Family Scholar House: Helping Single Parents Leave Welfare Behind

When welfare reform, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), became law in 1996, direct funding from the federal government turned into block grants each state spent at its discretion. All states had to follow federal regulations, such as lifetime benefit limits for each welfare recipient. Some states, however, placed heavy emphasis on a concept called “self-sufficiency,” getting welfare recipients into salaried and self-employed positions as quickly as possible. With this emphasis on self-sufficiency, certain types of higher learning became preferred over others.

According to Joron Planter-Moore, a representative with the Virginia Department of Social Services in Richmond, Virginia, education for TANF recipients includes studying in vocational programs for up to 12 months. Vocational programs, such as trade schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions, should prepare the student for employment. Simply put, people on TANF who want to study liberal arts at the University of Virginia would be out of luck.

“Working towards a degree in philosophy would not be considered vocational education,” explains Planter-Moore, “because it is not directly related to employment.”

Nia Gilmore, RN, of Louisville, Kentucky, currently works as a registered nurse at a local hospital. She also earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from the University of Louisville. She heard her mother say a common refrain: Blacks, especially black women, had to work twice as hard to succeed in America. Her mother’s emphasis on high standards extended to getting high grades.

“In Kentucky,” says Gilmore, “an A is a 93. My mother would always say ‘do better.’” Medical tragedies in her family led Gilmore towards nursing. Her mother suffered from chronic illness through much of her childhood, and her nephew has sickle-cell anemia. During her numerous times at the hospital, Gilmore noticed the bedside manners of the nurses.

“The care they gave made a big difference,” she says. “I wanted to do the same when I became older.”

Ruth Aina, a current member of Family Scholar House, looks forward to December 2014, when she’ll receive her BSN. A busy single mom and a devout Christian, Aina says that she has always been drawn to caring for others.

“I’m thinking of specializing in pediatrics, neonatal,” she says. A typical day for Aina includes waking up at 6:30 a.m., preparing breakfast for herself and her child, dropping her child off at school, attending classes at the university, studying a lot, running back home to pick up the kid, cooking dinner, and then a little bit of solitude before sleep.

Lots of prayer is included. “I ask the Lord for strength,” says Aina.

Gilmore received public assistance to support herself and her daughter. She’s aware of the vicious stereotypes.  “Some people think people on welfare are lazy,” she states. “That we have no plans for the future. That most of us are black.”

She took a while to sign up for TANF, having had internalized the stereotypes. Eventually, she realized that she and her child needed the help.

According to Stephanie Rowe, relationship coordinator and director of program support integration at Family Scholar House, breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency is about environment and support.

“Through our comprehensive programming,” she says, “which includes, but is not limited to: academic advising; supportive housing; family support services/case management; children’s programming; childcare; counseling; mentoring; tutoring; life skills building; financial education; family nutrition and wellness programming; peer support; assistance with basic needs; and community referrals, our participants are empowered to break the cycles of poverty, homelessness, and dependency—not only for themselves but also for their children—by earning a college degree, achieving career-track employment, and attaining self-sufficiency.”

Nursing students especially need the supportive environment Family Scholar House offers, according to Rowe. “Further, we assist with childcare, which is important for nursing students who have classes in addition to hours in the hospital for clinical experience. We connect participants with tutors, as necessary, and internship/networking opportunities through our strong network of health care supporters and board members in the field.”

Gilmore joined Family Scholar House as a high school senior. “My guidance counselor informed me about this program,” she says. “It was called ‘Project Women’ back then. Same program, but only 16 women.”

Since its beginning in 1995, Project Women has grown into the current Family Scholar House. The originally all-female student body now includes single fathers.

Gilmore praised the support system at Family Scholar House. “It’s people working for people,” she says.

Welfare remains a heated topic, with activists for and against government entitlements stating their opinions, loudly, on the nightly news. For Nia Gilmore and Ruth Aina, whether the government has a safety net or not isn’t about abstract theory in a book or slogans for taxpayers. It’s about feeding their children and eventually standing on hard ground, so they can contribute to the vital field of nursing.

As Nia Gilmore points out, single moms—in and out of the public-assistance system—should focus on why their nursing education matters. She knows why her degree matters.

“I didn’t want to become a statistic.”

Behlor Santi is a freelance writer based in New York City.