From Welfare to College Pg 1 of 11 This paper was posted on the WE LEARN website with the permission of the writer, William Kofi Koomson. This is copyrighted material and may not be reproduced without the permission of William Kofi Koomson, Ph.D candidate at the Pennsylvania State University’s Adult Education Program. 216-941- 9061 Presentation: WE LEARN Conference, March 11-12, 2005 Title: From The Margins To The Center Stage: A Descriptive Account Of An African American Woman Transitioning From Welfare To College Author: William Kofi Koomson1 3734 W 137th St. Cleveland Ohio, 44111 216-941-9061 1 William Koomson is a Ph.D candidate at the Pennsylvania State University‟s Adult Education Program. His special interests include, ABE programs, family literacy, and welfare to work programs. From Welfare to College Pg 2 of 11 From The Margins To The Center Stage: A Descriptive Account Of An African American Woman Transitioning From Welfare To College Abstract This qualitative research employs a single participant case study design using family literacy adult basic education program to explore how an African American woman made a transition from welfare support to enroll in community college. Participant observation, telephone, and face-to-face ethnographic interviews were conducted to study the nature of the transitioning. The participant is a single mother of four children, African American in her late 20s. She had lived in the “housing project” for many years; had been in and out of prison; and was on welfare for eight years. A 28-year-old mother of four became an aspiring writer who has earned her General Educational Development (GED) degree with the help from a rural adult basic education program. KEY WORDS: welfare; literacy; employment training; single parent; single participant case study design; ethnography; adult basic education (ABE) program. This ethnographic study sought to analyze the impact of Even Start family literacy education program in the lived-experience of a single parent, an African American, who had successfully transited from welfare to work. I focused on a single-participant case study design. Even though many studies have focused on education and single parents‟ transition from welfare to work, fewer studies have examined the impact of family literacy education programs on welfare to work, using single-participant case study design. The comprehensive approach of family literacy addresses the academic needs of children through the early childhood education; and both academic and work related needs of parents through adult basic and parenting education. Parent and child time (PACT), helps strengthen the relationship between parent and child. A family literacy programs that want to ensure success of From Welfare to College Pg 3 of 11 parents and children provide a holistic family-focused approach, targeting parents and children with intensive, frequent, and long-term education and family support services (NCFL, 2000). Barton and Jenkins‟ (1995) research on literacy skills of welfare recipients concluded that "in the adult population as a whole, the likelihood of being on welfare goes up as literacy levels go down; the two are intertwined" (p. 3). Low literacy skills are prevalent in the welfare population. Three out of four welfare recipients cannot consistently write a letter to explain a billing error, enter information into an automobile maintenance form, or calculate miles per gallon using information given on a mileage record chart (NCFL, 2000). However, literacy acquisition is typically only one element in a package of programs and services needed by welfare recipients (many research have addressed that; for example, Brown and Beeferman, (2002); Barton and Jenkins (1995); and Hamilton, 2002); but not just any literacy or education program succeeds in raising welfare recipients‟ literacy skills or improving their employment or economic prospects. Therefore, assigning welfare leavers to existing adult basic education programs appears to have little measurable effect on raising their literacy proficiencies (Barton, 1995) and long term employability. Purpose of the Study Although descriptive studies provide insight into learners‟ motivation to participate and the types of activities that can assist them, more rigorous research is needed in the field of family literacy to test strategies that can facilitate learner-retention and persistence. Moreover, there is not much research into single parents participation and non- participation in ABE programs as a transitional tool from welfare-to-work. This study examined the role of single parents work and their educational involvements. Specifically, this study explored the relation between a single parent who was on welfare and her participation or non- participation in ABE programs as a link to work. From Welfare to College Pg 4 of 11 Research Question Does participation in adult basic education, a component of family literacy programs, improve single-parents‟ transition from welfare to school/work?” Methodology and Data Collection This study was conducted using a single-participant case study design. The key element of the case study design is that the researcher explores a single entity or phenomenon (“the case”), which is bounded by time and activity, and might be one person, one group, one classroom, one town, or a single nation (Merriam, 1998; Gay & Airasian, 2000; Bouma, 2000; Cresswell, 1994; Yin, 1989). Data collected for this research consisted of observations, telephone and face-to-face interviews, examination of artifacts, and informal conversation, each lasting between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours. Throughout the data collection process, I looked for causal linkages of plausible or rival explanations in an attempt to build an explanation about the case (Yin, 1989; Creswell, 1994). Finally, I tried to investigate the extent to which the selected participant represents the range of potential participants in the setting (Gay & Airasian, 2000). Participant Ms Johnson2 is a single mother of four children, African American in her late 20s. She had lived in the “housing project” for many years; had been in and out of prison; and was on welfare for eight years. She had completed the 11th grade before leaving school. She stated that a library where she was preparing for her GED examination referred her to an Even Start family literacy program near her home in Ohio. Before her contact with the Even Start program, she had numerous besetting circumstances similar to those of “ghetto dwellers” including lack of self-esteem, joblessness, domestic violence, rape, health problems, poor housing, drug addiction, and lack of transportation and child-care. 2 All proper names in this article related to the participant and location are pseudonyms. From Welfare to College Pg 5 of 11 Measures As part of the interviewing process, the participant reported her dependency on welfare; her conditions before and after participating in the Even Start family literacy program; and her management of work, school, and parental responsibilities. I observed, through home visitation, the extent to which the participant supported her children‟s literacy needs, thus, reading, writing, and doing math homework. To ensure reliability and validity in this study, I compared the results from the first interview with the other two interviews we had in June and August 2004; and I triangulated my research findings with other similar researches in the literature. Results The results from this single-participant case study research confirm previous studies dealing with a similar research topic. However, data analysis from this study brings to light a number of social and structural forces like, child-care, minimum wage, lack of employment history, and criminal records, that encumber the progress of welfare leavers; and transition from welfare “culture” to work and/or education. Results from this study are presented in three sections: Ms. Johnson lived in a subsidized housing, paying $50.00 a month rent, she had a reliable car; a cell phone that was disconnected for non-payment of bills; no home phone (couldn‟t keep up with monthly phone bills); she left her children at day care after school, and most of the time her brother took care of them while she works. She described her former felony convictions as a stigma; she couldn‟t find a decent job; she quit the job she had as a caretaker of disabled adults because of misunderstandings between her boss and co-workers. She was not working, has lost her car insurance benefits, and she was looking for work, as at the time of my follow-up interview with her. Her Dependency on Welfare From Welfare to College Pg 6 of 11 Ms. Johnson was a single mother of four beautiful children; she grew up on the borders of urban gangland. Her stepfather was abusive and her mother did not care very much. Problems with her stepfather turned her into the streets looking for the love she longed for. “I ran away from home to get away from him,” she said. Her staying off home and on the streets (ghettos) got her into bad relationships she thought was the best at that time. She confessed, “I got the love I was looking for from my friends.” She became an alcoholic, a smoker, street fighter, and addicted to drugs while skipping school. She dropped from school after completing the eleventh grade and moved in with her boyfriend, where she said she endured an abusive relationship for two years: “I stayed with him because I needed love and attention. I didn‟t know the meaning of love … he was the only person I had, so I took it.” Subsistence with her grandmother didn‟t work out because she failed to follow rules. Ms Johnson‟s early years saw incarceration, foster care and an unplanned pregnancies. She returned home with two young children and two more in quick successions. She moved to another city where she turned to gang and crime. “I was selling drugs, food stamps, anything,” she said. “I wrote fake checks and stole clothes” and she was charged with forgery for producing counterfeit. She didn‟t have a diploma or a job, and the relationship with her boyfriend did not work, leaving her with four young children to care for. She enrolled on welfare for eight years and used-up all her “time limits” allowed by TANF and PRWORA regulations. In welfare terms, she would pass as quintessence of “dependency:” unemployed, single parent, and uneducated. But in prison, out of intense and persistent counseling and faith in a brand new relation with God, Ms. Johnson saw a new day. She said, “I learned I was using a lot of excuses. I had an addiction to money. I had to do a lot of soul-searching.” Her Participation in the Even Start Family Literacy Program From Welfare to College Pg 7 of 11 A year after her criminal conviction, she was enrolled in a community college with hopes of acquiring an associate degree in human and social services. A 28-year-old mother of four became an aspiring writer who has earned her General Educational Development (GED) degree with the help from a rural Even Start program. She enrolled in the Even Start family literacy program to earn a GED and joined Deliverance Christian Church, both of which, she said, welcomed her whole-heartedly. At the family literacy center, she received training leading to career enhancement, job shadowing, decision-making approaches, resume preparation, interviewing skills, and appropriate dress code for work. She said, she received individual learning plans and individual attention from her Even Start teachers, and she learned to do basic math, and how to help her children do their homework. Her children as a result of the Even Start programs had developed love for books. According to her, her children could attend to the sounds of speech, and could make connections between sounds and letters. Compared with other children, she said, her children got a better transitional experience from pre-school to the elementary school. She also received training on Internet job search skills, budgeting, and how to survive on minimum wage. In spite of these, her overall view of the nature of the 1996 federal welfare reforms (PRWORA) with time limits, and mandatory work, produced mixed results. She argued that the policy makers could have raised the minimum wage, extend the time limits individuals were allowed on welfare (TANF), or at least provided a better support for single mothers who were struggling with three or more dependants. However, she was critical on those who abused the welfare system. Significance and Implications for Practitioners The 1996 welfare reform measures grew from the fear that the poor were caught- up in a culture of “entitlement.” What really stood out about Ms. Johnson was her motivation and willingness to recognize the need to get out of welfare entrapment. Even though she had no home telephone, she had lost her job, no car insurance, not even three meals a day (sometimes), she was willing to follow the difficult path to independence. From Welfare to College Pg 8 of 11 Notwithstanding her willingness to get out of the welfare culture, she revealed her inner feelings and what bothered her especially as she had no work and gradually living- on her limited savings. She summarized her experiences as a single parent on-and-off- welfare and her daily commitment not to return to sell nor use drugs in the following poem written as a result of her recent encounter with ex-acquaintances beguiling her to sell drugs: My New Life Or My Old Death? MY SPIRIT is heavy and my eyes are weary. To live and become righteous is what my inner being is gambling daily, but at the same time being seduced by the thing I fear the most. To become or to go back is the question that haunts me: MY OLD DEATH? I CRY out behind the smile that is painted on my face. Then I laugh at the thought of expressing myself freely about my new-found life. Many may say, „You Are Quite Confused.‟ To become or to go back is the question that haunts me: MY NEW LIFE? NOW I know why the ladies sing the blues. The clock is ticking and my heart is trembling. My feet are fighting back and my hands are aching; My eyes are still looking up for a sign or relief, but my being fears alone. As if I was about to fight this battle ON MY OWN. RIGHTEOUS people judge me. They don‟t see me for what I can be. They‟re pushing me down as I struggle to break free. AS I cry on paper with this pen, it‟s only He who knows my ends. Will it be my new life or my old death? Taking a cue from her experience and its implications expressed in the poem above, Even Start and ABE program planners may consider including a long-term follow-up plan as part of their “post-service” activities. By doing this, graduates from the Even Start programs may From Welfare to College Pg 9 of 11 experience a sense of belongingness, and may overcome perceived life challenges that may force them to return to old habits. Brown and Beeferman (2002) summarized the issue of economic insecurity by stating that continual problems of the PRWORA and TANF suggest a need for diverse and more wide- ranging solutions. They argued that the welfare matter couldn‟t be treated on its own because it is part of a larger crisis with reference to the wellbeing of the working poor. Economic insecurity, they said, is not simply the burden of the so-called "welfare poor," or even of struggling working-class families. Often times these individuals lack work ethics and strategies to handle conflicts between intra-work relations. As demonstrated by Ms. Johnson, there is a constant struggle to remain faithful as against going back on the streets. Even Start programs may network with community leaders and employers to provide job related counseling to program participants who are ex-convicts; for instance, how to fill out an application for employment; how to answer interview questions; and how to be forthcoming when the issue of criminal conviction resurrect in the course of the employment process. This is not only single-mothers‟ problem; single fathers may also face similar challenges in their quest for independence. Finally, as a safety net, programs may include more job shadowing and post employment support services. These may ensure that, graduates who acquire employment may be able to stay employed for a longer period. Discussion and Conclusion The study findings suggest that, in the process of transitioning to work, beginning a new lifestyle is more difficult; fraught with many besetting circumstances that could drive most welfare leavers back on the streets, especially single mothers without solid support systems like that obtained by Ms. Johnson. She made the transition from welfare to work and college through consistency and self discipline; strong affiliation with her church, and the stimulus that accrued as she passed her GED exams; and finally the employment counseling and training she received from the Even Start family literacy education program. From Welfare to College Pg 10 of 11 The qualitative analysis from this study demonstrates that the adjustment to a new life out of welfare dependency can be a testing undertaking. This single participant case study research reveals that the difficulties single parents faces vary greatly, depending on individuals‟ past lifestyles, family support systems, spiritual support and social support systems. It seems to be an easy task to move from welfare to work as defined by the PRWORA Act of 1996; but this study has sketch out some of the difficulties, resistance, and the fear of failing to make it. It takes a deep conviction to climb the middle-class social and economic ladder as each step is littered with insurmountable trials and temptations. Whereas welfare reform measures have traditionally focused on income transfer to people who were not earning income, there should be the need, instead, to build an alternative policy framework that will ensure that all Americans have the basic literacy skills they need to succeed economically. This policy would ensure that a literacy skills barrier would not stand between low-income parents and living-wage jobs. This study therefore, suggests a comprehensive approach in dealing with work and education issues of welfare leavers. Thus, the major task of adult education is to help welfare leavers obtain and keep jobs, and to promote continuous education and skills enhancement. References Barton, P. E., and Jenkins, L. (1995). Literacy and Dependency: The Literacy Skills of Welfare Recipients in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, (ED 385 775) Bouma, G. D. (2000). The Research Process. 4th ed. UK: Oxford University Press. Brown, J. L. & Beeferman, L. W. (2002). What Comes After Welfare Reform? How can we ensure economic security for all Americans? Boston Review. Retrieved on August 2, 2004, from http://www.bostonreview.net/BR26.6/brown.html Cresswell, J. W. (1994). Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. From Welfare to College Pg 11 of 11 Gay, L. R. & Airasian, P. (2000). Educational Research: Competencies for analysis and application. 6th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. Hamilton, G. (2002). Moving People from Welfare to Work: Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies. MDRC. July 2002. Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass National Center For Family Literacy, (2000) Welfare Information Network. Retrieved on August 2, 2004, from http://www.financeprojectinfo.org/win/promising/familyindependence.htm NCSALL REPORT (2002). Retrieved on August 2, 2004, from http://gseweb.harvard.edu/~ncsall/research/report_who.htm Pennsylvania Department of Education (2002). Annual Report, 2000-01. Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education. Harrisburg, Pa. William F. Goodling Even Start Family Literacy Programs. Retrieved on August 2, 2004, from: http://www.pathfinder.minot.com/nclb/pg6.html Yin, R. K. (1989). Case study research: Design and methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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