cited in a letter from the group supporting Moore’s proposed legislation. Rachel Gragg, president of the alliance, says that welfare recipients without proper access to a postsecondary education will end up working “low-skill, low-paying jobs” and have a slim chance of advancement or long-term financial security.

“This, while modest, can open the door to a different type of case management, steering [welfare recipients] toward more education or vocational programs,” Representative Moore said, adding that her proposed change could potentially help displaced workers, teen parents and male heads of households. “It gives employers an incentive to keep people on. I think it’s possible for your employer to provide time off and tuition remission. We need to value, as Americans, some sort of safety net. This is not a handout to provide someone with the opportunity to go to school.”

Moore’s House bill was referred to the Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on Education and Labor July 30. Additionally, a twin bill, sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, was referred to the Committee on Finance July 31.

"Members of the Senate have gone on record on more than one occasion in support of raising the 12 month limit to 24 months," Levin stated in a release provided by his office. "My bipartisan amendment to an earlier Reconciliation bill, permitting up to 24 months of post-secondary education, received 55 votes - falling five votes short of the required procedural vote of 60. In addition, similar legislation has been included in several Finance Comittee reported bills to reauthorize TANF. Unfortunately, these measures were not considered by the full Senate."

(Note: This article corrects an error from an earlier version.)


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