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Educational Reform act of 1996 Backfires on Poor

Educational Reform actThe Federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996 “has all but abolished welfare recipients’ ability to obtain any kind of education that extends past six months worth of training,” an authority on urban education contends. And by diminishing their ability to get a college degree, it has worked to ensure the continued poverty of the poor.

Welfare reform has promoted a “work-first ideology, suggesting that the only way people are going to learn to work and obtain living wage jobs is to go out and start working, no matter what the job is,” says Kathleen Shaw, former Associate Professor of Urban Education at Temple University, Philadelphia. Shaw is now Executive Director of Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization engaged in educational research and evaluation.

“Previously, under AFDC, (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), it was often possible for women to go to college and continue to receive their food stamps and welfare checks as long as they were showing that they were making good progress in their studies. Under AFDC, lots of women were able to earn bachelor’s degrees and become permanently able to support themselves and their families,” Shaw said in an interview published in “The Long Term View” magazine of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.

“Community colleges that had previously created programs to help welfare recipients are shutting them down because of lack of enrollment,” she added.

Although “welfare reform is seen as a huge success,” Shaw said, “we’re not measuring the kinds of jobs that people are getting, whether they pay a living wage. We just look at the fact that the rolls are being reduced. Something like 60 percent of the people who are not on welfare anymore are not working either.”

“The only ethical measure of success for welfare reform is the number of people who moved on to living wage jobs, and by that standard, welfare reform is less than successful,” Shaw pointed out.

The urban education authority said, “If we could assume that community colleges serve as a democratizing force in society, welfare reform has essentially removed that potential with regard to our poorest citizens. There is now an unmovable barrier between our poorest citizens and access to this democratizing institution.”

Shaw goes on to say, “For poor people, the country has firmly embraced a work-first ideology. But of course middle-class people, and even working-class people, are taking a human capital approach for their own kids. They aren’t sending their kids out into the job market when they’re 18 years old. They’re sending them to college.”

“So the people who are making the laws are living a human capital approach, but they’re forcing the poor people whom they’re making the laws for to live a work-first approach,” Shaw noted.

Shaw’s interview appeared in the magazine of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, purposefully dedicated to providing a rigorous legal education to students from minority, low-income and immigrant backgrounds who would otherwise not be able to afford a legal education.


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