Welfare reform: House looks at students

Tom Lopez

Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives Education Committee struggled Thursday with the impact that welfare reform would have on higher education. After almost two hours of discussion, legislators concluded the debate has only begun.
“I think the meeting raised more questions than it answered,” said Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, chairman of the committee. “But it was a good beginning to the issue of welfare as it relates to education.”
At the center of the meeting was the proposed welfare reform facing the Legislature. Whether or not reform will have an adverse affect on students receiving welfare benefits, is still hotly contested. The proposal, from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, sets a one-year limit on the amount of time recipients can devote to their education. That year could be extended to two, if the job counselor and the client agree that it would lead to self-sufficiency.
However, Mary Jacquart, the system director for Educational Grant Programs at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, said she is concerned that by concentrating on getting welfare recipients into the workforce quickly, the proposal might be losing sight of the long-term goals. By allowing welfare recipients a limited education, they are limiting their opportunities.
“(Low-level) first jobs do develop job skills and a work ethic, but the issue is what can we do to get these people the types of jobs (so) that they can attain self-sufficiency,” she said.
One problem Jacquart identified is at the federal level: When the number of welfare recipients goes up, the state is penalized financially. She said long-term educational goals might be sacrificed for temporary high success rates.
Despite the penalties, Jacquart said the state should adopt “a ‘human-interest model’, rather than a ‘work-first model,’ partly because of Minnesota’s economy. Any business that comes into Minnesota is going to need a trained and skilled work force.”
Jacquart said all students would be affected by the proposal, but that single mothers would be especially hurt. “You’ve got school and parenting, and now on top of that, you have to work 20 hours a week,” she said.
However, recent economic developments make such elements of the new proposal necessary, said Bonnie Becker, the director of the Self-Sufficiency Program of the Human Services Department. “Some of it has to do with the increasing number of people that need to be serviced,” Becker said. “That number doubled under new federal reform.”
Becker added that the problem is that the state’s budget is limited. “We only have ‘x’ amount of funds,” she said. “We can spread those funds out to service a great number of people, or we can concentrate the funds on a limited number.” Becker also said that the required work can include “training and a limited amount of education,” but that the potential de-emphasis on education is a concern.
Another problem Becker pointed out is the five-year time limit on welfare benefits imposed by the federal government. The goal of the proposal is to get welfare recipients on their feet as soon as possible to make that deadline.
Becker said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd, were in the process of making similar proposals. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to reach an agreement that offers the best package overall,” she said.
Carlson said it was too soon to predict the outcome of the proposal since the debate just began.