Study Finds Positive Effects From Minn. Welfare Policies

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A comprehensive study of a Minnesota welfare-reform initiative has found positive effects for children and families, including less poverty, more stable marriages, and better school performance.

The evaluation of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, released last week, was conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a New York City-based nonprofit research organization, under a contract with the state human services department. The report's authors said the study offered the first clear indication that changing welfare policies along the lines laid out in the federal welfare-reform law of 1996 actually helps encourage and preserve marriages.

For More Information

Read a summary of the MFIP study, from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Gov. Jesse Ventura hailed the findings as evidence that the state is on the right track toward helping families become self-sufficient, since its current approach to welfare is based on the program.

"Our administration supports parents in their first and largest responsibility: parenting their children," the governor said at a St. Paul news conference.

Minnesota's approach was aimed at increasing employment and reducing poverty. As such, it proved to be more expensive to run than traditional welfare because it included financial incentives for people to take jobs.

Among the study's most significant findings was the effect of the program on participants' likelihood of separating or divorcing. More than 65 percent of the two-parent families in the program were still married by the end of its third year, compared with just 48.5 percent of the families who received traditional welfare benefits.

"This is the first solid evidence that changing the rules of the welfare system can actually increase the likelihood that single parents get married and that parents in two-parent families stay together," said Lisa A. Gennetian, the lead author of the portion of the report that examined the program's effects on children.

Two-parent families in the pilot program were subject to less restrictive eligibility rules for receiving assistance than those in the traditional system. The study says that could have helped increase marital stability because some families with a wage earner previously split up to allow mothers and children to receive benefits.

For the study, conducted between April 1994 and March 1996, more than 14,000 families in seven Minnesota counties were randomly assigned to two groups: the family-investment program and traditional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The MFIP families could keep receiving some benefits until their incomes were 40 percent above the poverty line. In addition, the program paid for child care. Long-term welfare recipients also were required to attend workshops that focused on delivering a "work pays" message, the study notes.

For the single parents who were long-term welfare recipients—the focus of the program—the study found significant effects. The program increased employment by 35 percent and earnings by 23 percent, on average, it found.

Overall, about half of the parents in the pilot program worked, the report says, compared with 37 percent of parents receiving traditional welfare.

The average income for those in the program was very modest, at $10,800 a year, including some benefits; that amount, however, was 15 percent higher than for those receiving traditional benefits. And the proportion of married people was small, at 10.6 percent for MFIP participants and 7 percent for those receiving AFDC and other welfare support.

The program actually increased the number of families receiving welfare, because they could do so while they worked. But MFIP families were 21 percent less likely to be solely dependent on welfare, and they were more likely to have enjoyed continuous health-care coverage over the three-year period.

Chain Reaction

The support in moving from welfare to work, said Virginia Knox, the research project's director, produced a "positive chain of effects" on participants' lives. Mothers who responded to a survey on child care and parenting said they were less depressed, had experienced less domestic abuse, and thought their children were doing better in school.

Mothers in the MFIP were less likely to report that their children exhibited problem behaviors, such as cheating, or being cruel, disobedient, or moody. They also said their children did better in school, completed more homework, and got along better with teachers.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, called the study's results "quite encouraging" but cautioned that the reports of educational benefits came from the mothers themselves—not from teachers or other sources.

"If these mothers are feeling better about their lives in general, that's a great effect," Mr. Fuller said, "but it also probably colors how they see their kids doing in life."

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Page 18

Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Study Finds Positive Effects From Minn. Welfare Policies
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