Does Welfare Reform Hurt Teens?

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While researchers unveiled more evidence last month that welfare reform helps poor parents and children in many ways, a dark cloud stands out: The reforms may hurt teenagers.

Welfare reforms that encourage mothers to work appear to cause increases in smoking, drinking and school suspensions among adolescents, according to data presented at a Washington, D.C., welfare conference funded by the Annie E. Casey and Charles Stewart Mott foundations.

Welfare reform programs that both encourage parental employment and financially support working families show reduced poverty, improved academic performance and fewer behavioral problems for elementary school-age children. But "for adolescents there's a different story," said Greg Duncan, director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research. "There is this disturbing evidence that adolescents seem to do worse," he told the New World of Welfare conference, organized by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Duncan and his colleague, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, cautioned that the evidence pool is small: Their analysis was based on five studies by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., covering 11 welfare programs, but only two of those studies assessed adolescent well-being. Those involved Florida's Family Transition Program and the Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project. The programs all existed before Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, but they featured components that became part of the reform and may thus provide indications of how some of the reforms have affected families.

"The consistency of unfavorable impacts ... is striking," Duncan and Chase-Lansdale wrote in their paper for the conference. Smoking, drinking and school misbehavior went up for the welfare reform teens compared to teens in control groups, while health and school achievement declined. "Adolescents may be more at risk with work-focused reforms," the study says.

Why? Probably because the teens spent less time (especially out of school) being supervised by adults.

Duncan pointed out that young children whose parents work still spend almost all of their time closely supervised by adults in school, in family or professional day care, and in after-school and summer programs. As youths enter their teens they are less likely to attend after-school day care, and they spend less time in closely supervised youth centers and summer programs.

Ron Mincy of Columbia University (formerly a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation) added that poor children are more likely to be in single-parent homes as they get older. Citing figures from the Urban Institute's 1997 National Survey of America's Families, he said 65 percent of poor one-year-olds live with married parents or in "fragile families" (where the parents co-habitate or the noncustodial parent visits frequently). The figure drops throughout childhood, hitting 24 percent for 13-to-17-year-olds. "When children are young, both their parents are more likely to be there," Mincy said.

Thus an unintended effect of compelling poor parents to work their way off welfare is that their teens are more likely to be left alone, and to engage in the risky behaviors that tempt all adolescents. Money and transportation problems might make it especially hard for poor parents, as opposed to middle class parents, to get their children into well-supervised out-of-school programs.

The findings point to "the needs of these kids to have adult connections," Duncan said. He said welfare policy makers need to stop thinking of children and youth as a "homogenous group," and to shape policies in a way that recognizes the different needs and development levels of younger children and teens. Among his recommendations: "Think of child care not only for young children but for adolescents," and put more resources into teen services such as mentoring.

"Adolescents need to be in supervised activities in some kind of program that connects them to adults," he told the conference.

The studies from the conference are available at Contact: Greg Duncan (847) 467-1503,