The Price of a Future

Bryan Keogh

For Crystal Callaghan, leaving her 2-year-old daughter in child care before she goes to class in the morning stirs up strong yet mixed emotions.
“I used to cry every day when I left day care,” Callaghan said. “I feel like there is so much I’m missing out on.”
But at the same time, the 21-year-old mother knows that without child care — and the state assistance helping her pay for it — she would miss out on something much greater: a suitable future for herself and her daughter, Hope.
Callaghan is one of six mothers at the University whose educations are being threatened by the state Department of Human Services.
In response, three of the mothers have filed suit against the state department. The lawsuit stems from a welfare-to-work General College program Callaghan participated in called the Single Parent Minnesota Family Investment Program.
In August, the human services department concluded the program violated Minnesota welfare guidelines. The department asked students to drop out of the program or face cuts of up to 30 percent in their welfare checks and lose child care benefits. The announcement scared away about half the program’s original participants, leaving only six, including Callaghan.
Although Callaghan goes unnamed in the suit, her immediate future at the University is riding on its outcome. If the plaintiffs lose their case, Callaghan will no longer be able to afford child care, forcing her to drop out of school or work 30 hours a week.
Since 1996 welfare reform, state laws have discouraged welfare recipients from going to school unless the education they receive results in significantly higher wages and better employment opportunities.
Hoping to fix what they considered a failing system, the 1996 Republican-dominated Congress enacted legislation to drastically reduce welfare rolls in five years by putting a 60-month, lifetime eligibility limit on welfare payments.
The federal government told states to place 80 percent of their current welfare recipients in sustainable jobs within five years or have their funds cut.
Minnesota wasted little time. Legislators approved the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which led to drastically reduced welfare rolls in the first three years.

Looking to the future
Callaghan moved to St. Paul from International Falls, Minn., in September 1998 hoping to attain an education good enough to propel her beyond the low-income bracket in which her parents had been stuck.
While exploring ways to take classes as well as pay for Hope’s day care, Callaghan came across the University’s Single Parent Minnesota Family Investment Program. She and 12 others braved a severe December snowstorm to attend the program’s first meeting and sign up.
But Callaghan, who was already receiving a $350 state-enforced monthly check from Hope’s father, said she was wary of the additional monthly welfare stipend of $460.
“The only downfall to the whole program was being on welfare,” Callaghan said.
Despite the stigma, she became a part of the pilot project, which quickly turned into a makeshift family and support group for single mothers.
Callaghan said the group has helped her through many tough times. She came to the University in 1998 without knowing a single person. The program quickly made her feel welcome within the University’s faceless bureaucracy, she said.
“It was nice being able to communicate with people who are going through the same thing,” Callaghan said. “A lot of us wouldn’t have lasted as long if we didn’t have each other.”
When she first moved to St. Paul, she intended to go to a smaller arts college. But after becoming involved in the University program, she decided she would rather work to prevent teenage pregnancy.
“I want to be a public servant,” Callaghan said. “I see myself as wanting to help people, volunteering my time and helping kids.”
The University’s Student Parent Help Center created the single-parent program near the end of 1998. Basically, the program involves 21 months of introductory college courses and job-readiness training.
After completion, students would receive unionized civil service jobs at the University that pay $10 per hour. While working, they continue taking classes using a Regent’s Scholarship, which allows University employees to take classes for free.
Diane Wartchow, director of the Student Parent Help Center, said the program was designed to fall in line with current welfare laws. The state officials who cut off funding simply misunderstood the program’s intent, she said.
“If we help them get an education, we will increase their standard of living — it’s so simple,” Wartchow said. “Welfare has to include some option for education.”
The state doesn’t dispute that. Rather, the disagreement is in the duration of the education. State law limits the time welfare recipients can spend in education or training to 12 months, or 24 months for special circumstances. State administrators cited this time limit when they cut off the program.
“We have understood the program as a baccalaureate program, which is longer than 24 months,” said Charles Johnson, co-director of the state’s welfare program.
But understanding is mistaken, said Holly Ingersoll, the single-parent program’s director.
“We had a hard time articulating to them that this is not a four-year program.” It’s a two-year program incorporating two more years of education after the participants get their civil service jobs, Ingersoll said.
A lawsuit maze
The story of the lawsuit winds through several state jurisdictions and court dockets.
In September, the Daily reported three students filed suit against the state human services department after administrators ordered all Hennepin County participants out of the University program.
Although the department took no action against Callaghan and other students in Ramsey County, the lawsuit’s outcome will directly affect their ability to remain in the program. Johnson said the department did not think there was reason to make the same order to other students until the lawsuit was resolved.
Two weeks later, all parties agreed to let a state mediator decide the case out of court and allow the plaintiffs to continue the program without losing state assistance. The mediator concluded in November that two of the students deserved to keep their assistance while enrolled in the University’s program.
However, the mediator’s supervisor overruled the decision, stating that no one could enroll in the program and receive a full grant.
But a third ruling issued last Monday will protect the students’ benefits until the case is concluded. A Ramsey County judge issued a temporary injunction to keep the state department of human services from sanctioning the students.
Judge M. Michael Monahan wrote that there is a reasonable likelihood the students will prevail in the final ruling. Although the ruling is not final, it allows the students to continue receiving child care and monthly stipends from the state until the case is resolved.
With University employment, Callaghan could afford to finish her degree in two more years. Although the four-year degree might be a loftier goal for the University’s program, only two years are required before participants can actually acquire the civil service jobs, removing them from public assistance as their salaries rise above welfare limits.
One success story
As Wartchow stresses her disapproval of Minnesota’s current welfare program, she offers praise for other states like Maine. Legislators there have developed a program that helps impoverished citizens go to college under a program called Parents as Scholars.
The student-aid program pays a generous share of the participants’ bill, offering cash for child care, car repairs and clothing, among other expenses. Although participants pay for tuition with financial aid — except for exceptional cases — Maine’s Department of Human Services helps with books and other expenses.
“The intent is to help families go to work. (Education) is just another route to employment,” said program director Rose Masure. “These are families that want education first.”
To be eligible, participants must not have the skills to earn more than 84 percent of Maine’s median wage — $34,723 for a family of three.
Masure said the program works well thanks to the stress it puts on personal responsibility. Students will lose their place in the program if their GPA falls below 2.0, but students have up to six years to complete a four-year program.
Johnson said his department has not looked at a program like Maine’s as a possible model for Minnesota. Welfare rolls in Minnesota have decreased enormously since 1994, he said.
He said the decline is an indication that current programs work. The drop also means Minnesota has much more money to spend on its welfare services.
Since 1996 welfare reforms, federal funds are released to states in block grants preset to relatively high 1994 levels.
Federal agencies intended the grants to allow states the freedom to reinvest their extra funds in new programs. An additional benefit is that the decrease in caseloads has helped Minnesota’s welfare reserve fund surge to a projected $164 million, said Jason Walsh, a monitor for a statewide anti-poverty group called the Affirmative Options Coalition.
Ingersoll said the reserve fund ought to be used for education, which she said many Minnesota officials are finally learning.
“I think people are starting to realize that the one-size-fits-all approach to welfare reform does not fit everybody,” she said.
Callaghan doesn’t fit the mold. She said she wants to offer Hope a better life than she had growing up. A good education is the key, she said.
“I think it’s so sad that some of us are unable to go to school,” she said. “If I wasn’t going to school now, I probably wouldn’t get much of a job later on.”

Bryan Keogh welcomes comments at [email protected]