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Lessons for New Welfare-Law Plans Seen in Study of Urban Teen Mothers

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Teenage mothers require long-term and comprehensive services that include nontraditional education alternatives, the largest and longest study of programs aiding such adolescents has concluded.

The findings take on added significance in light of the newly adopted federal welfare law, which gives financial incentives to states to require low-income teen mothers to attend school or alternative educational activities in order to receive their benefits.

According to estimates by the House Ways and Means Committee, 115,000 families nationwide in 1986 were headed by females between the ages of 11 and 18 who received welfare payments.

The new study, by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, found that despite intensive intervention and personal attention, many pregnant or parenting teens served at mdrc project sites in four cities remained poor and likely to be on public assistance five years later.

And despite the programs' requirement that these teenagers participate in an educational activity, more than half had still not received a high-school degree or a General Educational Development certificate five years later.

All 805 teenagers served by the four programs between 1980 and 1982 were 17 years old or younger, were either pregnant or had children, had neither a high-school diploma nor a ged, and came from a family that was either receiving welfare or had an annual income no more than 70 percent above the welfare cut-off level.

The participants, who stayed in the program for an average of one year, received counseling to help them set education and employment goals, and were matched with older female mentors from the community.

Each teenager was required to be enrolled in an educational activity within 60 days of starting in the pro4gram, and was offered parenting, employment, and family-planning instruction.

The employment and parenting workshops were the most successful of the services offered, according to the study.

Researchers found that 54 percent of the women who were receiving welfare payments at the time they enrolled in a program were receiving such payments five years later. But 66 percent of the young women in a control group that had not received these special services remained on welfare.

Women who participated in the program were also working more hours and for higher pay each week than members of the control group five years after the program ended. And their children were more likely to be enrolled in Head Start programs than nonparticipants' children.

In contrast, the study says, "[e]ducation appears to be an area in which the programs had difficulty engaging participants."

Many in the programs had dropped out or were failing school even before they became pregnant, it notes, and were therefore "unenthusiastic about returning to regular public school."

The study concludes that the teenagers would have had greater educational success if alternative education programs were more numerous, or if they were allowed to take part in self-paced or individualized instruction.

"The results also teach program planners and operators to be modest in their expectations about what can be achieved: Redirecting the lives of teenage mothers who are also handicapped by poverty is exceptionally difficult," the report states. "It is a task that is not likely to be completed during these mothers' teenage years."

Advocates say that the implications of the report's findings should be pondered by states drafting new programs to be funded under the new welfare law.

The law specifies that states that include minor parents in the job-training portion of their new welfare programs must require mothers younger than age 20 to attend school or an educational activity in order to continue receiving welfare payments.

The new programs must be in place by October 1990, but state programs operating as early as August 1989 will receive federal reimbursements. Preliminary regulations for the federal program are expected to be released by next April.

States' participation would be contingent upon their ability to provide funding and on the availability of child care.

Because the welfare law specifically targets mothers younger than age 24 for services, observers believe it may prompt some states to create programs similar to the controversial "learnfare" initiatives adopted by Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Legal Action of Wisconsin, an advocacy group, is suing the state over its learnfare program. One of the group's concerns, a spokesman said last week, is that while the plan requires teenagers on welfare to attend school to receive payments, it does not ensure appropriate placements for these students.

An additional six states are considering establishing such programs, or have them operating on a limited or voluntary basis.

Child advocates maintain that the new programs will not work unless the teenagers are offered alternative-education options and are tracked into programs for at-risk youths.

"You don't want to see individuals pushed back into the school system they failed in to begin with," said MaryLee Allen, director of the child-welfare program of the Children's Defense Fund.

The mdrc study was supported by the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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