Learnfare: In Wisconsin, Welfare Benefits are Tied to School Attendance

April 1990 / Abell Reports / Community Development, Education

Is Learnfare “for” Baltimore and/or Maryland?

It is a fact of life that the cycle of poverty is undoing a large section of the fabric of American life. Many be­lieve the welfare system perpetuates the cycle, and many efforts have been made to break the cycle, with at best mixed and at worst disappointing re­sults. For this reason, the eyes of many elected officials, sociologists, educa­tors and just plain citizens are focused on Wisconsin. It is in this midwestern state that a new program designed to reduce the alarming specter of long­ term welfare dependency by reducing teenage truancy is in operation. It is called Learnfare; it is called, too, at one and the same time, a success and a failure. No one knows how it will prove out, but many are watching. However, any discussion of Learnfare must be viewed in the larger national context of recent welfare reform.

Every state in the nation must by October 1990 implement Title II of the Family Support Act, “Job Opportunities and Basic Skills,” signed into law in October 1988. This Welfare Reform act — popularly known as JOBS –­ mandates certain groups of AFDC recipients to participate in education and job training as the road up and out of dependency and as a condition of receiving their full welfare grant. The groups mandated to participate are those who have been on public assistance for long periods, young mothers (under 25) without a high school diploma whose children are over three (except that mothers under 20 without high school diplomas must participate, regardless of the ages of their children), and fami­lies whose children are within two years of losing their entitlement (16- and 17- year-olds).

It is this latter group to which the Learnfare approach is most relevant. There could be a lot at stake. Political sub-divisions across America, after examining the Wisconsin experience, might decide to emulate it, or to borrow from it.

Should Maryland be one of them?