DMI Blog

Maureen Lane

Income, Education and Our Children’s Future

Students from poor families even with good grades often fail to go to college, or if they do go to college, they fail to complete degrees, says a new report by the Economic Mobility Project.

The report further determines that it is the college educated that are advancing in income. Clearly, there is a substantial disconnect between those able to get into college and those actually applying, registering and finishing.

At Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) we have been working to keep students receiving welfare in college for the last 12 years. Our high school organizing has shown us that students in New York City (NYC) Public High Schools are not aware that when they graduate they have a seat at CUNY (City University of New York). CUNY is important because it is a great university and it is affordable. The students we speak to qualify for PELL and TAP (federal and state tuition grants) which combined cover classes and books needed to get degrees at CUNY. Yet, most students respond “Columbia, Harvard and NYU” when WRI asks what colleges they know.

The report summary from the chapter on Education and Economic Mobility states,

“There is good reason to expect that education will continue having only moderate impact on economic mobility in the United States until more poor children develop school readiness skills during the pre-school years, until K-12 schools are more effective in imparting basic skills, and in helping more poor children complete high school and until more poor students enter and complete college.”

Making the point another way, The New York Times’ “Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility” quotes Ron Haskins, a former Republican official and welfare expert and chapter author saying “A growing difference in education levels between income and racial groups, especially in college degrees, implies that mobility will be lower in the future than it is today.”

Over the last decade, the implications Haskins refers to have been playing out in the lives of low-income, poor and families receiving welfare. Children from these families are our precious resource for our future-building. We don’t want to squander them as we have their parents.

Prior to 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families legislation, education was an approved activity for people receiving welfare. CUNY data on the effectiveness of education as a route out of poverty is astounding. For example, research shows that 88 percent of women on welfare who attain college degrees move permanently off welfare. I know this statistic from the experience of my own life. I was receiving welfare when I came to college and moved from welfare after just two years. I was lucky.

To date, we have lost over 21,000 students receiving public assistance due to present welfare policy. Almost 90 percent of them would be resounding successes of economic mobility by anyone’s measure. The message that poor women and others receiving public assistance "were not college material" was a change in public policy that has had far-reaching affects. As I've written before, time spent going to school should be counted as part of welfare's work requirement. If people receiving welfare are forced to be both full-time students and work almost a full time job they are unlikely to finish their college degree.

WRI students know that welfare regulations as well as education and higher education policies are inter-related and need to be seen as intersecting by policy-makers. If policy is going to reflect our values, it can’t say that college is a good pathway to economic mobility for some poor people but not families receiving welfare. When policy makes that distinction it sets another generation back rather than clearing a way forward.

As noted in the NYT article, policy experts, while agreeing that mobility is flagging, might disagree on policy recommendations. We need to hear those disagreements. As a nation, we need to have those discussions if we are going to make headway. Progressive, conservative, liberal or other we need to open the public arena to this discussion.

In this political climate of change, we want to remember that policies change continually, laws, too. From my experience and holding the political rhetoric I have heard, what is missing presently is a vision that circumscribes 'change' with our values.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 1:00 PM, Feb 26, 2008 in Economy | Education | Welfare
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