Poor Students, Fast Learners


Roxy (Roxanna Henry) and Ginger (Mayzabeth Lopez) have more in common than nicknames that make them sound like cast members in Chicago. Both are young women of color in their twenties, with composed demeanors and glasses. Both have been studying at Hunter College. Both are, or have been, on welfare. And both work for the Welfare Rights Initiative, a nearly unique player in the acrimonious debate over welfare reform.

WRI encompasses a special course at Hunter called Community Leadership and a remarkably effective education and advocacy operation staffed by current and former welfare recipients who are also college students and very often single moms. Their mission is self-determination and self-reliance through higher education.

A 27-year-old mother of an eight-year-old son, Lopez has just graduated from Hunter with a B.A. and plans to go on to law school. “As a child growing up in poverty, the only thing I could think of was getting out by going to school. Then to be told by a caseworker that I had to drop out and work was stressful and heartbreaking.” When Clinton’s welfare reform was passed in 1996, workfare requirements went up and exemptions for education ended in most states. In 1995, the CUNY system alone had almost 27,000 students on welfare; this year, there are about 5,000.

Coincidentally, 1995 was the year Community Leadership, funded by a grant from the Child Welfare Fund, enrolled its first students. Maureen Lane, the current director of WRI and a formerly homeless welfare recipient herself, was among them.

Lane, whose girls call her Mo, cites a study revealing that 88 percent of women on welfare who manage to earn a B.A. end up self-supporting, with a living-wage job. “Access to education, making people able to get a degree that connects them to a job that has benefits, is, like, enlightened social policy,” she says in mock wonderment.

More often, New York City’s poorest students are finding it impossible to juggle the competing claims on their time from work, school, workfare, and child care. In order to retain a Pell Grant for federal student aid, a student must be enrolled at least 12 hours a semester and remain in good standing by showing up and doing the homework. But needing the medical and housing benefits that come with public assistance, and unable to cope with the red tape required to stay in school, students are dropping out in droves to complete their required 35 hours a week of the Work Experience Program (WEP). They’re mostly assigned to dead-end tasks like mopping the subway or picking up trash in parks. “I’m not going to do WEP—unh-unh,” as one mother who wanted to stay in school put it.

Back in 2000, the women of WRI partnered with local and state legislators, including Republican state senator Ray Meier, to draft a law that should be helping more than it is. The measure allows New York welfare recipients enrolled in approved two-year and four-year colleges and other training programs to fulfill their workfare requirements through work study and internships.

As the stack of sample letters and forms Henry and Lopez pass out at monthly trainings shows, earning that right in writing is only the beginning. Uninformed caseworkers typically call students in for meetings, accuse them of violating the rules, and attempt to assign them to WEP. Often students must file for “fair hearings” before a judge in order to win their right to stay enrolled. The meetings themselves can take up most of a day, playing havoc with class schedules, not to mention burdening students with paperwork that can fill several binders.

Roxanna Henry, who’s in her fourth year of school and is on public assistance as her mother’s dependent, says, “I recently was able to speak with the deputy commissioner of HRA [Human Resources Administration],” which runs welfare in New York City. “He asked me what the problem was with the implementation of the law. It just is a matter of being able to retrain the workers. A lot of students are going to school or want to go to school and told they can’t.” Through the monthly “Know Your Rights” trainings at Hunter, and by accompanying people to their fair hearings and acting as advocates, WRI has helped nearly 2,000 public-assistance recipients stay in school. The program has not lost a single case at a fair hearing.

Now, WRI is turning its attention to a new generation. Eighteen- to 21-year-olds, still on their parents’ welfare budgets as dependents, are also being told they need to do WEP rather than enroll in college. WRI is starting to visit high schools to give these young people the same message that all Americans would ideally hear: Higher education is available to you, and it’s your best chance at a better future.