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New national work requirements for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have welfare advocates worried that higher education, which they consider a proven means of moving adults off assistance rolls for good, is about to become much harder to obtain.

The new rules were passed in February as part of the federal Deficit Reduction Act and go into effect Oct. 1. State agencies like New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance are now planning for implementation of such mandates as increasing the percentage of TANF recipients engaged in official “work activities,” and changing the definition of those activities.

“There’s very little room for education in this list” of approved work activities, said Don Friedman, a senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society, who briefed a group of welfare advocates on the changes last week. The community service category had been broad enough that “it became a catchall for what I would consider worthwhile, productive, constructive activities” that counted toward recipients’ required number of hours spent in work activities, Friedman said.

But now that the official list defines community service as projects or programs structured for the “direct benefit of the community under the auspices of public or nonprofit organizations,” advocates see space for TANF-supported education shrinking.

Both Friedman and Maureen Lane, co-director of the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College, point to a 1993 study by Marilyn Gittell, Jill Gross and Jennifer Holdaway as proof that attending college is one of the most beneficial ways a welfare recipient can spend her time. The study documents that recipients who attended post-secondary school tended to become and stay employed.

State Deputy Commissioner for Temporary Assistance Russell Sykes looks at TANF differently. The state embraces a “work first strategy” in which “work is really work and it’s going to be defined that way,” Sykes said. TANF recipients are free to get all the education they want, they just can’t count it unless it’s directly related to work and meets other stipulations, he noted.

“They’re going to have to do what a lot of people have done, which is work while they’re getting an education,” he said. TANF “is not meant to be a college scholarship program.” His office’s primary concerns about the federal regulations include its need to engage about 6,000 to 8,000 more TANF recipients in work activities, and to start doing a lot more record-keeping, he said.

Lane’s Hunter students at the Welfare Rights Initiative — welfare recipients themselves who are learning about welfare policy — are presently developing a different set of regulations they believe will serve families better and will soon make that public, she said. [07/17/06]

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