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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-
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
William Kofi Koomson1
3734 W 137th St.
Cleveland Ohio, 44111
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.
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From The Margins To The Center Stage: A Descriptive Account Of An African American
Woman Transitioning From Welfare To College
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
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
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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.
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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).
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.
All proper names in this article related to the participant and location are pseudonyms.
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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.
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
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
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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