Student Achievement

Welfare-to-Work Linked To Children’s Learning

By Linda Jacobson — January 31, 2001 6 min read
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Contrary to the predictions of many children’s advocates, some programs that require single mothers on welfare to work do not have a negative effect on their children’s performance in school, a report suggests. Beyond that, researchers found that efforts to supplement welfare parents’ earnings can actually help youngsters do better in school.

Released last week by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit organization based in New York City, the study is described as the first to specifically address one of the most pressing issues about welfare reform: how such policies affect children.

“Here we have a set of interventions that shows that when we reform welfare, we get positive, cascading effects on children,” said Gordon L. Berlin, a senior vice president of the MDRC.

For More Information

Read the report, “How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Children: A Synthesis of Research,” (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Others agreed. “It’s really good news,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of the resource center on educational equity at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “A lot of folks were afraid that outcomes for these low- income kids were going to get worse [because of the welfare overhaul].”

The researchers analyzed the findings of five MDRC studies, covering 11 different programs throughout the country. While all of the programs evaluated were implemented before the law overhauling the federal welfare system was passed, some of the components of those programs ultimately became part of that law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The MDRC findings could provide some guidance to Congress, which will take up the reauthorization of the law next year.

But some researchers are cautioning policymakers not to jump to conclusions about the implications of the new analysis. To begin with, results seemed to vary with the age of the child. “These are not universally positive effects,” said Martha Zaslow, an assistant director of research at Child Trends, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Effects on Achievement

When families entered the programs studied, the children’s ages ranged from 3 to 9. Follow-up evaluations were conducted when the children were 5 to 12 years old.

MDRC researchers collected a combination of parent and teacher reports. In seven of the programs, actual achievement tests were given.

Children of participants in the four efforts that provided additional earnings, on top of the parents’ paychecks, posted higher academic achievement—an increase from the 25th percentile to the 30th percentile. Those increases—which occurred over a two year period—were based on a mix of standardized tests evaluating math, reading, or general knowledge of children ranging from age 5 to 12.

Those four programs—which included one in Milwaukee, two in Minnesota, and one in Canada— rewarded parents financially for working full- or part-time jobs. But only one of those programs, in Minnesota, included a mandatory work requirement for parents.

The researchers said that reform programs had a greater impact on the academic performance of the children of long-term welfare recipients— generally those receiving public assistance for two years or more—than on those whose families used welfare as a temporary solution.

In addition, the study found that some programs helped improve children’s health and behavior.

A More Expensive Plan

The researchers point out, however, that positive results generally come at a greater cost. For instance, the Minnesota programs that were analyzed cost $2,000 more per family than the traditional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The Milwaukee program was $4,000 more expensive.

Six of the programs focused only on moving welfare recipients into jobs and did not include cash supplements. Researchers concluded those programs had few effects on children.

The only program that included the time limits on welfare benefits—the Family Transition Program in Florida—did not appear to have a negative impact on children.

But the trouble with drawing conclusions from the analysis of the 11 programs, some researchers said, is that the pilot welfare-reform efforts studied were not comparable to the way most states are implementing the 1996 federal law. The law placed time limits on aid and imposed work requirements on most aid recipients. It also transferred many decisions about welfare policies from the federal government to the states.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, gave the MDRC credit for examining the lessons learned from the first round of welfare-reform efforts, but said its study “does beg the question of whether the effects of these small demonstration programs can be generalized to 50 state welfare programs.”

For example, one of the programs studied, New Hope in Milwaukee, provided a range of other benefits to families on top of an earnings supplement, such as intensive case management and community-service jobs for parents who could not find employment. They could also receive child-care and health-care subsidies.

Although the report’s authors recognize it might be difficult to copy such programs on a larger scale, they point out that many states have adopted an “enhanced- earnings disregard"—meaning welfare recipients who go to work can keep a portion of their earnings, without having their welfare checks reduced. Some states also offer their own versions of the federal earned-income tax credit, which helps supplement the incomes of poor working families.

Questions About Adolescents

While the MDRC researchers generally had good news to report about elementary school children, the results were not so positive for older students.

Two of the programs studied—the ones in Canada and Florida— appeared to have detrimental effects on the adolescent children of welfare recipients, the report says. Parents in the program groups reported lower average achievement and more behavior problems than did the nonparticipating parents who served as the control groups.

Still, because some of the results on adolescents were not statistically significant—and were based on only two programs—Mr. Berlin said he viewed those findings as a “yellow light” of caution, not a conclusion that such programs are harmful to adolescents.

Some researchers not associated with the study said that one of the most important contributions of the MDRC work is that it begins to identify the central pieces that need to be in place for welfare reform to work. And that will eventually have important policy implications.

For instance, instead of cutting federal funds to the states because the welfare rolls are declining, Ms. Zaslow said, Congress might consider keeping the level of funding steady so states can build up other support services for families, such as after-school programs.

The MDRC researchers also looked at how the effects of the earnings supplements compare with the results of other programs targeting low-income children. They found that such policies were as beneficial as some well-organized home- visiting programs—but not as effective as some preschool programs.

That finding, they write, should not be surprising, “considering that these are the most successful of childhood interventions, and that they target children directly rather than being designed to affect children indirectly through changes in parents’ circumstances and behavior.”

Even with the benefits that were found for some programs, the authors note that the circumstances for many children are still not good.

“Substantial fractions of children whose families were in even the most generous programs were not progressing normally in school, lived in families that were still poor, and had parents who were depressed,” the report says.

Mr. Berlin said: “We have a long way to go.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Welfare-to-Work Linked To Children’s Learning


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