Support Program for Poor Teenage Mothers Reports Little Success

By Linda Jacobson — July 09, 1997 3 min read

Low-income teenage mothers who participated in an intensive education, counseling, and parenting program were just as likely to stay on welfare, be unemployed, and have another child as those who didn’t receive the same services, a study from the organization that designed the program concludes.

Created by the New York City-based Manpower Research and Demonstration Corp., a nonprofit research organization focusing on welfare and education, the New Chance program did produce a few modest successes. But it was unable to generate long-term effects in the lives of those it was meant to help--young mothers without a high school education.

Three and a half years after entering the program, about half of the women received either a high school or general-equivalency diploma. But of the 2,079 women who responded to the survey, 75 percent were receiving public assistance, and 75 percent had gone through another pregnancy.

The 28 percent of mothers who were working were earning an average of $5.66 an hour, according to the report released last week, “New Chance: Final Report on a Comprehensive Program for Disadvantaged Young Mothers and Their Children.”

Welfare Implications

Coming as a historic overhaul of the nation’s welfare system gets under way in the states, the findings of the report also suggest just how difficult it can be to move poor mothers from a life of welfare dependency into one of self-sufficiency--the chief aim of the welfare changes enacted last year.

“The report suggests that we need to proceed with caution,” said Janet Quint, a senior research associate at the MRDC.

New Chance, primarily subsidized with about $3 million in state and local government grants over eight years, was originally implemented at 16 sites in 10 states, and still operates in 12 cities.

The researchers followed 2,322 teenage mothers who applied for New Chance between 1989 and 1991. One-third of them, which made up the control group, did not enroll in the program. Nonetheless, many members of the control group also sought General Educational Development diplomas and received additional help elsewhere.

In addition to its shortcomings in helping the young mothers, New Chance also failed to improve the cognitive development of the participants’ young children, the study shows. Surprisingly, women in the experimental group experienced more parenting-related stress and depression than those in the control group.

One of the reasons the program did not have the desired effects is that most of the participants left after six months, even though the services were designed to last 18 months, according to Donna Butts, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting, a membership organization for professionals who run programs for teenage parents.

Under the 1996 federal welfare law, teenage mothers must stay in school if they want to receive benefits. But additional sanctions against the adolescents are not the answer, Ms. Butts contends.

“This whole tone of punishment and blame against young people is just really serious,” Ms. Butts said. Teenage mothers “are so disenfranchised already.”

But Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said he was not surprised by the results. “In theory, the left says if you can make them have a better life, therefore, they will choose this better life instead of having kids, but it doesn’t seem to work.”

Instead, he said, programs need to emphasize marriage.

Ms. Butts cautioned against applying the report’s findings to all programs designed to help teenage mothers. “These were very poverty-entrenched individuals,” she said. “They were not teen mothers who had any sort of role models or opportunities.”

For More Information:

“New Chance: Final Report on a Comprehensive Program for Disadvantaged Young Mothers and Their Children’’ will be available in August for $18, plus $3 shipping and handling, from the Manpower Research and Demonstration Corp., 3 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; (212) 532-3200. An executive summary will also be available for $4.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week