How public benefit programs are blocking the path to economic mobility for student parents

OPINION: Inflexible requirements for public benefit programs are making it harder for those who want to improve their economic status while juggling being both a parent and a student.

Freelance and motherhood. Happy young african american woman, self employed mother enjoying remote work from home with cute baby girl infant while sitting together in front of laptop

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Parenthood is one of the hardest roles anyone can take on. Being a mother of three, I know all about the sacrifices parents must make to ensure that their children have everything they need. From child care to food to housing — these needs can be strenuous for any parent, but for parents who have limited access to these necessities, it is even more stressful.  

Programs like cash assistance, food stamps and other public benefits are supposed to be a resource for parents, especially mothers, to provide for their families. However, legislative changes and inflexible requirements over the years have made it more difficult for parents to not only utilize these programs but to navigate beyond them. 

As a young mother working towards a college degree, I understand the value of public benefit programs. Yet, a system that was once designed to offer relief has become a roadblock that forces parents like me to choose between survival and economic mobility. These roadblocks were put in place decades ago. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, both limited access to cash assistance and redefined the definition of “work” to nine core categories limiting work credits to primarily vocation-focused educational training. Temporary assistance programs and state budgets were capped, and 30-hour work weeks were required in order to retain benefits. 

The effects of these changes are still prevalent today, especially for student parents, many of whom rely on these programs while working toward a college degree. There are nearly four million college students who are also parenting with just over two-thirds living near or at the poverty line. In my experience, these inflexible program requirements have directly impacted my college journey and my long-term goal for economic mobility. Earlier this year, I left a job I was required to take that met work requirements because I decided to enroll in school. This meant I had to forfeit my benefits despite trying to work and go to school. After only being in school for a month, I was forced to choose between my benefits, which provided immediate survival, and school, which would lead to a stable and successful future.   

The inflexibility of these programs can have devastating impacts for parents who are trying to make it out of poverty. Public programs like unemployment and temporary cash assistance require recipients to actively search for employment while receiving benefits. Unemployment programs require recipients to take jobs that are offered to them regardless of the schedule, and temporary cash assistance programs require that once hired, you meet certain work hours and schedule requirements. While this may seem standard for many, these requirements show a complete lack of awareness of people who are both parents and students. For most public programs, school hours are not counted towards work requirements. Therefore, student parents either have to search for work, meet work requirements while parenting, balance school and still be parents or forgo benefits or school altogether. Unfortunately, many are forced to elect the latter. 

With school or providing for my family on the line, like many parents, I had to take a step away from college to truly weigh my options. On one hand, I desperately needed benefits like unemployment and cash assistance, but on the other, I knew a college degree was the best way to provide for my family long-term. For most student parents, college is a direct pathway to economic mobility and generational possibilities. Yet, myriad issues elongate or cut off that path altogether. Of the nearly 5 million students parenting across the country, only about one in four earn a degree within six years at four-year institutions. I knew I couldn’t delay my path any longer. I chose to go back to school and continue my education, but not without sacrificing my benefits. When I tried to apply for the same benefits while in school, I was told I needed to be available to meet the same work requirements with no recognition of my time pursuing a degree. 

My experience is one that is shared among millions of student parents. With the convergence of the pandemic, inflation and more, ascending economically is harder than ever for most. For student parents, adding dependents and school makes it seem virtually impossible. My household income has been directly affected by my choice to forgo public benefits to prioritize my education and future. The unfortunate reality is that in my quest for economic mobility, resources that should make it easier, have become significant hurdles. Public benefits programs fail to account for populations like student parents and often create a backward standard that severs our ability to open the door to better opportunities. 

During my time in school, I’ve been able to connect with advocates who are dedicated to creating better opportunities for student parents. Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization that works with my school, Montgomery College, in their FamilyU Cohort and selected me as a fellow in the program to serve as a student-parent voice on campus, is spreading awareness for students like me. In my role, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with leaders at my school and advocate for changes on my campus that will greatly benefit student parents. It is also through this work that I’ve been able to interact with other student parents, many of whom are experiencing similar hurdles. Thankfully, the fellowship is a compensated opportunity, which also helps me connect the dots financially for my family.

From balancing parenting, school and meeting public benefit requirements to finding safe and affordable child care, I’ve learned that our experiences as both parents and college students are extremely connected. About 68% of all student parents live near the poverty line. In early March, President Biden unveiled his proposed budget for educational initiatives for 2024, which includes crucial expenditures that could have a significant impact on student parents such as improved access to affordable, high-quality early child care, a crucial necessity for parenting students. Student parents need resources that meet our immediate needs and allow us to attain our future goals. 

Growing financial needs and limited resources create a storm that leaves many families extremely vulnerable. We are relying on public benefits programs because we need immediate relief, but we also understand that this relief is temporary and cannot create opportunities for us to thrive economically for years to come. In order to reach true mobility, public benefit programs must recognize student parents and create flexibility that accounts for our needs. One of the most important ways to do this is for states to adjust work requirements to include school hours. 

Student parents are highly motivated to create a better life for our families. However, we need support that considers the multidimensional hurdles that we encounter. We need resources to address our immediate needs, and we also need access to higher education, which is essential to our long-term success. Forcing student parents to choose one or the other denies a mass segment of the population a future of possibilities. We deserve that future. Our children deserve that future. 

 Najah Mills is a current student majoring in communication studies at Montgomery College. She is currently a Generation Hope fellow. 

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!