Student Achievement

Welfare Changes Hurt Teenagers’ Achievement, Study Says

By Debra Viadero — March 13, 2002 3 min read
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When the federal welfare overhaul was enacted nearly six years ago, policy experts worried about what would happen to young children in families on public assistance when their mothers went to work.

New findings, however, buttress earlier reports indicating that experts should have been concerned about teenagers, too.

The policy brief “Welfare Policies Matter for Children and Youth: Lessons for TANF Reauthorization,” is available from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

In a policy brief released this month, researchers from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit group based in New York City, say their newest data provide confirming evidence that welfare reforms that put more poor, single mothers in the workplace can negatively affect teenagers’ academic achievement.

The bad news for poor teenagers is based on the final round of results from the MDRC’s Next Generation project, the largest study to date on the impact of the welfare changes. Earlier results also pointed to some “warning signs” for adolescents. But the new conclusions are based on a more extensive analysis, involving results from randomized studies on welfare changes in 10 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. (“Experts Debate Welfare Reform’s Impact on Children,” Sept. 19, 2001.)

“We now have all of the data in on adolescents,” said Pamela A. Morris, the lead author of the policy brief. “These results are concerning, in that this is already a very high-risk group.”

The report comes as Congress prepares to reauthorize the 1996 federal law that ended welfare as most Americans had come to know it. It put time limits on public assistance, required most recipients with young children to work, and turned over decisionmaking authority for many aspects of welfare programs to the states.

President Bush, in his proposal announced last month for reauthorizing the law, calls for keeping the program on much the same track. His plan would increase the work requirements for recipients, grant states some added flexibility, and continue federal payments to states for child-care assistance to welfare recipients.

Need For Caution

But some experts last week said the research may signal the need for caution as Congress weighs the program’s future.

“We may need to add supplemental supports for families of adolescents,” said Jennifer Brooks, a senior research associate for Child Trends, a Washington research group that also tracks the progress of the welfare overhaul.

“This has alerted us to the need to take more of a developmental perspective,” added Martha Zaslow, a senior scholar at Child Trends. “It may be that children of different ages are affected differently by the changes.”

Researchers do not know for sure why teenagers fared more poorly than younger children under welfare reform, but they have some educated guesses.

“Our best guess suggests that it looks like adolescents, first of all, may have been left unsupervised, rather than put in more structured activities,” said Ms. Morris. “It also looks like they may have been taking on more adult roles, like taking care of younger siblings or working more when their mothers went back to work.”

For the study, which focused mainly on welfare-reform experiments begun before 1996, researchers were able to randomly assign families applying or reapplying for welfare benefits to either a revamped program or a more traditional one.

The negative impact the researchers found for adolescents contrasts with the positive academic improvements the researchers have consistently found for elementary- age children whose parents take part in some of the newer programs.

In both the new analysis and in previous ones from the project, younger children did better in school when their parents participated in welfare changes that supplemented their families’ incomes. Also, new data from one of those programs suggest those benefits can persist for 4 1/2 years—even after parents were no longer working. Researchers were careful to note, however, that those learning benefits occurred only under welfare programs that supplemented parents’ earnings.

Designed to make work more financially rewarding, those programs allowed recipients to keep their welfare checks for a time after they went to work or, in the case of one Canadian program, provided extra cash supports to boost working families’ household income. The positive effect did not attach to families using programs that were less generous in their approaches.

Adolescents’ academic performance suffered regardless of the type of program studied. Across the board, teenagers were slightly less likely than peers in more traditional programs to earn above-average grades and slightly more likely to repeat a grade or be referred to special education when their mothers worked.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Welfare Changes Hurt Teenagers’ Achievement, Study Says

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