Students demand real welfare reform

After being told they couldn’t chant on the grounds of the Congress building, hundreds of students from around the country gathered near the Capitol to advance their policy agenda for 2002.

The students were led by a giant banner proclaiming “Education makes cents! Break the cycle of poverty!” The rally marked the 33rd Annual National Student Lobby Day sponsored by the United States Student Association (USSA), the nation’s oldest and largest student organization. “Today is our day to make our voices heard, to send a powerful message to Congress that education is a right, not a privilege,” said Julie Beatty, president of USSA.

This year, not only did students make the call for increased federal student aid and access to education, but also called on Congress to focus on eliminating poverty when welfare reauthorization comes up this Fall.

Students around the country are throwing their support behind a reauthorization bill (HR-3113), introduced by Rep. Patsy T. Mink (D-Hi). Mink and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) were honored as “friends of the students” the night before the lobby day at USSA’s annual award banquet.

Wellstone spoke at the rally, saying that as long as Congress gives big tax cuts to the rich, there will be little left for social needs. “If you want to reduce poverty, focus on good education, good health care, good jobs. That’s what we stand for. That’s what we fight for! That’s what this battle is about!,” said Wellstone. Wellstone is expected to introduce a Senate companion bill to the Mink Bill.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a series of welfare “reforms” that did nothing to eliminate poverty, pushing women on welfare out of their colleges and vocational training centers into dead-end jobs and unemployment. According to Jo’ie Taylor, vice-president of USSA, over 12,000 students were forced to the leave the City Universities of New York because of “welfare reform.” Also in 1996,”enrollment of welfare recipients at Milwaukee-area Technical College, the biggest technical college in the country dropped 85 percent leaving only 250 students on assistance enrolled,” Taylor said.

In fact, students see welfare reauthorization as an education issue. Jeff Dodge, president of the Student Association of the University of California at San Diego, told the World, “We are here to look out for all students. Welfare is an issue of education. Our mission is to break down boundries to education.”

Following the rally, students went up to the Hill to lobby their Congressional representatives and Senators. In addition to support for HR-3113, students are calling for a $500 increase in maximum for the Pell grant, a $150 Million increase to Federal Work-Study funding and a $72.5 million increase to the Perkins loan program among other investments to education.

Student activism and lobbying is needed now more than ever. Beatty said that “since Sept. 11, we have seen a skyrocketing increase in the amount of anti-student, anti-immigrant and anti-democratic legislation in Congress that has created roadblocks on the path to educational access for all people.” But if National Student Lobby Day is any indicator, the student movement is on a roll and ready for the challenges ahead.