The median income for families headed by single women under 30 is $16,000 a year. That's if the mother graduated from college. If she only has a high school diploma, her family's income is likely to be $3,200 a year.
On $16,000 a year, an average-sized family can make it. On $3,200? Welfare for sure. And possibly forever.If lack of education contributes to the feminization of poverty, a college degree can be the cure, according to Douglas North and Cliff Johnson.
North is director of college relations for Goddard College in Vermont. Four years ago, his school remodeled an empty dorm and began using it for low-income single-parent families. He kept track of those parents after they graduated from Goddard. "The bottom line is employability," he says. "Every one of our low-income graduates is now off welfare. Not marginally, but thoroughly off."
Johnson, director of youth employment for the Children's Defense Fund, has written a report called "Vanishing Dreams: The Growing Economic Plight of America's Young Families" in which he describes a steady loss of income among all young families over the past 15 years. Families headed by women and minorities have it worse. Only college graduates, regardless of sex or color, are earning approximately what they did 15 years ago.
Johnson and North came to Utah by invitation of the University of Utah to talk about how a partnership between students, colleges and the state can help make welfare recipients self-sufficient.
At the U.'s Women's Resource Center, director Beverly Purrington explained why the experts were invited at this particular time.
"The national Family Support Act of 1988 is being implemented by states this year. I'm hoping that our state will choose to formalize what we already have going - a good working relationship between the Department of Social Services, the student and the university.
"Utah has been a leader in self-sufficiency," Purrington says. "We've set a standard for the rest of the nation in helping single parents get off welfare."
She adds, "Doug and Cliff met with about 250 educators, welfare advocates and social services administrators while they were here. They urged Utahns to make sure a college education is an option."
Don't deny a person an Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grant because he or she is a college student, they urged. And take advantage of the act's 75 percent federal matching funds to help pay for child care while the parent is in class.
In Utah, "small numbers of parents on Aid to Families with Dependent Children have been graduating for 25 years," Purrington says.
Though the state doesn't pay for books or tuition, with enough determination a single parent can find loans or scholarships to supplement a job and/or an AFDC grant.
Purrington says the University of Utah currently has 2,000 single-parent students; 10 percent are men. "Most of our single-parent students are low income. Most work. Some get child support. The ones who don't get child support or who get just a little usually get AFDC."
The Family Support Act mandates education or training for welfare recipients with children over 3 years old.
Ultimately, allowing AFDC recepients to go to college will save taxpayers money, North said. "Oregon tracked 15,000 welfare recipients - none with a college degree - as they were placed in minimum-wage jobs. One year later half of them were back on assistance. Two years later 75 percent were on assistance. If you want to make a difference in a person's life or a family's life, you have to break the cycle.
"No one is suggesting college is the answer for all welfare recipients," he said. "Studies show that only 10 to 25 percent have the skills and determination to succeed.
"But college is the answer for some."
As director of the Women's Resource Center, Beverly Purrington meets many low-income single parents. They are also single in their purpose, she says. They want only to graduate and build a better life for their children.
"One single parent, I know, who is not receiving welfare, has four children under 9 years old. She works 20 hours a week on the average and maintains a 4.0 grade point. (Some of the U.'s highest-performing students are single parents.)
"The way she does it is by getting up at 4 a.m. to study. She takes classes in the morning, works all afternoon and spends evenings caring for her children. She doesn't get a lot of child support, but enough to get by.
"Another woman has three children, the oldest in first grade. She gets assistance from AFDC. She has no child support. No car. No telephone.
"She walks from her home at Ninth South and Ninth East to take her preschoolers to day care at the YMCA. Then she walks, from Third East and Third South, to the university. Every day. Her grades are high, too. She just won a scholarship."