As a graduate of the Parents as Scholars program, I have been following with concern the recent discussions and proposals regarding financial assistance and access to health care for those in need. My concern stems from my personal experience.

I was raised on welfare. There is nothing glamorous to report about an early life lived in poverty. When I was a child, we lived at times for days without heat in the winter and our electricity was shut off more times than I care to remember.  We never had enough money for even basic needs, let alone for things like school field trips or Christmas presents.  

One thing that I was certain of at a fairly young age was that education could provide a way out of poverty for me. However, I became pregnant in high school and gave birth to a daughter two months after turning 16, while I was still a sophomore, and needed to rely on welfare myself. 

Although I did not graduate from high school, I did obtain my GED at age 18. I applied to USM shortly thereafter and was accepted for the spring semester of 1996. 

At the time, USM had a handful of dorms in Portland that were available for student parents and a quality child-care center on the Portland campus that my daughter could attend.  It was almost too good to be true.

I was in college only a short time before I started hearing about welfare reform and its emphasis on quickly getting low-income parents off of welfare and into work. I was terrified that I would have to drop out of school.

I had no marketable job skills and my education, as yet incomplete, was insufficient to obtain a job that would actually support my daughter and me. Thankfully, I heard about something called the Parents as Scholars program. 

The PaS program allows parents who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to obtain a two- or four-year college degree by counting time spent in college classes as work for purposes of meeting the TANF work requirement.

Graduates of PaS, mostly single mothers with children, have lifted their families out of poverty by securing better-paying and more secure employment with benefits. In fact, research shows the increase in pay for PaS graduates to be nearly double in hourly earnings.

I received my bachelor’s degree in 2001 — my daughter, by then age 8, walked across the stage with me at graduation. I started working full time two days after graduating, and I left welfare behind forever. I later decided to go back to school to obtain my law degree and I now practice law at a local firm with offices in Bangor and Portland.

I am so grateful that Maine, during Angus King’s administration, created the PaS program, especially at a time when stereotypes about single mothers on welfare were particularly pervasive. Because of the PaS program, I was able to attain long-term self-sufficiency and provide a better future for my daughter, who benefited from seeing firsthand the value of education and is now a college student herself. 

This avenue off of welfare and out of poverty is becoming increasingly more difficult for Maine to make available to low-income parents because of federal restrictions on state flexibility and changes in welfare laws that do not allow states to count parents enrolled in PaS for more than 12 months for purposes of meeting the requirements under our federal block grant. Federal law no longer even allows states to count the help it gives parents over age 19 to get a GED. 

If our goal is to keep people off of welfare, then our efforts to increase the likelihood that low-income parents will find stable and sufficient employment must be supported.

I have had the honor of working in the past with Sen. Olympia Snowe to make sure that these critical opportunities to access post-secondary education were protected.

I am now proud to support the candidacy of Angus King for U.S. Senate. I am confident that Angus will support low-income women (and men) who are working hard to support their families by obtaining an education and finding a permanent route off of welfare and out of poverty.

 

This avenue off of welfare and out of poverty is becoming increasingly more difficult for Maine to make available to low-income parents. If our goal is to keep people off of welfare, then our efforts to increase the likelihood that low-income parents will find stable and sufficient employment must be supported.

Heidi J. Hart of South Portland is a lawyer with Richardson, Whitman, Large  & Badger.