Betwixt and Between

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In many people's minds, welfare teens and teen parents are synonymous. But they're not. The first group is much larger than the second, and it's a more elusive target for policy or policy research. A recent Child Trends review of data from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), suggests that it is time to focus on adolescents in families that receive public assistance.

Most child and family experts anticipated that the new work requirements of welfare reform would have negative impacts on young children. But they did not anticipate such an impact on teens. MDRC's analysis of data from three evaluations of welfare-to-work programs in Canada and in Minnesota and Florida (both established before the 1996 reforms but embodying many of the components) found significant negative effects on adolescent children. Even when family incomes  increased and younger children seemed to benefit, teens took a statistical tumble.

Compared to the control groups, these youths were more likely to drink, smoke, use drugs, engage in delinquent behavior, be disruptive in school, get suspended, or show declines in school attendance or achievement. Intriguingly, the negative effects were strongest among adolescents whose mothers had either recently enrolled in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or who had strong work histories.

The researchers caution that these results are not dramatic, but they are important. Child Trends suggests three possible explanations: an erosion in the quality of the adolescent-parent relationships, a decline in parental monitoring, and a shift in adolescents' roles within their families. In other words, parents with more stress and less time and energy may talk with their teens less (or less constructively), know less about their whereabouts, and rely on them more for child care, household chores or even income.

All of these explanations make sense - not because they shed light on the dynamics of welfare families, but because they reflect common challenges faced by many families, especially those with limited incomes. The research study does more than expose some of the unintended adverse consequences of welfare eligibility changes. It provides rare comparison group data that allow us to raise broader questions:  What is the combined impact of policies that short-change teenagers in poor and low-income working families by cutting off family benefits too soon (e.g., child care subsidies, health benefits), providing community-based services too late, or misunderstanding the impact of work requirements on families with teens?

Youth advocates have argued for years that our nation's youth policies are too punitive and reactive - eschewing broad investments in prevention and in helping youth prepare for constructive adulthood in favor of funding deep end child welfare and juvenile justice. Concurrently, the welfare and juvenile justice systems skimp on investments in positive supports and opportunities for young people (such as independent living programs and after-care services). Organizations like Fight Crime: Invest in Kids have made this their mantra, arming juvenile court judges and police chiefs with evidence that youth work really does work. 

The study reminds us that the debate should not be limited to which youth programs to fund.

It should focus on which family supports to extend. In our zeal to support youth we should not underestimate the power of strengthening their greatest asset, their families. However frayed the safety net is for families with young children, it looks indestructible compared to the fragile net provided for families with teens and young adults living at home. 

Many countries have policies that acknowledge that it takes more than two decades to raise children. Scandinavian countries, for example, provide income support and supplemental supports for child care, health care, education and housing to help families ensure that their older children make successful transitions to independence. In the U.S., support for low-income families starts getting pared soon after the children get through their first decade. How many more studies will it take for us to see the consequences of our inadequate and sometimes wrongheaded youth policies?

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: