Bill would allow education to fulfill welfare work requirement

Senators gave first-round approval Jan. 31 to a bill that would expand educational opportunities under the Welfare Reform Act.

LB507, introduced by Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms, would allow an applicant who is 21 years old or the head of a household to meet the state’s self-sufficiency requirement by making satisfactory progress in certain educational pursuits.

Harms said current work requirements often keep young people from also pursuing an education because they lack the time to do both.

Under the bill, an applicant would qualify for benefits if he or she maintains satisfactory attendance at a secondary school, a general education development (GED) program or equivalent or participates in education directly related to employment for an average of 20 hours per week.

The bill also would make the school and work requirements for 19-year-olds the same as those for applicants 18 or younger and would classify education directly related to work as a “core” activity for a person under 24 years old who is engaged in 20 hours per week of such education.

Harms said the state’s current regulations make it difficult for young parents who receive welfare benefits to get an education and achieve long-term economic self-sufficiency.

“I’ve always had a very strong belief that education is the surest way out of poverty,” he said.

The bill also stipulates that the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) may place reasonable limits on the number of applicants who can pursue education directly related to employment if work participation rates fall below 55 percent.

Harms said states are in compliance with federal regulations if 50 percent of recipients are successfully participating in a work activity.

A Health and Human Services Committee amendment, adopted 36-0, clarifies that DHHS would be required to carry out the bill’s provisions within the limits of its annual appropriation.

The amended bill also would allow the department to suspend the new educational allowance if the state’s work participation rate does not exceed the target work rate by 10 percent in any given month.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, chair of the committee, said the amendment was meant to ensure that the bill’s provisions would not jeopardize Nebraska’s federal funding by causing the state to fall below the required 50 percent work activity participation rate.

Lexington Sen. John Wightman supported the bill, saying a high school graduate earns approximately $250,000 more over a lifetime than someone without a diploma.

“It does become important that we see these kids get as far as they can with their education,” he said.

LB507 advanced to select file 36-0.

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