A Welfare-to-Work Study Finds No Harm to Children

New York Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. March 6, 2003 Poor children suffer no psychological damage when their mothers move from welfare to work, as millions of women have in recent years, a major new study says. Among adolescents in such families, the researchers say, mental health may actually have improved.

The research, financed by the National Institutes of Health and being published on Friday in the journal Science, provides the most extensive evidence yet to answer questions that have been swirling around one of the biggest experiments in American social policy in the last half-century. The study suggests that the 1996 welfare overhaul does not pose the harm many people feared when it was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The law established strict work requirements for welfare recipients, with tough penalties for those who flouted the rules, and set a five-year lifetime limit on payment of federal welfare benefits to any family. The law's critics predicted that it would increase poverty and misery among children. Its supporters said growing up on welfare harmed children, by fostering dependency and sapping initiative.

Bills reauthorizing the welfare program, passed by the House and pending in the Senate, would increase the work requirements, and the newly reported study could give ammunition to supporters of those more stringent provisions.

The researchers studied preschoolers and adolescents in 2,400 families in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. They found that the mothers' transition from welfare to work did not harm the emotional development, intellectual achievement or mental health of the children.

"This study provides reassurance that mothers may leave welfare and enter the job market without harmful effects to their preschoolers or young adolescents," said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a unit of the N.I.H.

The researchers said adolescents whose mothers had begun working reported small but "statistically significant declines in psychological distress," including symptoms of anxiety. Some adolescents also reported significant declines in delinquent behavior like the use of drugs and alcohol after their mothers left welfare.

The researchers said they had detected neither harmful nor beneficial effects on preschool children when their mothers went from welfare to work.

"The positive and negative aspects of going off welfare or getting a job may cancel each other out" in these families, said P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, who directed the study.

When mothers of preschoolers went to work, the study found, family incomes increased, but the mothers' time with the children, 2 to 4 years old, decreased. "These two effects may have offset each other," the report said.

The researchers found a different experience among adolescents. Family income increased when their mothers went to work, but the women did not substantially reduce the time spent with the children, ages 10 to 14.

Women in the study kept diaries showing how they spent their time. When mothers of adolescents left welfare and took jobs, they cut back on their own personal, social and educational activities, so there was only a small net reduction in the hours they spent with their children.

Dr. Chase-Lansdale said the changes in the lives of the families in the study had occurred in a booming economy. In a weak economy, she said, it might have been more difficult for women to leave welfare and find jobs, and the jobs might have paid less.

One of the more remarkable findings is that when mothers went to work, their household income nearly doubled, and most of the families were lifted out of poverty. Before they went to work, their average income was 35 percent below the poverty level. After they took jobs, their income was more than 25 percent above the poverty level.

"For a family of four, that represents an increase of $10,000 a year," Dr. Chase-Lansdale said.

The researchers offered several explanations for the findings concerning the children's well-being.

"The self-esteem of mothers of adolescents often significantly increased when those mothers went to work and often significantly decreased when they left work," the study said. Adolescents seemed to thrive when their parents had a positive self-image.

Moreover, the authors said, "adolescents are perceptive and sensitive to the pressures of poverty and economic hardship in their families," so their "anxiety levels may decrease as they see their mothers going to work each day."

Conversely, the researchers said, when mothers leave the labor force, adolescent children are more likely to display behavioral problems. "Teenagers may express their feelings of disappointment or worry about finances as depression or anger when their mothers leave employment," the study said.

The 1996 law ended a 60-year-old federal guarantee of cash assistance for the nation's poorest children and gave each state a lump sum of money, with vast discretion to run its own welfare program. The number of people on welfare plunged to five million in September 2002 from 12.2 million in 1996.

The new study does not predict whether gains from the 1996 law will endure. The researchers said they hoped to follow children in the study for 15 to 20 years.


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