Welfare, Work and Children

Study suggests welfare reform not harmful, says LSOE faculty member

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The question was one of the most controversial, and potentially troubling, aspects of welfare reform: How would children cope once their mothers moved from welfare to work, as mandated by Congress in 1996?

Rebekah Levine Coley
Now, a recently released study co-authored by Asst. Prof. Rebekah Levine Coley (LSOE) offers a cautious and preliminary, but optimistic answer.

Coley and her fellow researchers found that children generally were not harmed by the welfare-to-work transition, and in the case of young adolescents, benefited slightly as a result of their mothers' finding employment.

The study, results of which were published in the March 7 edition of Science magazine [available on-line at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/299/5612/1548], drew upon data from a survey of 2,402 low-income children and their mothers in poor neighborhoods of Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. Researchers from BC, Johns Hopkins University and Northwestern University analyzed the children's cognitive and socio-emotional development as it related to their mothers' transitions into and out of employment and welfare during a period of approximately 16 months.

Contrary to earlier experimental studies, children did not show any significant negative effects from their mothers' entry into the workforce. Furthermore, the new study indicated that the mothers did not sacrifice time spent with their adolescent children for the increased income from employment.

The results may be heartening, but they come with a pretty sizable "however" tag attached, says Coley, and should not be part of a rush to judgment on the success or failure of welfare reform.

"This is a very high-poverty sample," she said in a recent interview, "and the children who were studied are developmentally worse than children in middle or higher-income families. What we are saying here is, 'There is no evidence that welfare reform has had a serious detrimental effect on the children whose mothers went to work.'

"It is, of course, very good news to see this. But not doing worse does not mean doing well. We obviously did not 'fix' poverty or all the problems associated with it through welfare reform."

Coley points out, for example, that the study took place between 1999 and 2001, a time when the United States boom economy lowered unemployment and elevated wages among low-skilled workers. "So one question to examine would be, has the economic downturn of the past year or so affected the mothers who have made the transition to work? And if so, what has been the effect on their children?"

The study focused on three crucial elements of children's development: cognitive achievement, problem behaviors, and psychological well-being. Researchers also separated the children into pre-school (2-4 years) and young adolescent (10-14 years) age groups.

For the former group, whether or not a mother left welfare, entered welfare, took a job, or left a job during the time period the study occurred had no discernable link with preschoolers' development.

Those adolescents whose mothers began working - whether for one or more hours or 40 hours and whether short- or long-term - showed statistically significant declines in psychological distress. Similarly, mothers' exits from employment sometimes were associated with increases in adolescents' depressive and aggressive behavior problems. In addition, the researchers found modest evidence that mothers' exits from the welfare system were related to enhanced cognitive achievement and reduced drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Entrances onto welfare showed the opposite pattern.

A likely explanation for the findings, the researchers said, is that 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. Similarly, teenagers may express their feelings of disappointment or worry about finances as depression or anger when their mothers leave employment.

Analyzing the results for the preschoolers, Coley said she and her colleagues found there was a trade-off between time and money when mothers went to work. Family income increased and mothers' time with children decreased, so these two effects may have offset each other, leading to the extensive lack of findings for preschoolers' outcomes.

Coley notes that, according to this and other studies, mothers who went to work tend to compensate for time away from children by cutting back on sleep, leisure, volunteer work or other activities that did not involve their children. Such choices may have long-term, and potentially negative, consequences - less time for involvement with their child's school, for example - that bear watching.

"These findings, if anything, make it all the more important to keep a close eye on families where the mother is making a welfare-to-work transition. You have to put your different bodies of research together to form a more complete picture."


Return to March 28 menu

Return to Chronicle home page