Welfare-To-Work Can Benefit Kids, Study Finds

 

A new report on an experimental welfare-to-work program released Tuesday (June 10) suggests that putting poor mothers to work can have a positive effect on the well-being of their children as long as their family receives adequate work supports and their income rises above the poverty level.

New Hope for Families and Children: Five-Year Results of a Program to Reduce Poverty and Reform Welfare, a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization based in New York, found that a community-based welfare initiative in Milwaukee designed to boost household income by providing work supports for low-income families, has led to long-term gains in poverty reduction and child well-being up to two-years after the program ended.

"This is one of the first experiments that shows that there were positive effects for children whose parents transitioned from welfare to work, and the remarkable thing is that (the positive effects) seem to be holding up in the long-term," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and a former senior adviser for welfare policy under President George W. Bush.

The study's findings come as proposals in Congress to reauthorize the 1996 welfare reform law promise to make improving child well-being the overarching goal of welfare reform. The study may also impact state policymakers who face difficult budget decisions, the report's authors said.

Five years after enrolling in the New Hope Project in Milwaukee, Wis., a group of low-income parents worked and earned more and their children performed better in school than members of a similar group of low-income families not enrolled in the program, the study found.

Haskins told Stateline.org that this study confirms previous research showing that work supports and requirements designed to increase work have had some positive affects on families and helped reduce poverty levels among former welfare recipients. But experts have been debating how work requirements affect child well-being, and this study indicates that putting poor mothers to work can improve child well-being, as long as the family is provided with sufficient income and job supports, Haskin said.

Half of the 745 families that participated in the New Hope Project were randomly assigned to a group that was eligible to receive work support benefits like subsidized healthcare, subsidized childcare and earnings supplements to raise wages above the poverty level. The other half were assigned to a control group that did not receive any benefits. Families could receive benefits for three years and annual cost of providing these benefits was $5,300 per family.

The study found that two years after leaving the program, children of parents receiving New Hope benefits performed better than control group children on standardized tests and their parents reported their children received higher grades and exhibited more positive behavior.

"These findings suggest that providing low-income parents with work and income supports, including child care and health care assistance, can enable them to combine work and parenting in ways that promote positive developments for their children," Aletha Huston, the study's director at the University of Texas at Austin said in a written statement.

Improving the well-being of children has been an objective of national welfare policy since 1935, but this goal has been overshadowed by the recent welfare reform movement which emphasized ending dependency of welfare recipients and moving them into the workforce, the authors of the report said.

Congress is currently debating a five-year reauthorization of the landmark welfare reform act of 1996, and a consensus has emerged that improving the well-being of children should be central to the goal of welfare reform. But lawmakers have been debating proposals from the Bush administration to tighten work requirements for poor mothers without increasing funding for job supports and childcare.

"One thing lawmakers should do is not over-simplify, I don't think it's useful to argue in the abstract over whether people should work or should be parents," said Julie Kerksick, executive director of the New Hope Project, a non-government, nonprofit organization.

Also, as states struggle to balance their budgets, information from the New Hope study can offer lawmakers insights about the cost and effectiveness of these policies at a time when they are deciding which programs to cut and which to continue funding, state officials said.

"It's a time when we're facing a staggering $3.2 billion deficit (in Wisconsin), and we have to be very mindful of how we are directing our resources. We have to make sure we've got strong bases for the policy decisions we're making and this kind of research can be very helpful to us in that way," said Roberta Gassman, secretary of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The New Hope Project conducted a welfare-to-work project in Milwaukee from 1994 to 1998 to measure the outcome of providing several work benefits to low-income parents who worked full time.

The project was designed to be copied by state agencies looking to reform their welfare programs, and MDRC (formerly called Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) was commissioned to conduct an independent evaluation of the program's effectiveness and cost.

 
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