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The survey of 790 families receiving public assistance in the Atlanta area found that just over half of the 3- to 5-year-olds in those households were unable to distinguish shapes and colors and could not answer questions on spatial relationships.

"By the time kids start school they should know what under and over means. The fact that they know only a fraction of these items means that they are starting school behind middle-class kids," said Kristin Moore, an author of the study. Child Trends Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit research group, conducted the study.

The children in the study, the majority of whom were black, scored lower on vocabulary tests than black children in the population as a whole, the researchers found.

The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, is the first installment of a five-year collaboration examining child development in families where the mother is participating in a federally mandated welfare-to-work program.

The authors stop short of evaluating the effectiveness of the current federal welfare system. But the overall message of the report, Ms. Moore said, is that the developmental needs of children should be taken into account in the push to overhaul existing federal welfare programs.

Some experts viewed the findings as evidence that the increasingly popular idea of moving mothers on welfare into the workforce could have significant benefits for their children.

The researchers randomly divided the women into three groups: One pursued employment, one entered an educational program, and the third stayed at home.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based research group, said that children living on welfare may be better prepared for school if their mothers go to work and leave the children in a quality child-care setting.

The survey found that about 53 percent of the mothers in the survey scored low on basic literacy tests, and 62 percent scored below the 7th-grade level on basic math skills. "There are large numbers of children for whom high-quality day care would be more beneficial than being at home with their mothers all day," Ms. Sawhill said.

Copies of "How Well Are They Faring?" will be available next month from the National Technical Information Service, (703) 487-4600.

--Jessica Portner

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