This Pa. university helps single moms and their kids get out of poverty. The Wolf administration wants to copy that success

Asia Thompson, a graduate of Misericordia's Women With Children Program, with her children. (Courtesy Misericordia University)

In his Tuesday budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf focused on ways to get Pennsylvanians into good-paying jobs, from more investment in early education to revamped workforce programs.

He also highlighted the work of Misericordia, a 2,879-student liberal arts university in Northeastern Pa.

The school “is home to one of only eight programs in the country that helps single mothers who are struggling economically to complete a college degree,” Wolf told a joint session of the House and Senate. “We plan to replicate this innovative job training program all across the commonwealth.”

Wolf was referring to Misericordia’s Ruth Matthews Bourger Women With Children Program, which provides free housing and a host of services to single moms getting their degrees at the university.

Katherine Pohlidal, who’s served as the program’s director for more than five years, had no idea the shout-out was coming, but was “pleasantly surprised.”

Women With Children dates back to 2000, when the school’s vice president for mission integration, Sister Jean Messaros, recognized that it wasn’t feasible for single moms to get their education while they tried to cover their bills and pay the rent.

The program offers housing to student-headed families for up to four years — completely free.

With the help of donors, the university opened its first house in 2000 to host six families. Right now, 16 families live in three houses on campus. The program has also expanded to accept moms with up to three children, rather than two, between the ages of 2 and 8.

“They keep us busy,” Pohlidal joked, “but it’s wonderful.”

State Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller told the Capital-Star the $5 million budget request would be used to provide startup funds to pilot similar projects in the commonwealth under the Parent Pathways umbrella.

Miller said some of the agency’s existing education and work programs for low- and no-income families “don’t focus on … long-term outcomes.”

“It just struck me,” she said of Misericordia’s program, “that this completely changes lives and ends that generational cycle of poverty.”

The ‘most vulnerable’

Miller first learned about Women With Children from Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne. The two visited Misericordia, located in the suburban Wilkes-Barre portion of Baker’s sprawling and rural district, in April.

“I was just blown away by the program,” Miller said.

The single moms in Women With Children “are living at the poverty level or at the brink of poverty,” Misericordia’s Pohlidal said. They’re utilizing subsidies like cash assistance or food stamps not because they want to, she added, but because they have to.

Students pay their own tuition, although the program helps them with financial aid, grants and scholarships. Misericordia offers childcare subsidies in addition to ones provided by the state. Because participants are required to have a vehicle, the university gives students AAA memberships with an emergency repair stipend.

“I’ve sometimes changed a tire,” Pohlidal said.

The program is open to women from all states, but is focused on the “most vulnerable” from Pennsylvania. Students come from homeless shelters and domestic violence situations, she said. Some are suddenly widowed or divorced and find themselves in poverty, working full-time but barely making it.

Program graduate Asia Thompson was once like that.

Thompson was living at a shelter in New Jersey when she applied to the university.

“She and her two children came here with virtually nothing,” Pohlidal said — just a car and some clothes. “She just rebuilt her entire life.”

Thompson became an advocate for food security through benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, testifying before Congress in 2015. She’s now enrolled at New York Law School and is scheduled to graduate with a law degree this May.

Not only is Thompson thriving, but so are her kids, according to Pohlidal.

Misericordia’s program focuses as much on children as it does on the moms. While living at the university, children are exposed to early literary programs and extracurriculars. Kids from earlier graduating classes have now graduated from college themselves.

“It changes the trajectory of their lives,” Pohlidal said.

Families don’t leave Misericordia without a real plan for success. Pohlidal said 100 percent of graduates are placed into professional careers, while 70 percent go on to earn a master’s or higher degree.

“Within a year, they’re off of the subsidies,” she said. “Their income is too great at this point.”

On a larger scale

Women With Children has great outcomes, but Pohlidal concedes it’s expensive to run — about $220,000 per year. The program has graduated 30 moms since its inception.

The state human services department doesn’t envision replicating the program as is.

“Misericordia is a special place,” Miller said. “I don’t know that we’re going to see another entity that is able to do what Misericordia is able to do.”

But what Miller does want to see are post-secondary institutions “excited about the mission” and open to working with private partners.

In September, the state agency sought information on similar existing programs and tried to gauge interest about developing new ones. Miller said the agency received more than 60 responses, including one from Family Scholar House, which runs residential housing programs for single parents getting their degrees in Kentucky. A DHS team will visit the state in the near future.

Pohlidal said interest in Misericordia’s program far exceeds capacity. She gets about 185 inquiries a year, including whispered calls from women in dangerous situations. The goal, she said, is to get a fourth house and keep on doing what they’re doing.

“The two-generation model we have here truly does work,” she said. “We’re so proud that the state has started to acknowledge it. To have that recognition is pretty profound.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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