A year ago Meredith Inkel faced a difficult decision: Go on working at a low-wage job so she would qualify for welfare or go back to school and be cut off from the state’s cash-assistance program.
The single mother of six children decided to go back to school so she could eventually get a better paying job.
“I had to get us out of this hole we were in,” the 38-year old mother living in Middletown said. “If I didn’t get the training and education then I would never get out of this situation or a decent job.”
But that decision to go back to school left her with no money, and she wound up living in a homeless shelter.
A coalition of top Democratic legislators says Inkel’s story is too common. They are pushing once again for changes in the welfare system to expand education opportunities for recipients.
“What are we trying to do to help people get an education?” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, asked a roomful of welfare advocates at the State Capitol earlier this month.
During the administration of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the state Department of Social Services had opposed the changes, saying they could jeopardize federal funding. The group of lawmakers and advocates had hoped for a different response from the new DSS leadership, but have been disappointed.
“We are supportive of the program and this concept but it could create problems,” said DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby.
Bremby and other DSS officials responsible for administering the cash-assistance program that serves 20,000 people a year say it would put the state at risk for losing federal money.
Federal law requires a half of the adults receiving cash welfare to engage in work-related activities at least 30 hours per week, with just 10 hours of that time being used for education, according to legislative researchers.
DSS was unable to say how much federal money would be at risk if Walker’s proposals to expand education opportunities are adopted.
Walker said she believes the state could negotiate a change with the federal government to allow more recipients to go to school. In the meantime, however, the budget bill passed earlier this week in the Senate and being discussed in the House of Representatives Thursday includes a pilot program covering 100 people.
Another bill awaits final action in the Senate that also would allow all benefit recipients without high school diplomas to work only 10 hours a week so they can spend the remainder of their time getting a General Education Degree.
The coalition of lawmakers pushing for the change includes Walker, her co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Toni Harp, the head of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, and several others.
“We have to do a cost benefit analysis of what the gains are for getting them secure and in a successful job,” said Walker. “We have the most stringent welfare plan in the country.”
Advocates estimate that a high percentage of those receiving cash benefits under the Temporary Family Assistance program have little education. DSS could not say how many of the participants have a high school diploma or are enrolled in education programs.
A report issued in December said one quarter of the TFA recipients in a job placement program had no high school diploma and 4 percent had low math and reading skills.
“With unemployment reaching over 9 percent in the state and limited job availability, it is an opportune time to build Connecticut’s education workforce,” Teresa Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission of the Status of Women told the Human Services committee earlier this month.
The initiative to allow welfare recipients without a high school degree to spend more time on education has overwhelming support, gaining almost unanimous approval in the state House of Representatives.
“At some point you have to stop banging your head against the wall and then wondering why you aren’t getting any wiser,” said Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, a proponent of the initiatives and a former welfare recipient herself from Hartford. “Education is the way out of poverty.”
Inkel agrees. She said since getting her degree from Middlesex Community College she has been able to make “much more money” and is close to being able to move out of the homeless shelter.
“I love my job. But now that I’ve had a taste of going back to school I am hoping to go back and get a bachelor’s degree,” she said from the shelter while folding laundry with the help of her two-year old son Marcel. That laundry includes her new uniform she wears to her job at a nursing home. “There were all these barriers for me to overcome to get here, but I am glad I did it.”