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Children whose mothers participated in experimental state welfare-reform that provided cash supplements and generous subsidies for child care and health care benefited more from these new plans than from the old welfare system, say the results of a meta-analysis of welfare-reform research. In particular, the study finds, programs in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Canada that gave newly working single mothers cash supplements appear to lead to positive academic and behavioral outcomes in their children.

The meta-analysis provides some of the only data to show positive effects on children whose parents leave welfare or participate in other new welfare programs, says Sheldon Danziger, PhD, a welfare researcher and professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan. Other studies tracking welfare reform's impact on children have generally found neutral effects on children's well-being and some reduction in child poverty.

It's important to note, however, Danziger says, that these results apply to particularly generous demonstration programs that required increased state spending.

"There is no indication that any states are adopting programs based on these demonstration projects," Danziger says. "In fact, there is no evidence to date that state programs now in place will end up benefiting children as much as these experimental programs."

The study does, however, give states valuable information because it's the first to compare the way different kinds of welfare programs affect child well-being, says the study's principal investigator, Pamela Morris, PhD, a developmental psychologist with the social policy research organization Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) in New York.

The findings give states--many of which have large unspent welfare budgets--research-based ideas on how to craft their programs, she says.

"The study results suggest that states now have a choice," Morris says. They can save state budget funds by spending less on programs that have proven to increase employment but have few positive effects on children. Or they can spend more on programs that boost employment as well as positively affect child development.

Cash assistance helps

For the study, Morris and colleagues Aletha Huston, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, Greg Duncan, PhD, of Northwestern University, Danielle Crosby, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin and Johannes Bos, PhD, of MDRC, examined the effects on children of 11 experimental welfare and anti-poverty programs in the United States and Canada.

The programs were included in five program evaluations conducted earlier by MDRC. The Canadian programs were an interesting addition to the mix, says Morris, because Canada has undergone a welfare reform transition similar to that of the United States, but tends to provide former recipients with more generous cash assistance.

The researchers compared academic, behavioral and health measures in about 7,000 children whose parents were engaged in these experimental programs with those same indices in control groups of youngsters living under the old welfare rules, such as Aid for Families with Dependent Children. The measures of children's well-being were equivalent across the studies, assuring that the data were being compared in a consistent manner, Morris notes.

Four of the experimental programs provided different types of earning supplements to aid parents returning to work: Three gave direct cash supplements that were either linked to the women's paychecks or that proportionally increased the amount of welfare payments they received in addition to their paycheck. One--the New Hope program in Milwaukee, Wis.--provided both cash payments and generous child-care and health-care subsidies.

Six of the programs provided only mandatory employment services, which made continued receipt of welfare benefits contingent on active job searching, job education or job training. One combined elements of both the cash-assistance and mandatory employment activity designs, and one set time limits for welfare benefits that some participants reached during the course of the study.

In the end, the researchers found that children of mothers who received income supplements fared better in school and were better behaved than youngsters in the control group or those in the other experimental conditions. Earning supplements were also linked to increases in positive social behavior and physical health. The generous New Hope program had a particularly salutary academic effect on boys, the team found.

One finding highlights a possible reason for the academic gains made by some youngsters, says Morris. Parents in some of the experimental groups enrolled their children more often than controls in afterschool programs, presumably because of increased income.

Getting a closer look

These findings are underscored by more qualitative results from another ongoing MDRC study being conducted in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami on about 150 families who relied on welfare when they enrolled in the study.

"These two different studies use very different methodologies and draw on very different kinds of data, yet they tell a very similar story," says Kent State University sociologist Andrew London, PhD, one of the study's ethnographers.

This qualitative study also shows that if women are able to transition to work and substantially increase their earnings, they feel that they and their children are better off. That circumstance, however, is rare, he says.

Adds London, "But if women go to work and their incomes don't increase, they often report that they're much less happy with their situation or that their situation hasn't changed. They talk a lot about the work-family trade-offs they have to grapple with. They wish they had more time with their kids and worry that their absence from home may have negative short- and long-term effects on their kids."

Two examples from the study illustrate these extremes. Susan, a 36-year-old woman, had two teen-age sons who were quite independent when she joined the ethnographic study in Cleveland. Susan left the rolls early in the study and took a job as a medical assistant where she doubled her welfare income and received medical, dental, vacation and retirement benefits. The large medical practice she worked for also provided tuition benefits that let her pursue a four-year nursing degree. Her boys liked the fact that she was working, Susan said, and in general, working and earning more made her and them feel better about themselves. While she said she felt too rushed now that she was combining work and single parenting, the benefits of her new lifestyle outweighed the negatives, she told the team.

By contrast, Danielle, a 25-year-old Philadelphia woman with two younger children, spent most of the first year of the study combining welfare and work. She went from one low-paying job to the next, none of which offered benefits or sufficient, reliable income. Toward the end of the first year of the study, she let her welfare benefits lapse, and resorted to two under-the-table jobs--tending bar and delivering pizzas--to make ends meet.

Danielle told the team that work interfered with her "family time." While she liked working, she wished she could work less so she could spend more time with her children. In fact, the school principal told her that her daughter was acting out in school and chided Danielle for not giving her enough attention. In exasperation, Danielle shared her thoughts toward the principal with the interviewers: "How do you expect me to spend time with my kid when I've gotta work? You tell me to spend time with my kid, welfare's telling me to go to work."

As the national team of urban change researchers collect and synthesize more data, they hope to develop a full-scale picture of how welfare reform is affecting former recipients and being implemented on the institutional level. Besides the ethnographic component, the team is:

  • Collecting longitudinal survey data on about 4,000 women.

  • Examining administrative records over a 10-year period.

  • Tracking neighborhood changes in crime, teen birth rates, poverty and other indictors.

  • Studying the experiences of welfare agencies as they implement new reform policies.

  • Examining how reform affects nonprofit institutions.

London and Kent State sociologist Ellen Scott, PhD, are co-directing the ethnographic and institutional portions of the Cleveland site, while their colleague Kathyrn Edin, PhD, of Northwestern University directs the overall ethnographic component of the study as well as the ethnographic and institutional components of the Philadelphia site.

"When we put all of these things together, we hope to get a comprehensive picture of the impact of welfare reform on women and their children," London says. "It's a difficult study, but it's a really important one."

Further Reading

Findings from these two projects can be found by logging onto the MDRC's Web site, www.mdrc.org.