Welfare Reform and Parenting: Reasonable Expectations

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Although the primary goals of federal welfare reform legislation were to move welfare mothers into the workforce and reduce births outside of marriage, promotion of responsible parenting was also an important underlying theme. Parenting is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, however, encompassing a wide range of functions related to nurturing, discipline, stimulation, values, activities, and routines. This article provides a framework for assessing the impact of welfare reform on various dimensions of parenting, with the following key findings:

* Many aspects of life affect parenting and child development, such as parent characteristics, child characteristics, family economic resources, family structure, parental mental health, marital or partner relationships, and the quality of parents' kin and social networks.

* About two-thirds of states are using federal welfare funds to promote better parenting through programs such as home visits to new parents and parenting classes, but virtually no state parenting programs have been evaluated.

* Welfare reform appears to have limited effects on parenting. The only dimension of parenting significantly affected by some welfare demonstration programs was parents' choice of child care settings and extracurricular activities for their children.

* The programs with the greatest positive impact on parenting were those with more generous work supports and more flexible work requirements. Not only did these programs lead to different choices concerning child care and activities for preschool and school-age children, but they also resulted in more stable marriages and less violence between partners, which also could lead to improved parenting.

The authors conclude that many important aspects of the connection between welfare reform and parenting have yet to be examined, and that further research is needed to identify the ways states' welfare programs can promote better parenting.

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Welfare reform in the 1990s--beginning with state waivers and culminating in the federal welfare reform law enacted in 1996--represents the most wide-ranging change in policies for low-income families since the first federal welfare program began in 1935. (See the article by Greenberg and colleagues in this journal issue.) Although the primary goals of reform were to move welfare mothers into the workforce and reduce births outside of marriage, promotion of responsible parenting is an underlying theme in many of the law's provisions. (1)

The law does not specify what constitutes responsible parenthood, but about two-thirds of states are using federal welfare funds to promote better parenting practices as part of their new welfare programs. (2) In addition, policymakers argue that parental employment, family income, and family structure all have significant implications for parenting. For example, proponents of welfare reform believe that if mothers leave welfare for employment, they will be better parents because they will provide better routines and serve as better role models for their children. Similarly, those who view welfare reform as a pathway out of poverty argue that increased economic resources will lead to better parenting. Finally, those who champion welfare reform as a way to promote marriage believe that married parents are more effective than single parents.

In policy debates over welfare reform, parenting tends to be discussed simplistically. A more thoughtful discussion requires a better understanding of what shapes parenting. In reality, parenting is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that ignites controversy in scientific and policy circles but is also a very personal, private experience. This article provides a framework for assessing the impact of welfare reform on parenting. The first section reviews the scientific literature describing the multiple dimensions of parenting and discusses how each dimension is linked to child development. …