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A single mother of two cannot participate in Nebraska’s “Employment First” welfare reform program because the job training she seeks — completion of a bachelor’s degree program — cannot be completed within two years as required by law. Kosmicki v. State, No. S-01-508. Created as part of Nebraska’s Welfare Reform Act in 1996, the program pays benefits to qualified participants for two years, provided that the participants spend that time moving toward self-sufficiency by engaging in job training, education or employment. Angela Kosmicki sued the state after she was stripped of her aid to dependent children benefits. Kosmicki had refused to sign the two-year contract required by the act after her plan to finish the last five semesters of a degree program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services. The state supreme court said that while a post-secondary education is an acceptable work-related activity under the act, “a course of post secondary education is only an appropriate goal for a self-sufficiency contract if the post-secondary education will lead to economic self-sufficiency within the cash assistance limitation period.” As a state senator in 1995, Lincoln Mayor Don Weseley introduced the bill that became the act. “I was personally disappointed by the court’s decision,” Weseley said. “I would have disagreed with that interpretation based on what I intended.” In crafting the bill, Weseley said he recognized the dual needs for flexibility and for deadlines. He also said he would have supported Kosmicki’s efforts. Kosmicki was represented by Nebraska Appleseed, a non-profit public law project based in Lincoln. Appleseed attorney Rebecca L. Gould, who argued the case before the court, said that she, too, was disappointed. “On the plain meaning of the statute, we were right,” Gould asserted. Gould said that the court got “hung up” on the portion of the law that requires a benefits recipient to become self-sufficient within two years. “The court was mistaken,” she said. “There are lots of ways to be self-sufficient while you are in school.” Noting that Kosmicki was studying both psychology and art with the goal to become an art therapist, she said, “Self-sufficiency doesn’t have to equate to a degree.” Health and Human Services counsel Michael Rumbaugh countered that the act says that a benefits recipient “shall have attained self-sufficiency” within two years. “The problem with Kosmicki and cases like it is that at the end of 24 months, people are only part-way into their course of study. … This is not a post-secondary grant and education program.” He said that it would be “administratively dangerous” for welfare caseworkers to have to approve each applicant’s education program without a consistent set of rules. “I don’t know how you would establish criteria without getting into being arbitrary and capricious.” Retired judge Ted Abram, executive director of the American Institute for Full Employment, said the ruling represents “a change of philosophy in welfare assistance.” He added, “It appears that Nebraska opted to make government assistance short-term, with the emphasis of placing people into work. The Nebraska Supreme Court merely interpreted the legislative intent.”

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