Welfare recipients win work credit for schooling

State agrees to pay for 100 more slots at city community college

June 03, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Responding to the request of women on welfare who wanted to stay in college, the Maryland Department of Human Resources has agreed to allow Baltimore City Community College students to count their studies as work under welfare-reform rules.

The agreement, to be announced at a celebration this afternoon after the college's graduation ceremony, also calls for the state to pay for an additional 100 work-study slots for welfare recipients at the school.

The state work-study program, which will cost the state nearly $1.3 million over the next two years, is designed to encourage those welfare recipients who can maintain passing grades in community college to pursue education and get career training instead of having to go straight into full-time work.

While welfare reform rules don't prohibit students from going to college as they move off the rolls, they can make attending school difficult, recipients and advocates say. Welfare clients who fail to work 30 hours a week -- or to participate in an approved "work activity" -- can be cut from the rolls.

The students also must have enough time left on the federal welfare "clock" -- which limits recipients to five years of benefits -- to complete their associates' degrees.

Maryland began offering work credit for Baltimore City Community College classes as part of a pilot program two years ago, when a group of students on welfare joined with Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD) to lobby for studies.

Alisa Glassman, a BUILD organizer who worked with the women to negotiate the expanded policy, said the educational provisions offer hope to welfare recipients who cycle from the assistance rolls into low-paying jobs that have little promise of advancement.

"There's one labor market, and people are going back and forth," Glassman said. "This policy just reflects, from our perspective, a way for people to get off the rolls for good. It's very much a widening of the door that we opened before."

Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, which is overseeing the policy, said the department's goal is similar. The educational program is limited to Baltimore, which had about two-thirds of the state's 75,590 welfare recipients as of April.

"The luxury of welfare reform in Maryland is that we have some flexibility in what we do," she said. "For some, we really need to help get them the very basics they need. For some, we need to help them identify a profession."

The pilot program helped Jacqueline Lloyd of East Baltimore, who graduated from the community college last year, do just that. At age 42, she is a work-study student at Coppin State College. After that, she hopes to get a master's degree in social work.

Like many of the women, she was the first in her family to graduate from college. "Once I've gotten a taste of what knowledge is," she said, "I want more."

Others, like Patricia Edwards, 33, are still balancing community college studies with other challenges -- like Edwards' four sons, whom she raises alone.

When she graduates next year, Edwards, of Highlandtown, says the best part is that she helped set an example for her oldest boy, 17, to follow her to college.

"My son looked at me and said, `If my mother can do it with four children, then I can do it, too,' " she said. "That's the biggest prize."

Barbara Hopkins, acting vice president for external affairs at Baltimore City Community College, said she has been impressed with the students on welfare. "They have real problems, and a real desire to succeed here," Hopkins said. "I say to myself, `If I had these obstacles, could I have done it?' "

Advocates have been successful at making similar changes across the country. Thirty-seven states offer some work credit for college students receiving welfare -- some with time limits -- according to the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, which tracks state welfare policies.

Steve Savner, senior staff attorney for the center, said that three years after welfare reform began, states are under less pressure to cut the number of people on their rolls. Nationally, welfare caseloads have been cut in half.

"There's greater flexibility now," he said.

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