Welfare to Work Programs & Student Loans Contribute to Life Long Poverty


Like many women in the United States I made the decision to get married way too young and had children way too early. These two dumb decisions at the age of 19 became the pre-curser to the two biggest mistakes of my young life. These would be asking Treeton for help and getting student loans. My husband was long gone, I had a baby under 12 months old and I was pregnant with my second. It took me hours to get up the nerve that day to call DHHS in 1994, but I did and the lady on the other end seemed to be sincere and wanted to help me.
That week I went into the DHHS office for the interview and I was approved for AFDC now TANF, Food Stamps, and Health benefits. I was somewhat relieved and good get some breathing room to figure out what to do next. But for the next year I would struggle while still working at Burger King and paying for my daycare for one child. I would receive a supplement from DHHS in addition to my pay. There was never enough money, ever. I would struggle to get diapers, toilet paper and I would usually do all our laundry by hand in the tub. I was evicted many times when I would get behind in rent. I would always try to find rents I could afford in run down parts of town and always too small, studio apartments. I stayed to myself I was so embarrassed of how I was living. I had my second child in the spring of 94 and shortly went back to work. Those first two weeks back to work were very hard, I was tired, stressed, still recuperating from birth. The time came to pay the daycare bill for two children. I walked away with $13 after two weeks of work. I literally just worked for nothing. I made my poor babies sit there all day waiting for me to come get them only to take home $13. I sobbed for hours, feeling hopeless. I called my caseworker and told her the problem and that I was sorry, I wanted to work but couldn’t afford to. I asked her if they could help with daycare.

She said that there was a new program starting and maybe it would help. This is what is called the ASPIRE program in my state of Maine and may be called by a different name in your state. The rules stated I either had to work or go to school or be sanctioned. Sanctioning happens when DHHS takes the adult portion of the payments away from the family. (1) For example, a family of 3 receiving $485 per month would be reduced to $262 (the maximum grant for a family of 2 without an adult on the grant). I believed staying at Burger King wasn’t the best choice at the time so I jumped at the opportunity to attend college.

TANF recipients are required to participate in ASPIRE/PAS. I raised a few questions to the ASPIRE worker and I was told to sign the “family contract” even if I didn’t agree to all of it, as it could be changed later . If I didn’t sign it I would not be able to be in the ASPIRE program and would be sanctioned. I was desperate as were the other mothers at the mandatory orientation meeting. There were not any men at the orientation meeting that day with the exception of some of the workers. Our contract with DHHS was based on fear amp; intimidation.

I was told that my career choice did not count. I chose communications and I wanted to be a newscaster. Other participants who wanted to attend Beauty College were also told to pick something else. The government controlled my income, what I ate, what type of medical care I would receive and now what I would do for a career. I chose finally chose Legal Administrative Assisting, a glorified secretary. I also was required to sign up for financial aid and produce DHHS with paperwork and the amounts of the grants I would receive to pay for tuition.

The ASPIRE program has requirements of how many hours you should be attending/participating or a sanction will be put in place. What should have been a two year program turned into a lifetime problem.

The program was designed to get people off welfare and be self sustaining. Some program attributes are that daycare is paid for as well as books, car repairs, uniforms, and even mileage to drive to and from school or training. Participants remain on TANF and Foodstamps. I was receiving $418 a month in TANF and my rent was $385, you can do the math. There was a long waiting list for rent assistance, so I was out of luck there as well as many others with limited income looking for help.

The ASPIRE/PAS programs offer many incentives but one. How do we survive day to day when there is not enough money to pay for bills, rent, toilet paper, laundry, diapers and other living expenses?

TANF recipients “must” participate or be sanctioned. TANF does not increase the participant’s income while the person is attending mandatory training. The time requirements must be met to finish training/school as well. (2)Many people, for many reasons, can’t participate the number of hours required or cannot do what is being asked. ASPIRE may allow you to do something different or allow you to participate fewer hours, or even not at all, if you have “good cause.” My good cause was denied, even though I was not able to afford to live on the amount of TANF I was receiving and still participate.

Student loans then entered my life. I saw the student loan pamphlets in school and they were also in the financial aid packets I had received. I knew I could never receive a conventional loan so I didn’t pay any attention to them. I was told by a group of classmates at school that I couldn’t be turned down for student loans. I was on welfare, food stamps, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t really own anything but the clothes on my back and was a single divorced mom with two children. How was I qualified for these loans? The answer: I was in college and I had a pulse.

I filled out a simple loan application and I was approved. I was relieved that me and my children would now be able to survive while still meeting the requirements of the ASPIRE/PAS program.

Unfortunately many students run into road blocks. During my last year of school my junker car was destroyed in an accident and my ASPIRE time limit had almost been reached and they would no longer pay for a way for me to get to school and daycare. I was burned out, tired of the system and government programs, sick of being afraid to make the wrong move. I left college and vowed to go back. I became homeless severall times after that, living in hotels, homeless shelters, and even in a tent.By the time I could go back to college my student loans had defaulted and I was no longer eligible for any student aid to finish to get a degree that would have increased my earning potential.

I received 5 small government student loans ($600 to $1300) that have ballooned to almost $28,000 in debt today. This amount may seem low compared to other students who owe student loan debt. Unfortunately my experience is a very real problem in the United States. People who have used these government programs for assistance have lost the american dream of owning a home, and will have their wages garnished and tax returns taken away for the rest of their lives, creating constant poverty. Hundreds of stories like mine can be found at www.studentloanjustice.org. Each story is unique but has the same outcome, a lifetime of debt.