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Reports Predict States Aren't Up to Welfare Task

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The new federal welfare-reform law gives states enormous control over programs that support disadvantaged children. But a new report argues that states are unprepared to shoulder the responsibility.

Focusing on such areas as child care, child protection, health care, and juvenile justice, the study, "Ready, Willing and Able? What the Record Shows About State Investments in Children," concludes that states have not made children a top funding priority and, in some cases, have not taken advantage of federal matching dollars to assist families trying to move off welfare.

The NACA's 12-state, two-city study is one in a series of reports coming out before the end of the year that predict greater hardship for children as states assume more authority over public assistance. Following an intense debate, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed into law in August. The law ended welfare as a federal entitlement program and put time limits on how long most recipients can receive benefits. ("Advocates Fear Harmful Effects of Welfare Law," Oct. 2, 1996.)

"We're entering a whole new era," said Nancy Sconyers, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association of Child Advocates, which produced the report. "Without a realistic understanding of what poor families need to be successful, we're not going to improve the lives of children."

In "Who Cares? State Commitment to Child Care and Early Education," a report scheduled for release next week, the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund will examine states' track records in an area that the NACA did not cover: early-education programs. The report will rank states on how much money they put into such programs as Head Start, prekindergarten, and child care compared with state expenditures in other categories.

The findings "give us some interesting and some disturbing suggestions of what's going to happen" under welfare reform, said Gina C. Adams, a senior program associate at the CDF. The advocacy group was one of the strongest opponents of the new law.

Contrary to some of the conclusions drawn in these reports, supporters of the new law argue that states will do a better job than federal government of providing a safety net for children in need.

States are more flexible than the federal government and can, therefore, tailor their programs to fit the individual needs of their residents, said Kristin Becker, the director of the health and human-services task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington think tank that tracks legislation.

"Welfare wasn't working the way it had been going for the last 30 years," she said.

A third report--scheduled to be unveiled this week--from the National Center on Children in Poverty, a nonprofit information and advocacy organization based at Columbia University in New York City, shows an increase in the percentage of poor children over the past 20 years and says putting welfare recipients to work--a primary goal of the new law--does not necessarily lift young children out of poverty.

The center's report, "One in Four: America's Youngest Poor," refers to the 25 percent poverty rate for all children younger than 6. The report challenges what it sees as stereotypes about poor children.

"There's been a significant increase in poverty in urban, suburban, and rural areas; it cuts across all boundaries," Julian Palmer, a spokesman for the poverty center, said. "And the poverty rate has increased substantially among young white children."

Access and Poor Whites

Many poor white children are also missing out on the benefits of early-education programs, according to a fourth study, published this month by the University of Chicago Press in the journal Child Development.

The report shows that far fewer very poor white children than very poor black children attend center-based preschool or child-care programs--75 percent compared with 55 percent.

The article partially attributes the enrollment pattern to the "historical growth of Head Start centers within poor black communities," especially in the South. But because the majority of mothers on public assistance are white, the need for services for their young children will increase when states implement their welfare-reform plans, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the three authors of the study.

"As Head Start expands, the money needs to be somewhat targeted to rural, white communities and suburban, white communities," he said.

The report also says that minority children from middle- and working-class families are underrepresented in early-education programs and thus might not be getting the early learning experiences they need.

According to the paper, 61 percent of middle-class white parents enroll their children in some type of center-based program, compared with 48 percent of black parents and 42 percent of Hispanics.

Based on responses from 2,472 parents of 3- to 5-year-olds on the 1991 National Household Education Survey by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the study shows that while family income is a major predictor of whether a child will attend a program outside the home, cultural factors also influence decisions.

Latino families tend to shy away from formal programs and are more likely to have their children cared for by relatives or by family day-care providers who have similar values and cultural backgrounds. The tendency, the article says, is reinforced when child-care centers do not have any bilingual staff members or appear impersonal. "We're not arguing that centers and preschools are the only way, but on average, the quality tends to be higher in centers," Mr. Fuller said.

Michael Tanner, the director of health and welfare studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, disagrees. He contends that a state-issued child-care license doesn't necessarily guarantee quality.

States could do a much better job of meeting the demand for subsidized child care if they allowed parents to choose less formal arrangements instead of forcing them into expensive, institutional models, said Mr. Tanner, the author of a new book, The End of Welfare: Fighting Poverty in the Civil Society.

Giving parents the information they need to choose high-quality child care might be a more efficient way of using some state child-care money, Mr. Tanner said.

If minority parents are more inclined to choose in-home care, Mr. Fuller added, efforts should at least be made to better train family day-care providers.

Who Should Be Helped?

One of the debates taking place as a result of the welfare overhaul is whether states should channel discretionary child-care funding to welfare mothers looking for work or to working-poor families trying to keep jobs.

"You can't choose one population over another," Ms. Sconyers of the National Association of Child Advocates said.

According to the naca report, between 1990 and 1995, state and federal child-care funding for the welfare population increased an average of 360 percent among the 12 states. At the same time, funding for the working poor rose, on average, only 40 percent. The situation creates a disincentive to work, the report says.

More child-care subsidies should be directed toward working-poor and working-class families, but not at the expense of those still trying to make the transition from welfare to work, Mr. Fuller of Berkeley argues.

He maintains that child-care tax credits, while popular with centrists in Congress, reach only a limited number of families, do not increase the supply of programs, and will not change current racial and ethnic inequalities.

The NACA's report, meant to give state and local advocacy groups information for future budget analyses, also focuses on other issues affecting children. Among its findings:

  • Between 1990 and 1995, most of the 12 states studied did not adjust benefit levels for families on welfare to keep up with inflation.
  • None of the states met national participation goals for Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment--a preventive physical-examination program for children.

For More Information:

"Ready, Willing and Able? What the Record Shows About State Investments in Children 1990-1995" is available for $12 from the National Association of Child Advocates, 1522 K Street N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 289-0777.

"Family Selection of Child Care Centers: The Influence of Household Support, Ethnicity, and Parental Practices" appears in the December issue of Child Development. For reprints, write to Bruce Fuller, University of California-Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, 3659 Tolman Hall, Berkeley, Calif. 94720-1670; or call (510) 643-5362.

"One in Four: America's Youngest Poor" is available for $16.95, or $7.95 for the abridged version, from the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia School of Public Health, 154 Haven Ave., New York, N.Y. 10032; (212) 304-7100.

After Dec. 17, "Who Cares? State Commitment to Child Care and Early Education" will be available from the Children's Defense Fund, 25 E Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001; (202) 628-8787.

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