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Welfare reform shows few gains for young children, research team reports
18 April 2002

Media Relations

The slight economic gains felt by millions of single mothers who have moved off welfare and into low-wage jobs have not discernibly improved the living conditions of families or the daily lives of their young children, according to a report recently released in Washington.

This new evidence was collected from families between 1998-2000 by leading scholars based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia, Stanford, and Yale universities.

Taking a look at more than 700 single mothers for up to four years after they entered new welfare programs in California, Connecticut, and Florida, the study team confirmed earlier findings that a majority of mothers have successfully found jobs. Yet, they found that low wages coupled with high job turnover meant that few families climbed above the poverty line, with the average mother earning more than $13,000 per year.

Few women could afford to move into better neighborhoods, one in six were still visiting food banks, one-fifth lived in roach-infested housing, and two in five continued to suffer from emotional depression.

"We discovered that moving women into low-wage jobs is simply no guarantee that families will be better off or that young children will grow up in more nurturing homes," said study co-director and UC Berkeley professor, Bruce Fuller.

While political leaders generally have celebrated the precipitous fall in welfare caseloads, from 5 million in 1994 to 2.1 million late last year, little has been known about how young children are faring as their single mothers spend less time at home and more time in the labor force.

"Given that America wants children who are ready for school, it's time we get realistic about what helps or hinders that, and welfare reform is a significant and far too-frequently neglected part of that picture," said study co-author, Sharon Lynn Kagan, an international expert and professor of child and family policy at Columbia University.

These finding - stemming from the first national look at how toddlers and preschoolers have fared since then-President Clinton "ended welfare as we knew it" - arrive as the White House is floating proposals to provide incentives for marriage, to double work requirements for mothers, and to put more women to work. More broadly, the president signaled a wider focus on boosting overall family well-being and child development in announcing his welfare reform proposals in February, but few specifics related to young children have been provided.

After interviewing women twice over two years, visiting their homes, assessing children, and compiling economic data, the researchers could detect few improvement in parenting practices, such as reading with their children or setting regular meal times, nor could discernible gains be observed in mothers' affection toward their children. Two to four years since entering work-first programs, mothers continued to face tough everyday challenges of having enough money to meet the rent or buy enough food for their toddlers.

The amount of television viewing increased for young children, except for those youngsters who entered child care centers or preschools. For youngsters in child care centers or preschool, this may be an indirect benefit of welfare reform, according to the authors; less reliance on TV and more opportunity for active learning experiences.

The authors noted that many proponents of welfare reform argued in 1996 that employed mothers would offer stronger role models and provide a higher standard of living.

One encouraging finding is that toddlers who entered child care centers over the past two years - representing one-third of those studied - displayed higher levels of emerging literacy skills, compared to those who did not enter center-based programs. And children entering higher-quality centers displayed even steeper learning curves.

"Child care hassles remain a high hurdle as women try to move from welfare to work," said the study's Florida co-director, Jan McCarthy. "Two in five mothers reported that they had quit a job, or passed up a new job, due to the lack of affordable child care options."

The study revealed several unanticipated effects of welfare reform. In Connecticut, for example, women participating in the state's Jobs First program showed a lower marriage rate three years after entry, compared to a control group that faced less pressure to work.

"These women - many of whom found jobs and enjoyed gains in net income - appear to be taking the idea of self-reliance quite seriously," said Jude Carroll, the Connecticut site coordinator. "Such findings need to be factored into the Bush proposal that asks Congress for $300 million to experiment with incentives for single women who get married."

Other findings from the study include:

  • While mothers' income rose significantly, broader measures of the family's well being showed little progress. One-fifth of all mothers, for instance, had cut the size of meals for their children because they didn't have enough cash to buy more food, a proportion of families that did not decline over time. Women in the Connecticut sample reported more than $400 in total savings, on average, and $4,700 in debts.
  • Two in every five women suffered from significant levels of emotional depression. Their mental health did not improve, on average, over the follow-up period in California, and Florida. This is more than twice the incidence of depression found in the general population.
  • Many children across the three states displayed developmental delays by age 3 or 4 years. The average child scored at the 30th percentile on a comprehensive assessment of cognitive and language proficiency. Just of 30 percent of the study children could write their first name correctly, compared to 66 percent in a sample of Head Start children and 70 percent in a national sample of 4 year-olds.

The executive summary and full technical report, "New Lives for Poor Families? Mothers and Young Children Move through Welfare Reform," are online.