Welfare Reform and Urban Children. ERIC Digest.
by Schwartz, Wendy
The most commonly stated goals of welfare reform, as implemented through
the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of
1996 (PRWORA), are a reduction of the number of individuals receiving financial
aid and an increase in the number of people working (Ripke & Crosby,
2002). Supporters also anticipated a variety of benefits for those transitioning
from welfare to work and for their families. With the reauthorization of
the Federal legislation planned for Spring 2003, researchers are attempting
to determine whether welfare reform is having positive developmental and
academic effects on the children who lost assistance. They are revisiting
the findings from evaluations of pre-PRWORA on welfare-to-work programs
and from longitudinal studies of the effects of poverty on children. The
researchers are then applying those findings to the circumstances of families
impacted by PRWORA. They are also conducting new research on the effects
of the Act. This digest, based on the findings of a large variety of studies,
reviews the known effects of PRWORA on children to date, and discusses
the Act's possible future effects.
WELFARE REFORM AND FAMILY INCOME
Ongoing Federal cash assistance to low-income families was ended in
1996 with the substitution of the PRWORA for previous welfare programs.
The Act requires most adults to get jobs, but it also provides funds to
states through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants
for the support of people still eligible for welfare, and through additional
allotments for child care. The states have some discretion in how they
appropriate TANF funds (i.e., outright payments for five years or so, food
stamps, job training), but in general less public money is available to
increase the income and opportunities of poor families (Ripke & Crosby,
Statistics from a Federal government report (Federal Interagency Forum,
2002) indicate a positive trend in poverty reduction. The child poverty
rate in 1999 and 2000 was 16 percent, down from a high of 22 percent in
1993, with the decline steepest for African American children in female-householder
families. Slightly less than one percent of children resided in households
reporting child hunger, although 18 percent lived with "food insecurity,"
percentages also lower than in previous years.
Other sources are not optimistic that the trend will persist. They cite
these supporting facts: Former welfare recipients often get jobs resulting
in no more family income than welfare payments and offering none of the
health care or other benefits previously available through assistance programs.
Transitioning workers frequently cycle in and out of employment, leaving
their families without any earned income for periods of time and ineligible
for government assistance. Many families therefore have less disposable
income than previously (Ripke & Crosby, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2002).
Further, as the economy continues to decline, even more newer and less-skilled
workers will be jobless again (Weil & Finegold, 2002).
Families need disposable income to provide children with educational
and recreational enrichment at home, and to offset the negative effects
of living in underresourced and sometimes violence-prone communities. In
urban areas, expensive housing, inferior schools, and high costs of living
further increase the need for more income (Blum & Francis, 2002). Thus,
many researchers assert that of all the potential benefits of welfare reform,
the most important by far is simply an increase in family income (Sherman,
2001) because "[e]conomically secure children tend to be healthier and
do better in school... [and] less likely to be involved in criminal behavior
and more likely to graduate from high school and to earn higher incomes..."
(Zedlewski, 2002, p. 123). Further, when coupled with increased income
security, parents' acquisition of new skills, increased self esteem, and
job stability and satisfaction can alleviate the family stress, emotional
distress, violence, and dysfunction that can impede child development.
In many cases, though, the transition to work has not yet increased
family income. Further, boring and frustrating jobs that pay little but
leave workers ineligible for government subsidies, and play havoc with
child care and home schedules, often increase negative parent behaviors
and limit their ability to promote their children's development and education.
Therefore, most researchers assert that supplemental funds to increase
family and community resources for child development are still needed (Blum
& Francis, 2002; Chase-Lansdale & Duncan, 2001; Ripke & Crosby,
2002; Weil & Finegold, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2000; 2002; Zedlewski,
PUBLIC AND FAMILY RESOURCES TO SUPPORT CHILD DEVELOPMENT
PRWORA requires nearly all mothers with children age one or older to
get jobs, and has increased the amount of Federal funds available for child
care to promote compliance. To increase poor families' options, Head Start--the
universally well-regarded Federal programwhich traditionally has been a
half-day program with heavy parent involvement--is experimenting with new
models to meet the needs of the growing number of working mothers. Indeed,
studies consistently show that high quality child care providing early
learning interventions, particularly for poor children, improves both school
readiness and later learning; it is frequently superior to staying at home
with a parent (Ripke & Crosby, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2002).
Still, even if families are able to take advantage of subsidies--which
have proven to be difficult to get--good center-based child care, particularly
programs with flexible hours to accommodate shift work, is hard to find,
and it is disproportionately expensive for the poor. Thus, poor families
remain heavy users of informal, unlicensed care with very minimal educational
value (Ripke & Crosby, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2002).
Participation in after-school and summer programs enhances student academic
achievement, supports the development of a wide range of competencies,
and limits opportunities for delinquent behavior. However, even before
their parents were required to work, poor children and adolescents were
likely to spend less time engaged in structured activities than other children
because their parents lacked the funds for private enrichment programs
and poor communities lacked sufficient affordable public programs. Traditionally,
they spent more time on their own, frequently watching television, a situation
related to lower academic performance.
After-school programs can benefit poor youth by providing both supplementary
education and a safe place to spend time with likeminded peers and supportive
adults. But, as yet, funds to develop them in poor neighborhoods, and the
disposable income to enable families to pay for the programs that do exist,
have yet to materialize through welfare reform (Chase-Lansdale, & Duncan,
2001; Ripke & Crosby, 2002).
Information on the school performance of students whose families are
transitioning to work results primarily from studies using data collected
from parent surveys. Thus, while comprehensive statistics on important
indicators are not now known, some potentially useful information is available.
One large research synthesis prepared by the Manpower Demonstration
Research Corporation (MRDC) produced some disturbing information about
adolescents in newly working families: "worse school performance, a higher
rate of grade repetition, and more use of special education services" (Gennetian
et al., 2002, p. 111). Its authors attributed these poor school outcomes
to a lack of supervised after-school programs and youth's assumption of
adult responsibilities at home, including care for younger children. While,
overall, students did not experience higher dropout, suspension, or expulsion
rates, these rates did rise for youth taking care of siblings.
Another evaluation based on MRDC's data reviewed younger children (Sherman,
2001) and showed more positive outcomes. Here, the author found gains in
math scores and in teacher- and parent-rated academic performance for children
whose families' income increased as a result of employment.
A study based on a comparison of children whose parents participated
in welfare-to-work programs and a control group found that the children
of parents in the program demonstrated a slight improvement in cognitive
development and academic achievement (Zaslow, McGroder, & Moore, 2000).
Its authors also suggested that improvements in parenting, a by-product
of job satisfaction and the acquisition of a range of new skills, may result
in additional achievement gains for children. But they cautioned that the
control group children's lower performance might result from having higher
risk parents (as indicated by their lack of selection for the program).
Effective job training has been shown to boost the ability of previously
low-skilled parents to support their children's learning. PRWORA, as now
promulgated, however, provides very limited adult training opportunities
and usually does not allow cash assistance for parents in higher education
(Ripke & Crosby, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2002).
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE RESEARCH
Sherman (2001) demonstrated that every welfare-to-work program that
lifted participants' average incomes by 5 percent or more had mostly good
effects on children, whereas those that reduced income by at least 5 percent
had mostly bad effects. Thus, according to the research findings discussed
above, the success of welfare reform in terms of its ability to increase
poor children's well-being may hinge on how well the government meets family
shortfalls and implements the strategies needed to prevent negative effects
from the tradeoff between more parent work time and less parent-child time.
These additional supports include renewed assistance upon unemployment,
increased and vigorous promotion of free and subsidized child health insurance
and food programs, development of high quality child care alternatives,
ongoing subsidies for parents unable to work, and assistance for currently
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Past, present, and future, 2002 edition. New York: National Center for
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Chase-Lansdale, P.L., & Duncan, G.J. (2001). Lessons learned. In
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appears to hinge on income. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.
Weil, A., & Finegold, K. (2002). Introduction. In A. Weil &
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Zedlewski, S.R. (2002, Winter/Spring). Family economic resources in
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