Lisa Ortiz’s new life began the day her old one almost ended.
After her partner beat her nearly to death, Ortiz lost her job with the Reading School District. She and her two young children were forced to move into a YMCA shelter.
“I didn’t have anything,” she told the Capital-Star.
Shelter workers told her to go to the welfare office. There, for the first time in her life, she applied for cash assistance.
Ortiz can’t remember the name of the woman at the Berks County Assistance Office who processed her application, but she remembers that “sweetest lady” asking her what she wanted to do with her life.
“I want to do social work and help women who’ve been through what I’ve been through,” Ortiz replied.
That’s when the woman suggested KEYS.
Keystone Education Yields Success was established by the state Department of Human Services in the early 2000s to help people like Ortiz. It allows parents on cash assistance to meet federal work requirements by enrolling in one of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges.
By all accounts, it’s a success.
“It’s probably the best or one of the best post-secondary education programs in the country,” said Peter Zurflieh of the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to benefits recipients.
But between July 2017 and June 2018, KEYS served just 867 adults who receive cash assistance through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
That’s out of thousands of adults in desperate need of good-paying jobs.
A ‘life-changing’ opportunity
KEYS doesn’t pay for a student’s tuition. Most recipients apply for financial aid or state grants, according to coordinators, and many don’t need to take out loans.
But grant money does fund the salaries of facilitators who work one-on-one with the students. Those front-line workers are credited with the program’s success.
Mary Turner is KEYS coordinator at Reading Area Community College, where Ortiz enrolled in 2016. She’s been at the college on-and-off for nearly two decades, working on KEYS and its precursor — a post-secondary education training program run by a few community colleges.
Without KEYS, “it was a cycle,” she said. A single mom would find a job without benefits then lose it when her kids got sick, throwing her back into the poverty cycle — back on assistance and into a work program.
“We’re talking minimum wage jobs that aren’t necessarily self-sustaining,” she said.
The KEYS Program gathered at their annual winter celebration to recognize & honor their students hard work & academic achievement. KEYS is a state-run program designed to help specific students attend, & succeed, in community college. For more information, call 610.372.4721. pic.twitter.com/IGxc4mowsp
— Reading Area CC (@RACC_edu) December 21, 2018
Turner is the first to admit her students face significant barriers to success. That makes the support her team supplies even more important.
Community colleges run their own incentive programs, where good grades are rewarded with free diapers, laundry detergent, or gift cards. It may seem simple, Turner said, but even something like making sure a student’s kids have clean clothes for school is a huge help.
Facilitators at Pennsylvania’s community colleges also serve as liaisons between students and the government, helping parents get deeply or even fully subsidized child care as well as money for bus passes or gas reimbursements.
They’re not just academic advisors, Turner said — they’re “basically providing intensive case management services.”
Many of the students are the first in their family to go to college, Karen Jack, the KEYS coordinator at Butler County Community College, said. “They don’t know where to begin or how to navigate college.”
Instead, KEYS acts as a support system.
“They kind of have this group, this unified group of individuals that support them,” Jack said. “I always call KEYS their home base.”
M. Kaye Fink, KEYS coordinator at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in the Southwest, thinks of herself as the group’s mom.
She tracks her students’ grades and attendance, encourages them, helps them navigate housing troubles, and holds them accountable.
Some of her students were in the foster care system and missed out on fundamentals like learning their multiplication tables. She looks at them as individuals and figures out “how can I best serve their needs.”
Unlike other state-run work programs for poor parents, KEYS has good word of mouth. Jack said that’s responsible for many of the referrals she’s seen to her community college in Western Pa.
There’s a reason for that.
In Reading, graduates who were making $9 or $10 an hour are now earning nearly $30 in the healthcare field, Turner said. Jack has seen similar success.
“I don’t mean to sound dramatic,” Turner said, “but it can be life-changing for people.”
A ‘work-first mantra’
Pennsylvania’s work programs for poor parents on cash assistance are an admitted bust.
In January, the Wolf administration announced it was overhauling the Employment Advancement and Retention Network (EARN) and Work Ready programs, as they focus “too much on job placement and not enough on reducing barriers to employment and long-term outcomes.”
Even the short-term results are dismal: Of the roughly 15,000 people who enrolled in EARN in 2017-18, just 1,000 were still employed after six months. It costs roughly $12,000 to get a person into a job that pays on average $12 an hour, Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said.
KEYS, on the other hand, allows these parents to get certificates and associate’s degrees in high-demand fields. But first, they have to find out about it.
— SKI (@HACCSki) May 25, 2018
When a person applies for TANF at a state-run County Assistance Office, most are referred into EARN if they need help finding a job. A much smaller number are referred to KEYS. Recipients can also get into the program through what’s called a reverse-referral — meaning they enroll in the community college then ask to be put in the program.
Fink’s community college serves students in several rural counties in the Southern Alleghenies.
She personally visits the County Assistance offices in her area to spread the word about KEYS. During a recent trip to Huntingdon County, she asked the 30 or so people she spoke to if they had heard of the program. None had.
“None of my County Assistance offices really knew what the KEYS program was, what it did,” she said.
That’s not the case across the state, but those involved with the program know referrals can be an issue.
When a person goes to a County Assistance Office for benefits, “they might still be getting a work-first mantra,” said Tamila Lay, director of the Bureau of Employment Programs at the state Department of Human Services. “Or they might have heard in their community if you get TANF, you have to work.”
KEYS won’t be changed as part of the Wolf administration’s redesign, but in the near future Lay said there will be a push to change that job-first attitude.
‘They’re not on anybody’s radar’
Gwendolyn McCullough didn’t think going back to school was possible.
At 36, she was a single mom in recovery with a “bunch of college credits” and student loan debt. Her daughter was enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program and she received a small amount of money each month for food stamps.
Still, McCullough “wanted a better life,” so she enrolled at Delaware County Community College. While applying for financial aid, someone told her about KEYS.
“It was really just a great source of support,” she said. “I used to go to the office every day.”
There’s no work requirement for parents enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
And yet, they outnumbered cash assistance parents in KEYS 1,187 to 867, in fiscal year 2017-18.
The exact reason for the discrepancy isn’t clear to the players involved. But there are a few theories.
A few years ago, the state lifted a cap on the number of food stamp recipients who can enroll in KEYS, which shifted the balance, coordinators say.
Parents who receive food stamps and work part-time “seem to be further along in their understanding or desire of what they want to do,” Lay said.
Reading’s Turner sees that, too. “Their needs are immediate,” she said of parents on cash assistance. “They want to get out and work right away. … It can be hard to see the long-term because they’re just trying to get through the next day.”
Beyond a lack of understanding about the program, Fink said it’s simply more work to go through the KEYS process.
A student needs to have a high school diploma or GED — which many don’t — then go through the enrollment and financial aid process.
“It’s not as easy as just sending them to EARN,” she said.
— Darryl Jones (@DarylJonz) May 18, 2017
Another possible reason is the precipitous decline in parents who get cash assistance in the first place.
Over the past decade and a half, the number of Pennsylvanians receiving TANF has fallen by 50 percent — or more than 100,000 people.
That would be good news if parents were in good-paying jobs. But that’s not what advocates see.
In 2018, about 20 percent of people who left TANF each month did so because they found employment. That number hasn’t budged since 2008, according to report by Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
The other 80 percent?
“It’s not clear what happens to these folks,” Zurflieh of the Community Justice Project said. “They’re not on anybody’s radar.”
KEYS coordinators who spoke to the Capital-Star each said they want to increase the number of TANF students in their programs, while also serving the growing demand among food stamp recipients.
For McCullough, the support her KEYS program in Delaware County provided went beyond education.
In 2016, her daughter’s father died of an opioid overdose. It was a difficult time, she said, but she was able to lean on the other women in KEYS.
After completing her degree at Delaware County Community College, McCullough enrolled at West Chester University. She also began volunteering for Mike Zabel, a Democratic candidate for state House.
He won his race — and McCullough is now his chief of staff.
“I wanted little people to have a voice,” she of her interest in politics. “Government resources were a big part [of] my success.”
What happens next
Over the past several years, the Wolf administration has made changes to help people keep their cash assistance while going to school. That includes allowing anyone, regardless of age, to pursue a GED and count their studies as a work requirement.
Ideally, KEYS “will just continue to grow,” Secretary Miller said. For people who don’t want to pursue a degree, she said the revamp will create another program with a similar “case management piece.”
“Hopefully, then folks will start to see our programs as actually helpful,” she said.
For the fiscal year that began July 1, 2018, the Human Services department “budgeted more than $126 million in combined state and federal funds for employment and training services,” according to a spokesperson. That includes $61.6 million to serve 19,563 people in EARN and $4.3 million for 2,028 in KEYS.
Under that spending plan, it costs about $1,000 less to serve someone in KEYS. And the outcomes are significantly more profound.
Ortiz graduated from Reading Area Community College in May 2018 and planned to attend Millersville University in Lancaster County to get her degree in social work.
But instead, she landed a dream job as a parent educator at a non-profit in Reading — with the help from her former KEYS coordinator. Ortiz and her kids recently moved into their own apartment, which she was able to fill with brand-new furniture.
“Anything that comes my way, I know I can do,” she said. “I would not have this strength inside of me if not for KEYS. They were my motivation.”
“I have a job,” she added. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”