Maine Welfare Mom Defies Stereotypes
By Mary Guiden, Staff Writer
Heidi Hart grew up in a family that got food stamps and government-supplied commodities like powdered milk, peanut butter and large blocks of cheese. Then she became a mom at age 16. Nine years later, Hart has a college degree and is happily raising a 9-year-old daughter . She works at a child and substance abuse prevention program in Maine and has plans to go to law school or get a master's degree. How did she do it? Hart had something that welfare moms in many other states don't have.
"At one point I really felt like suicide was an option. Not that that's ever an option but I don't know that I would have been able to make it without having a future to look forward to. It's a scary place to be in, when you don't see a way out, when you don't see a better life, you don't see the point of working just to survive," Hart said.
Nine years later, Hart has a college degree and is happily raising a 9-year-old daughter Kelsey. She works at a child and substance abuse prevention program in Maine and has plans either to go to law school or get a master's degree.
How did she do it? Hart had something that welfare moms in many other states don't have. She enrolled in Maine's Parents as Scholars program, which allows welfare or TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) recipients to get a two- or four-year post-secondary degree. Parents as Scholars is paid for with state dollars and covers child care expenses, transportation, car repairs, books and supplies, and occupational expenses like tools and licenses. People participating in the program get health care through the state's Medicaid program.
Wyoming is the only other state in the nation using state-only money to pay for higher education as part of welfare reform. Many states allow some education programs as part of the welfare-to-work package, but officials seldom include enough college to earn a degree.
Parents as Scholars' benefits package sounds generous, but the plan also has strict requirements. Students must complete the college program within the set amount of time, maintain a certain grade point average, work 15 hours a week after the first two years (in addition to school and study time) and attend all scheduled classes.
It's a schedule that's not for everyone, said Judy Williams, director of Maine's Family Independence Bureau , the department that oversees welfare programs.
"Many people have had horrible experiences in high school and can't face going back to school," she said.
But those who do enroll in the program are even more successful than the average Maine college student. A full 90 percent actually complete the Parents as Scholars program, compared with 27 percent of full-time freshmen in Maine who complete a college program the first time through, Williams said.
"Heidi is a typical participant. She has the motivation (to succeed), and she has developed self-confidence. Her background is also similar (to other participants)(meaning she's experienced) abuse and was a teen parent," Williams said.
Hart's definition of welfare recipients goes beyond the usual stereotypes. People on welfare "are resourceful, we're fighters, we're survivors, we're highly motivated to better our lives. We just need those necessary supports to do so," she said.
Where would she be if the program didn't exist? Hart sighed when asked the question.
"I could be working in a miserable job where I would be scraping by to make ends meet if I could even do that. I could be a lot more desperate to be in a relationship that probably wouldn't be healthy just to have a double income," she said.
Hart chose not to marry the father of her child, a decision she said she's happy with and one that's important in light of the current push by federal and state policymakers to encourage marriage for poor families.
"We were too young. I was 16, and he was 18 when we became parents. Also I didn't want to get married just because I was pregnant. I thought that's probably not a good way to start a marriage and felt that it was more important that we were sure that we were in love, that we were committed to be together," she said.
Now, Hart and Kelsey's father remain friends and enjoy what she said is a healthier relationship than a lot of married couples. "We are both focused on the best interests of our daughter which is a lot more than can be said about a lot of parents that are separated," she said.
Parents as Scholars graduates not only end up with a degree, but they also serve as role models for their own kids. Hart said daughter Kelsey knows she's going to attend college.
"She knows (foregoing) college isn't an option, that she's going no matter what. I talk about the importance of learning forever, for the rest of your life, that everyday there's a chance to learn something new. We value education a lot more in our family than others," Hart said.
Hart said her story is one that is difficult to share but also important enough to tell. When she spoke to a group of statehouse reporters recently in Washington, D.C., her daughter Kelsey sat riveted in the front row and listened to every emotional word. After the talk, her daughter handed her a report card: A was what she wrote next to Hart's name.
"Things that have happened in my life are things that people are usually embarrassed or ashamed about, and I certainly was for a time in my childhood. Certainly being poor was something to be ashamed of, and then to have the silence surrounding abuse and everything related to that. But there are a lot of other people that have much in common with my story and even if they haven't come from a background of abuse, there are enough people to understand being poor and what that feels like.
I think it's important to break down stereotypes because we so very rarely meet the people actually affected by the policy. We hear so much from lawmakers and policymakers about 'these people,' 'those people,' but when it comes right down to it, how often do we hear from the people. Not just the ones that are doing well but the ones that aren't doing well, what do they need, what necessary supports are they not getting," she said.
HEIDI HART'S OWN STORY
Speech delivered at the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors' annual meeting, August 2, 2002
Good afternoon. Before I begin, I would like to say that some of what you will hear is difficult for me to share. However, I believe that it is important to tell my story, as it has much in common with many other women. My name is Heidi Hart and I am a single mother from Maine. I am twenty-five years old and my daughter is nine. I became a mother two months after my sixteenth birthday. To give you some background on how I ended up pregnant at fifteen, I'll tell you about my family and where I come from.
I was the second oldest of five children. My parents were both high school educated with some college, and they were both conservative Christians who did not believe in abortion. My three younger siblings were all unplanned pregnancies, as my mother was using various methods of birth control when each was conceived.
Both of my parents worked opposite shifts to make ends meet. It was never enough, so we also received food stamps and supplemental foods such as powdered milk, peanut butter and large blocks of government cheese.
My father was an abusive manphysically, sexually, and emotionally. He was a functioning alcoholic. He was domineering and controlling to my mother because he believed that wives should be submissive to their husbands. He also believed that women shouldn't work, but since we were so poor, he grudgingly allowed my mother to do so. Our church enforced this ideology and therefore my mother was timid and passive, a woman who knew her place so to speak. Church leaders counseled my mother to save her marriage at all costs, despite their knowledge of the abuse that took place in the family. My father disciplined with corporal punishment to an excessive degree that bordered on abuse. Our household was dysfunctional to say the least, and poverty only exacerbated the situation.
My father finally left our family when he went to prison. I was twelve and my siblings ranged in age from six years old to fourteen. My mother couldn't find a job that would support five children, especially when she had no real job skills and female labor was, and still is, centered in notoriously undervalued and underpaid work. Even when my mother did work, she couldn't afford childcare, so as the oldest girl, I was left in charge of my younger siblings. We were all emotionally damaged from years of my father's abuse, and my mother eventually lost whatever job she had because we were always getting into trouble by ourselves.
So my mother went on welfare and received AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as well as Medicaid and food stamps. Let me give you a brief glimpse of what growing up on welfare was like:
We lived in substandard housing, we often ran out of heat in the winter because my mother didn't have enough money for oil. We went without everything but the most basic survival needs, and we sometimes went without those. We depended on charity for Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas presents. As an adult it may not be difficult to imagine getting by without the luxury of holidays and birthdays, but as a child it was devastating. If you have ever believed that welfare is a desired way of life, let me tell you otherwise.
Needless to say, all of us children were at risk for negative behaviors. A few of my siblings acted out and were in trouble with school and later with the law. Both my brothers and one sister have spent time in the juvenile detention center. We all started smoking cigarettes and experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a very young age. I drank for the first time when I was eleven years old.
My one saving grace in this chaotic environment was school. I was always a good student and I knew from a very young age that education would be my only ticket out of poverty. But I was also a very messed-up kid. I began having sex at age fourteen, despite my abstinence-only upbringing, and I became pregnant a year and a half later. It's darkly ironic that I was six months pregnant before my high school addressed sexuality and birth control.
I missed a lot of school during my pregnancy and suffered from severe depression. My conservative Christian upbringing would not permit me to choose abortion and my mother expressed her opposition to the very thought of it. I harbored romantic notions about motherhood. I so very desperately needed love and stability and very foolishly thought that becoming a parent could provide me with what I was lacking. When the bitter reality of teenage motherhood sank in, I came very close to giving up. I thought of adoption and of quitting school. I even thought of suicide, because I couldn't see a way out. I can only say that something kept me going, something that I attribute to being not only a survivor, but a fighter as well. I have had to fight every step of the way to be where I am today.
I knew that I couldn't live without my daughter. She was my reason for being. For the first time in my life, I had an amazing and vulnerable incentive to try as hard as I could. I felt a responsibility to make her life better than mine. It wasn't her fault that she had been born into poverty and I was determined that she wasn't going to stay there.
I decided that college was the only way that I was going to achieve that goal. I ended up getting my GED and applying to the University of Southern Maine. I was accepted in the Spring of 1996, right in the midst of a public debate about welfare. Everywhere I looked, it seemed as though someone was complaining about the stereotypically lazy welfare mother. The emphasis of welfare reform was on work, but what skills or experience did I have to get a job that would support us? I was afraid that I would have to drop out of school and get a low-wage job. I knew that if that happened, my tiny ray of hope would disappear. I would remain mired in poverty and my chance of a better life would be lost.
Fortunately, I live in a state where the government truly cares about its citizens, even those who are poor. Maine realizes that education is the key to a better life and the Parents as Scholars program is proof. We are only one of two states that allow welfare recipients to pursue post-secondary education as a work activity. If the TANF reauthorization bill passes the way the President would like and as the House has agreed to, meaningful education will be virtually impossible for people on welfare.
Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine has put forth an amendment to the Senate version of the bill, entitled the "Pathways to Self-Sufficiency Act," that would give states the flexibility of allowing up to ten percent of their TANF caseloads to go to a two or four year college. Surely ten percent is not asking too much. I am grateful to my state for its wisdom and compassion. I am proud to live in a place where opportunity is afforded to those who need it most.
Not only did I earn my Bachelor's Degree, but I also benefited from the myriad of opportunities that higher education has to offer. I learned to navigate my way through an often-complex system. I enjoyed a community of support from faculty, staff and fellow students, including other parents. I gained job skills through work-study employment. When I entered college, I was a frightened and bewildered teenage mother. I emerged a confident and articulate young woman with a world of opportunity before me. I can always lose a job, but I will never lose my education.
I credit the State of Maine, the Parents as Scholars program, and the University of Southern Maine for allowing me to make my lifelong dream a reality. I can only hope and pray that others are given the same chance. I now have a wonderful position with full benefits, and I am making well above the minimum wage. Even though we are still struggling, I can pay my own bills and I am upwardly mobile. I currently work as a program coordinator for a substance and child abuse prevention program, and in many ways feel that I am giving back to my state. I am lucky, but there are many who are not, including my own siblings. They have experienced substance abuse, trouble with the law, prostitution and mental illness among other horrors. They are products of the broken welfare system, as I am, but with one crucial difference. I went to college and was able to break free from the cycle of poverty. But I should not be hereall of the statistics say otherwise. My daughter should not be thriving, and we should not be looking forward to a bright future. If I lived anywhere else during welfare reform, I would not be here today to share my wonderful story of success. Thanks to the Parents as Scholars program, I am able to do just that. My mother wasn't given a chance. I thank God every day that I was.
I truly believe that if we make a short-term investment in people, we will reap the benefits. This program is cost-effective. I will pay more in taxes in my lifetime than I ever took out of the system. My daughter is far more likely to have a positive outcome now that her mother is educated and she is no longer living in poverty. Our society will save far more in criminal justice, child protective services, foster care, substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment than we will spend ensuring that the poor have access to education.
Most of those leaving welfare are entering at or near minimum wage jobs with little to no benefits. They have virtually no job security. Although the President is fond of the belief that people gain dignity and self-esteem from menial labor, any temporary self-esteem they might gain from working is lost in the continuing desperation of poverty, of working full-time in a dead-end job and never being able to dig out of the pit of uncertainty. These families are one illness, one layoff, one crisis, and one paycheck away from destitution. They are exploitable labor, especially those in workfare programs like the W2 program in Wisconsin, where corporations are making money off of the most vulnerable and desperate citizens. Too much of the emphasis of welfare reform has been caseload reduction when it should be focused on poverty reduction. The reality is that better jobs equal better lives for parents and children. I believe that education is the only way to provide long-term self-sufficiency. Thank you.