New Welfare Study May Ease Worries About Harm To Kids

Welfare reform has been credited with dramatically reducing dependency on public assistance and increasing work among single women, but a crucial unanswered question is whether the changes help or harm children. A new, first of its kind study may help ease concerns about the possible negative impact.

The study, funded by a consortium of private foundations including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, looked at 11 programs in six states: California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Researchers from the nonpartisan Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) looked at the effects of welfare reform policies that these states have adopted, including: requiring single parents to work, providing financial support to working families and limiting the length of time families can receive welfare benefits.

Contrary to the concerns of many children's advocates, efforts to increase single parents' employment produced little evidence of harming elementary school-aged children, whether or not they were accompanied by supplemental income programs, the study found.

"Programs that provided financial supports to working families had consistently positive effects on children's development, while programs that required work without providing support had few effects on (younger) children," says Pamela Morris, an author of the study.

One red flag raised by the study is that some programs had negative effects on adolescents when single mothers went to work. In one, teens performed slightly worse in school and were more likely to be suspended; in the other, the young people were somewhat more likely to drink and smoke.

"It's logical that if parents are working and away from the home, there will be more experimentation by teens," MDRC's Gordon Berlin says. The study suggested that providing things like after-school activities for teens may help cut down on this type of experimentation.

General results from the report indicate states have a real opportunity to help children through targeted policies and programs. "Welfare reform has always been about children, though in recent years policymakers focused on employment of parents," Berlin observes. "The study's findings gives us an opportunity to refocus attention on the kinds of programs and designs we want to put in place to benefit children."

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