Early Childhood

Welfare-to-Work Reforms No Boon To Children, Study Says

By Linda Jacobson — April 24, 2002 7 min read
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The federal welfare overhaul of 1996, which required many mothers receiving cash assistance to get a job, hasn’t significantly improved the home lives of poor children, according to the latest results of an ongoing study.

“New Lives for Poor Families? Mothers and Young Children Move Through Welfare Reform,” is available from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Many mothers remain depressed even after going to work, can’t afford enough food, spend less quality time with their children, and rely more on television to keep their preschoolers occupied than they did before they went back to work, the research shows.

However, children from welfare-dependent families who were enrolled in child-care centers stood a better chance of being prepared for school than youngsters who didn’t attend those programs, the report released last week says. The study is part of the Growing Up in Poverty Project, a $2.8 million research effort paid for by the federal government and private contributions.

“Kids who have been exposed to center-based care are between three and four months ahead developmentally of kids who have remained in home-based settings all the time,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-director of the study.

Getting Realistic

The results, the researchers say, have implications for the nation’s main welfare law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, which is due for reauthorization by Congress later this year.

“Given that America wants children who are ready for school, it’s time we get realistic about what helps or hinders that, and welfare reform is a significant and far too frequently neglected part of that picture,” Sharon Lynn Kagan, also a study co-director and a professor of child and family policy at Columbia University, said in a press release.

In February, President Bush outlined his welfare plan, which calls for a greater emphasis on work than the current law and incentives to increase marriage rates. Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, introduced the president’s proposal—with a few additions—two weeks ago.

While policymakers agree that child-care assistance is an important part of moving welfare mothers into the workplace, the bill—called the Personal Responsibility, Work and Family Promotion Act of 2002—does not call for an increase in child-care spending. Congress allocated $4.8 billion for that purpose in the current 2002 budget.

But Wade F. Horn, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for children and families, said President Bush is committed to raising the quality of children’s lives. That’s why the president’s welfare plan would change the law to say that the “overarching purpose” of the welfare block grant to states is to improve the well-being of children, according to Mr. Horn.

“While yes, it’s very important to move the heads of households into employment, it’s also very important to improve the well-being of children,” Mr. Horn said.

Republicans in Congress criticized the findings of the study, saying that the expectation that families’ lives would have significantly changed was unrealistic.

“The message of this study and similar studies—that certain outcomes have not improved in the short time since welfare reform or have improved only slightly— is not the same as saying that those situations have gotten worse,” said a statement from Mr. Herger’s committee.

School Readiness

The Growing Up in Poverty study began tracking almost 1,000 single mothers on welfare in California, Florida, and Connecticut in 1997.

When the researchers reinterviewed about 700 of them in 2000, they found that about 30 percent of the children of those mothers at just over age 4 had entered center-based programs and were demonstrating greater early-literacy skills, such as counting to 20 and writing their first names, than children not in center-based programs.

In general, however, the children in the sample scored far lower on those measures when compared with children in Head Start and a national sample.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush have said they are concerned about getting children ready for school, but their agenda has focused primarily on developing programs to improve children’s early-reading skills and cognitive growth—not increasing spending for child-care subsidies.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bush unveiled a plan to train all Head Start teachers in early-literacy instruction and called for more research on effective pre-K teaching strategies. (“Bush Outlines Plan to Boost Pre-K Efforts,” April 10, 2002.)

Mr. Fuller of Berkeley said his research shows that improving the quality of child-care centers will lead to significant gains in school readiness.

“So how can you increase the work requirements and not increase the child-care budget by a penny?” he said.

The nation’s governors are also concerned about the president’s proposal to increase the workweek for welfare recipients from 30 to 40 hours.

In a survey conducted by the National Governors Association and the American Public Human Services Association, 30 of the 32 states that responded to a question about child care reported that spending on subsidies for poor families would need to increase to meet the proposed change in work hours. In those 30 states, the estimated annual increase in spending would be $770 million.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress say they’re also concerned about increasing access to high-quality child care.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill last week that would reduce child-care co-payments for parents, raise the reimbursement rates that providers receive to care for children from low-income families, train child-care providers, and improve providers’ pay.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, maintain that the 1996 welfare-reform law has been a success.

“This law has achieved truly historic results,” Mr. Herger said in a press release about the proposed welfare bill. “Since 1996, nearly 3 million children have been lifted from poverty. Employment by mothers most likely to go on welfare rose 40 percent between 1995 and 2000.”

In fact, the new research confirms that employment rates have increased.

But on average, mothers in the study were still earning less than $13,000 a year. In Connecticut, for example, a larger percentage of mothers in the welfare-to-work program were having trouble paying their rent on time when compared with a control group—46 percent vs. 31 percent.

The study also shows little change in family structure. In Connecticut, marriage rates actually declined.

“Our findings suggest that if mothers’ employment prospects continue to rise over time, it is unclear whether their interest in marriage will change significantly,” the researchers say.


The newest findings on the welfare overhaul’s effects on children differ from the first wave of data, released when the children were about 21/2 years old. The study initially found that most children in the sample were receiving poor-quality child care.

That finding, Mr. Fuller believes, is attributable to the children’s younger age, the mothers’ hurry to find care, and the use of relatives and other home-based providers. Center-based care is more widely available for older preschoolers.

Results of the Growing Up in Poverty Project also appear to contradict other recent studies on the effects of welfare reform on children.

In a synthesis of 11 welfare-to-work demonstration programs that began before 1996, the New York City-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. found positive effects for children involved in four programs that provided wage supplements to working parents. Those children—in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada—performed better in school than did children whose mothers worked but didn’t receive the extra money.

But those results focused mostly on school-age children, not preschoolers, and unlike the federal law, those demonstration programs were specifically designed to increase the families’ incomes.

Virginia Knox, a senior research associate at the MDRC, added that the research organization also looked at programs in Connecticut and Florida and didn’t find benefits for children in those states.

The Growing Up in Poverty Project researchers say they hope to get funding to continue following the children into early elementary school.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Welfare-to-Work Reforms No Boon To Children, Study Says


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