Beyond Welfare or Work: Teen Mothers, Household Subsistence Strategies, and Child Development Outcomes

Article excerpt

There is probably no aspect of the work versus welfare debate that is more contested than the effects of welfare use on child development outcomes. Liberals tend to emphasize the detrimental effects of poverty and welfare stigma on children, while conservatives cite the negative socialization that occurs regarding the value of work within welfare dependent families. However, large scale longitudinal studies that have been used to address this question only indirectly measure critical influences on child development such as maternal mental health and do not consider the effect that a range of economic strategies that low-income mothers might undertake may have on their children. In this analysis, we employ data from a longitudinal study of 173 teen-mothers to assess the relative effects of maternal characteristics and economic strategies on the developmental outcomes of their children at time of school entry. Two principal findings emerge. First, over the period from their first teen birth to the reference child's entry into school, the sample subjects used a variety of household economic strategies aside from the simple welfare versus work dichotomy that is commonly used to depict the choices of teen-mothers. Second, while maternal depression appears linked to the prevalence of problem behaviors in early childhood, the particular economic strategies used by the mothers in the sample do not explain any variation in either the prevalence of problem behaviors or in children's learning preparation for school entry. These findings support the perspective that the influence of teen mothers' parenting qualities on child development cannot be assessed through an analysis of their labor force participation, use of welfare, or other strategies of household subsistence.

**********

In Making Ends Meet (1996), Edin and Lein's widely read ethnography of low income single mothers, a very different and compelling portrait emerges of poor women and their families from those imageries commonly employed by proponents of both sides in the national debate on welfare policy. The women described in the book are neither "welfare queens" nor the perpetual victims of an indifferent society, but rather pragmatic actors living in difficult circumstances who engage in a variety of material strategies to minimize economic risks and maximize the survival and well-being of their children.

Although a rich and refreshing departure from the often murky quantitative studies of work and welfare among poor families that dominate the welfare policy literature, the conclusions derived from Edin and Lein's study may be unconvincing to many because they are not based on the positivist conventions of probability sampling and multivariate analysis. Additionally, Edin and Lein focus on the motivations and intentions of low-income mothers, rather than the impact of household-level decisions on specific child development outcomes. In this paper, we seek to test the conceptions that emerged in Making Ends Meet by examining the economic activities and choices of a cohort of teenage mothers followed since 1988 by researchers at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. We also examine whether particular income maintenance strategies appear to influence key developmental outcomes in the first-born children of teen mothers, independently of other maternal characteristics. Before describing the details of our analysis and our findings, we provide a brief review of the welfare versus work literature that frames the context for our study.

Work, Welfare, and the Economic Bases of Low Income Single Parent Families

We chose a cohort of teen-mothers to examine the economic strategies of the working poor because as a group teen-mothers are at highest risk for long term welfare dependence. In perhaps the most precise categorization of individual household heads at risk of long-term welfare receipt, Duncan et. …