Research of Note for May 2003

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Congress is once again focusing on changing welfare policies, with many members supporting new proposals that include more work requirements and less money for child care. Left out of most debates is the impact of welfare reform on children and youth. Following is an analysis of several key studies that focus on that very issue.

Little Impact, but Signs of Trouble for Teens

Consequences of Welfare Reform: A Research Synthesis
Jeffrey Grogger, Lynn A. Karoly and Jacob Alex Klerman
RAND, Washington, D.C.
July 2002
Available free at

A lengthy, government-commissioned review of the best research on welfare reform evaluated the impact on the well-being of preschoolers, primary school children and adolescents. The studies began before the 1996 welfare law passed, but they evaluated some of the reforms that states made in their welfare programs in the early-to-mid 1990s. The studies evaluated outcomes such as school performance, health, foster care placements and participation in clubs and other organizations.

The focus of the studies was 24 welfare-to-work programs around the country, including programs that penalized parents for not working, work-incentive programs that provided supplemental income to those who worked, and programs run by local work force offices that provided supplemental income to those who worked and helped them with child care.

Surprisingly, work requirements did not have much impact on kids. The good news was that work incentives that allowed welfare recipients to combine work and welfare tended to result in increased family income and better adjustment for primary school-aged kids. However, there were some problems among adolescents and younger children of parents who did not experience large income gains, including lower school achievement and more behavioral problems.

Despite the high quality of the research, these findings are not necessarily applicable to current welfare programs across the United States. A major limitation is that this research looks only at the effect of welfare reform on families who receive welfare. It does not tell us how children are affected by new welfare rules that discourage families from applying for welfare. And, as the authors point out, there was too little information about time limits (on receiving welfare payments) to evaluate such limits meaningfully.

School Problems for Teens

How Welfare and Work Policies for Parents Affect Adolescents
Lisa A. Gennetian, Greg J. Duncan, Virginia W. Knox, and colleagues
Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., New York
May 2002
Available free at

This study examined how welfare and work policies targeted at low-income parents have influenced their adolescent children. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC) used a meta-analysis to examine 16 programs, some of which were identical to the studies in the RAND report (above).

A meta-analysis combines data from different studies, rather than looking at the studies individually, and looks at the findings overall.

This meta-analysis was especially interesting because it focused on studies of youths ages 12 to 18 at the time of the survey.
This study evaluated three aspects of welfare reform: mandatory employment for parents, earnings supplements (which allow working parents to keep more of their welfare benefits) and time limits placed on receiving welfare payments.

When asked about their children, parents in the reformed welfare programs reported worse school performance, a higher rate of repeating the same grade and more use of special educational services compared with children whose parents received welfare under the old, unreformed program.

However, these welfare reform programs did not affect the proportion of boys or girls who dropped out, were suspended or completed school. The percentage of adolescents who had babies also was not influenced.

No single one of the three policies explained the negative impact on adolescents. Adolescents with younger siblings experienced the most problems, including lower school performance, more suspensions and more grade repetition. Adolescents with no younger siblings showed fewer and more mixed effects. This may be because adolescents were caring for younger siblings because the working mother was less available for childcare and household chores.

The authors also analyzed adolescents in two studies who were followed for longer periods. The results were more mixed, with some studies reporting no effects on teens, some reporting decreases in teen pregnancy and others reporting increases in teen pregnancy.

The MDRC results may mean the problems discussed in the RAND study will disappear over time, or that older adolescents are less harmed by welfare limits. Or it might be that more research is needed to understand what happens to adolescents under welfare reform.

Does Mom’s Employment Increase Teens’ Self-Esteem?

Mothers’ Transitions from Welfare to Work and the Well-Being of Preschoolers and Adolescents
P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Robert A. Moffitt, Brenda J. Lohman and colleagues
Science, Vol. 299, March 2003, pgs. 1548-1552
Available by subscription. Chase-Lansdale available at

A study of 2,402 low-income children and their mothers in Chicago, Boston and San Antonio examined transitions from welfare and to employment. Researchers found that having parents move from welfare to work generally did not cause problems for the 564 preschoolers (ages 2 to 4) or 895 young adolescents (ages 10 to 14).

There was some evidence that adolescents’ health improved when their mothers moved to employment, and that teenagers experienced more behavior problems when their mothers went on welfare.

Almost half the children were African-American and almost half were Hispanic. The research was based on a 2.5-hour home interview in 1999 with the mothers and the adolescents and another about 16 months later, in 2001. The evaluation focused on the children’s achievement, problem behaviors and psychological well-being.

The study compared families that moved off welfare, those that moved onto welfare, those whose mothers moved from unemployed to employed, and those whose mothers moved from employment to unemployment. Employment was defined broadly as working at least one hour per week.

These transitions did not appear to affect preschoolers’ well-being. There was little impact on adolescents; the most consistent pattern was that mothers’ transitions into employment were modestly related to improvements in adolescents’ mental health. This may have been influenced by increases in income or self-esteem.

The increase in income resulting from employment cost mothers time with their preschoolers, but not as much with their adolescents: Preschoolers lost about two hours of time with their mothers each day, while adolescents had a net loss of only 45 minutes per day.

Why do these findings differ from the previous studies? This study includes mothers on welfare subject to mandatory work requirements as well as mothers not on welfare. This is a more accurate reflection of what is happening now, under welfare reform, but it does not tell us about the effect of welfare reform itself. Measures in this study are more extensive than in experimental studies. Also, the teens in this study were younger at the end of the study than they were in the MRDC report.

Teen Mothers Lose Out on Benefits

Knocking on the Door: Barriers to Welfare and other Assistance for Teen Parents
Deborah L. Shapiro and Helene M. Marcy
Center for Impact Research, Chicago
April 2002
Available free at

There is surprisingly little research on the impact of welfare reform on teen mothers. This more subjective study is based on surveys of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients and others in Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston.

Interviews were conducted by low-income young mothers who were trained and paid to interview teen mothers in their communities. The surveys were not conducted on a random sample of teen mothers, so this study does not compare with the others in terms of scientific rigor. Nonetheless, the results raise interesting questions that deserve attention.

The survey found that some teen parents were not getting the opportunity to apply for TANF benefits and others were having trouble keeping the benefits. For example, between 16 and 46 percent of those who were not receiving TANF but had tried to apply had been turned away from the government offices and were not able to complete applications.

Another 12 percent to 19 percent were able to complete applications but were never contacted by the TANF agency about receiving assistance. About 50 percent to 60 percent of those who applied were deemed ineligible because they were not attending school or did not satisfy other requirements.

The authors concluded that some needy teen parents are not receiving assistance for two reasons: Caseworkers were not always completely aware of the TANF policies for teen parents, and TANF agencies do not give teen parents the time they need to comply with TANF requirements.

The survey also found that many of the older teen parents (18 or 19) had not received high school diplomas or GEDs, and that some younger teens were not in school. Some teen parents did not access other services for which they might have been eligible, such as medical assistance, child care, food stamps and WIC. This was a problem for all teen moms, whether or not they were on welfare. Regardless of what these studies show, their usefulness for predicting what will happen to welfare families in 2003 is limited. As jobs become harder to find, what will happen to families that are up against time limits for welfare benefits?

Will more adolescents quit school to support their families if their mothers are unable to find or keep jobs? Will difficulty finding affordable child care make it even more difficult for adolescents to stay in school while their mothers go back to work?

Research conducted so far can’t answer these questions. Youth workers may find the answers themselves as they work with the children and families.