Here’s a little story about Jack and Diane, two American kids doing the best that they can.

Jack’s working class job is lost when his employer shutters their doors and leave town. Luckily, he lives in a state like Minnesota with a discernible dislocated worker program that helps him retool and prepare for another working class job in another industry.

Diane faces a different situation. She has two complications to her story: 1) she has children, and 2) she recently lost her job in a low wage industry that doesn’t pay unemployment.

Her issues are compounded by the fact that policymakers see “welfare moms” very differently than Jack. In their limited imagination, it is still the 1980s. Reagan’s “welfare queen” has suspended them in an illogical public policy ice age.

Few people talk about welfare reform anymore. There is a sense that we took care of that back in the 1990s, and it worked. It’s more fashionable to talk about income inequality or bolstering the middle class.

Yet, in 2015 there was a blink-and-you-miss-it revisiting of welfare in Washington. Diane had few advocates, but the Center for American Progress did their part by releasing information challenging the alleged success of America’s welfare (you know, the system that was established after Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996).

Rebranded as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF, the $16.5 billion annual block granted program has lost one-third of its value. According to CAP between 2008 and 2011, TANF covered just 16% more people even as unemployment rose 88%. While the number of TANF cases shrunk, child poverty grew.

Even in my state of Minnesota where our social welfare system is considered among the most generous in the nation, cash benefits remained static at 1986 levels until last year ($532 per month for a family of three).

Between 1998 and 2004 unemployment in Minnesota grew an 167% from 62,000 to 167,000, but during the same period MFIP cases decreased by 6%.

We now see the consequences of having a hole in our safety net. Since 2000, the era of new welfare, child poverty in Minnesota has increased 105%.

While we assess the damage, it’s Diane who struggles most to climb out of the hole.

Women are the answer, not the problem

Forgive me for saying we have this whole poverty thing ass-backwards in America. Most activists fighting global poverty have learned that making real investments in girls and women changes nations.

That lesson seems lost on grandstanding politicians who seem fond of proposing drug testing and humiliating gates to aid for mothers who need support.

When I started working in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) over 15 years ago I bought into all the welfare-to-work rhetoric that said if we could get moms into the workforce, at any level, it would benefit them and their children. I was wrong of course.

Over time it was obvious to me that we were simply offloading mothers in big numbers into a chattel system of low wage work that would only preserve their poverty, not beat it.

Here’s the reality check from Affirmative Options, a Minnesota group that bird dogs our elected officials to pass sane family policies:

  • 80% of parents enrolling for MFIP were workers who lost a job in the recent past.
  • More than half of these workers lost jobs in just four industries: hotel/restaurant, retail, health care or temp agencies.
  • These workers are among the half of unemployed workers in Minnesota who do not collect unemployment insurance.

Women with children and incomplete educational histories are too often the ones that end up in work “with low wages, no benefits and unpredictable, inconsistent work schedules.”

When they lose these jobs the welfare system boomerangs them right back into the same industries.

Contrast that with the “dislocated worker” programs that men access when falling out of traditionally male occupations like construction and mining. Those programs aren’t beset by punitive work-first rules.  In fact, they have no work requirement. Their focus is on preparing unemployed workers for a changing labor market.

That means we as a society have decided to train Jack for high wage, high growth job opportunities, while Diane is made to fill out job applications at every fast food restaurant and temporary employment agency within range, for 40 hours per week. When she runs out of dead end places to apply, the state keeps her busy with “volunteer” work and other compliance-based activities.

Rather than investing in women, we position mothers with children for further exploitation and poverty.

Education is key

Between 2009 and 2011 MFIP employment counselors assessed 25,000 parents on MFIP for barriers to meaningful work. They found that out of the 11 indicators of employment success, the top two barriers were financial resources and lack of education.

That finding is real to me because a lack of education kept me in service industry jobs for too many years. It also was the key obstacle I found to helping mothers when I worked in social services. I saw firsthand how incredibly frustrating it was for them to dream of a financially secure life when a lack of education was stopping them from getting jobs that pay a realistic wage for a person with children.

It was also frustrating to know Minnesota had once done better in supporting moms in poverty. Through a program called STRIDE mothers received a vast array of supports including counseling, health care, child care, and cash grants to complete a four year college education. Today you can find licensed social workers in service agencies who got their initial education while on assistance.

Those educational benefits were first reduced to two years, then they went down to one year, and in the end welfare programs were incentivized to put MFIP parents into short-term (16 weeks or less) programs that prepared them exclusively for low-wage work like Personal Care Assistants, low end administrative, and hospitality.

Last year we saw a small return to reasonable policy. Minnesota passed The Women’s Economic Security Act (2014) which promises to do for Diane what we’ve been doing for Jack. A provision of that legislation sets aside resources to prepare mothers receiving MFIP for high-wage, high-growth employment and getting them out of the endless poverty loop.

Access to education is a crucial part of that goal.

With all the talk about “fixing” poverty, I always find it odd how people see that as separate from the battles we have over improving public schools. Debates about school reform are too often circular and unfocused. It’s sad to me that so many credentialed people amuse themselves with masterbatory abstracts about poverty and income inequality while they enjoy all the privileges of a college education.

Yet, even with an education they say colossally stupid things like “college isn’t a silver bullet,” and “minorities do poorly even with college degrees.”

Discounting education isn’t helpful when we are fighting for poor people to have access to more of it, not less.

I think Diane knows better than Jack on this one.


Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.



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