When President Clinton signed the 1996 bill ending "welfare as we know it," many Americans saw the revamped system as a way to motivate people to self-sufficiency. Others feared the bold policy would put millions of poor women and children out on the streets.

The reality of welfare reform, it appears, lies somewhere between these extremes.

The law--The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996--gutted the mainstay of welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replacing it with cash welfare block grants to the states, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The law also set a federal five-year time limit for recipients to leave welfare over a lifetime, and many families have lost ancillary benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid due to such factors as confusion over continued eligibility and inability to visit benefits offices during business hours. The 1996 law also removed a blanket child-care entitlement for all welfare recipients, giving states the power to determine who is eligible.

Research by psychologists and others is beginning to show the impact the act is having on women and children: While more than 60 percent of women have left welfare and their earnings are greater than before, these women still face substantial psychological and economical odds.

In effect, research is finding, they face the same problems they had before leaving welfare. Now they have the added stress of entering the workplace while trying to care for their children, which they are facing with little or no access to mental health services.

"Leaving welfare for employment is not an end to a poor single woman's difficulties," observes welfare-reform researcher Rukmalie Jayakody, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University. "Obtaining employment and now having to juggle the difficulties of work schedules, transportation and child care may only increase these women's levels of stress and anxiety."

Meanwhile, in the nation's capital, the welfare debate is heating up again as Congress prepares to reauthorize several portions of the 1996 welfare reform act--including TANF, child-care subsidies, food stamps and funding for sexual-abstinence programs--by the end of 2002. APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) is working with APA's Urban Initiatives Office to ensure that psychology's view is included in the 2002 reauthorization. Their work is highlighting the research on these women and proposing stronger safety nets for those who leave the welfare system.

Added psychological stressors

Research by psychologists and others shows that women on welfare are more likely to be depressed and to face substance abuse problems--findings that argue for more psychological interventions at a time when too little attention has been paid to providing accessible and affordable mental health services to these women, says Marsha Jenakovich, formerly APA's urban initiatives officer.

For example, in her research in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 357-376), Joy Rice, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, observes that most postwelfare jobs pay poverty wages, are unstable, lack health benefits and are concentrated in low-paying service industries such as restaurants, bars and home child care. Such conditions are likely to lead women back onto welfare, notes Rice, a psychologist and women's studies expert. Data from recent studies show that about a third of the women who leave welfare return within a year, and about 40 to 50 percent return within two years.

"Jobs that cannot lift you out of poverty are likely to lead to a revolving door of welfare to work and back," Rice says.

Research by Penn State's Jayakody supports the idea that poor single mothers are more likely than the general population to suffer from depression and other mental health problems--problems that may manifest in the workplace as irritability or interpersonal problems, she adds, making these women vulnerable to losing their jobs. In a study Jayakody conducted with Sheldon Danziger, PhD, and Harold Pollack, PhD, both of the University of Michigan, the team found that single mothers on welfare were more likely to be alcohol-dependent, depressed, agoraphobic and smokers than single mothers not on welfare and that they're more likely to report using illegal substances, including marijuana and cocaine. Their national survey examined data from the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse on 2,728 single mothers, ages 18 and older. Their work appears in the August 2000 Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.

Not surprisingly, psychologists' research also indicates that women with fewer psychological and health problems fare better at work after leaving welfare. The study was conducted by Sandra Danziger, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Ariel Kalil, PhD, of the University of Chicago and research associate Nathaniel Anderson, of the University of Michigan. So far, the team has examined two waves of data on 700 white and African-American single mothers in Michigan participating in Michigan's reform program as they stayed on welfare or found jobs over the course of a year. Their latest results were published in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 637-656).

Ideas for reforming 'reform'

These findings and others have led to specific policy recommendations for states looking for solutions in the aftermath of welfare reform. They include:

* Offering specialized substance-abuse counseling for drug-addicted welfare recipients.

* Targeting families who are experiencing acute life crises for psychosocial interventions.

* Viewing all poor families, not just welfare recipients, as needing services.

* Providing ongoing case-management for those attempting to leave welfare and those who have left.

* Ensuring that the jobs available to welfare recipients provide family-friendly and supportive benefits.

But from the perspective of APA's constituencies, welfare reform needs more than individual remedies to cure its ills. In fact, it is factors outside these women's reach--in particular, poverty, racism and classism--that reform efforts should target. Several APA entities--including the APA Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women) Task Force on Women and Poverty, Committee on Urban Initiatives, APA's Women's Programs Office, its Urban Initiatives Program, and its Public Policy Office--are coordinating policy initiatives to address these factors (see related article).

Psychologists can continue to contribute much to understanding all of these areas, says Jenakovich. Areas for involvement include conducting research on ways to prevent poverty, such as identifying effective models of systems change and community involvement, and measuring how better education and adequate transportation may help to bolster people's economic potential. Psychologists are also well-equipped to develop, implement and evaluate anti-poverty programs, and to create more effective interventions for serving the poor, she says.

Bernice Lott, PhD, professor emerita of psychology and women's studies at the University of Rhode Island, adds that psychologists should investigate the factors that prompt society to maintain a poor class. "The U.S. differs from most of the industrial world by denying people access to resources that would greatly reduce poverty," Lott says. "It is these resources we need to focus on."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.