University has a role in welfare reform

For the University of Minnesota, welfare reform presents a challenge to faculty and students to engage in important public work so that state and local decision making can both incorporate research findings as appropriate to localities and inform the research agenda of the University.
Welfare reform provides an opportunity for “scholarship of engagement.” Engagement in welfare reform means faculty and students conducting research to monitor changes. It means measuring the impact of welfare reform on all aspects of a community — the families moving off welfare, those who are at risk of needing public assistance, businesses challenged with providing living-wage jobs, government agencies struggling to change how they’ve handled human services, and non-profit organizations seeking to provide supplements to low or no wages and government programs.
Engagement means extending the expertise of our faculty and students to citizens and decision-makers as they make state and local determinations in response to federal legislation, and to the congressional and executive branches of the federal government as they revisit welfare reform policy in the months and years to come. It means being involved as the needs of families and communities arise that seem to have few clear solutions. It means becoming involved in important public work that affects the fiber of our state and nation.
Engagement means making the University relevant through outreach. Outreach, as scholarship that extends the discovery and application of knowledge from multiple disciplines, can be an effective means of connecting the University to the community.
Welfare reform involves economic and community development as well as human and family development. Economies thrive or stagnate within the context of the local community — even as those communities are impacted by the global economy. The communities’ workers and taxpayers, as well as consumers of goods and services, originate with families. One goal of welfare reform is that people become self-sufficient and personally responsible. Development of responsibility, and the human capital to be relatively self-sufficient, is a key function of families.
Welfare reformers need to understand the linkage of families to economic and community development for wise policy to be made. Wise policy addresses not only the needs of the few moving off welfare, but the well-being of the many. Wise policy deals with not only the immediate, but also the long-term aspects of becoming and remaining relatively self-sufficient, and is based on appropriate research combined with the wisdom of citizens.
The University of Minnesota can contribute to welfare reform through the body of knowledge residing in family social science, social work and related disciplines — knowledge clearly relevant to public policy. Such knowledge is needed if decision makers are to respond knowledgeably in supporting individuals moving off welfare and to prevent others from moving onto public assistance. For example, research supports the need for quality child care, parenting, nutrition and financial management education. These bases of knowledge can be applied as businesses, legislatures, county commissioners and agencies decide how to support individuals moving off welfare and on to work. In turn, faculty and students working in partnership with communities can enrich their research agenda and the education they offer through outreach.
The University can further contribute through scholarship of K-12 schooling while assisting in school-to-work initiatives as communities strive to graduate youths with the capacity to obtain gainful employment and maintain their self-sufficiency. It can support people seeking to build their human capital through higher education. For those emphasizing continuing education, there is a niche for additional education to build capacity among professionals engaged in welfare reform. For those focused on undergraduate and graduate education, they can serve people moving off welfare. Faculty can also incorporate concepts related to welfare reform into the academic studies and internships of degree-seeking students.
The University can provide forums where a wide range of opinions, beliefs and data can be explored, thus informing the public. Its faculty and students can disseminate research-based information via printed and electronic media, and provide on-site and distance education to assist the public in responding knowledgeably to welfare reform.
Though faculty and students tend to be focused on disciplines, compelling public issues like welfare reform requires an integration of knowledge — an interdisciplinary approach. By engaging faculty and students from multiple disciplines, the University can help decision-makers in business, agencies and organizations, as well as citizens, understand the need for a holistic approach to the socio-economic dilemmas posed by welfare reform. For some of us, this work has been occurring for several years. For others, the time is now to engage in the important public work that arises out of welfare reform. At stake is the well-being of Minnesota and its people.
Dr. Bonnie Braun is the associate dean for outreach in the College of Human Ecology and an associate professor in family social science