When Congress enacted “welfare reform” in 1996, decades of progress in assisting low-income mothers obtain a college education in order to escape poverty was nearly eradicated. The federal welfare reform law strongly discouraged states from incorporating postsecondary education into their welfare reform programs and focused instead on “work-first” policies. As a direct result, hundreds of thousands of low-income mothers across the country were forced to drop out of college and find jobs in order to comply with strict “work-first” welfare rules. Despite the pressure imposed by the federal law, the State of Maine persevered in its effort to make college a reality for low-income mothers. Advocates in Maine were adamant that welfare reform policies focus on raising families out of poverty and endeavor to change the position of women in the labor market in order to relieve poverty for low-income single mothers. These farsighted views, embodied in the Maine Parents as Scholars program, have paid off for welfare recipients and for the state, with dividends. As the welfare reform law expires, Congress has the opportunity to reverse course and support states in providing access to postsecondary education for welfare recipients. In this paper, we will reveal how “work-first” ideology pushed the merits of postsecondary education for low-income women to the background despite the well-known, intimate relationship between higher education and women's earnings, employment, and well-being. We will highlight the innovative approach taken in Maine to overcome the pressures of the federal welfare reform law and report on positive outcomes for Maine welfare recipients who were able to access higher education despite federal restrictions. Finally, we will explore the current Congressional proposals for renewing the welfare reform law in a manner more conducive to allowing low-income mothers access to education.

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