The Effect of Parental Work History and Public Assistance Use on the Transition to Adulthood

By Berzin, Stephanie Cosner; De Marco, Allison C. et al. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Effect of Parental Work History and Public Assistance Use on the Transition to Adulthood


Berzin, Stephanie Cosner, De Marco, Allison C., Shaw, Terry V., Unick, George J., Hogan, Sean R., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Though available data suggest a relationship between poverty and emerging adulthood, fewer studies have been conducted to assess whether parental work or public assistance mediates these outcomes. Using the National Survey of Families and Households, this study examines the effect of work-reliant versus welfare-reliant households on youth outcomes (i.e., welfare use, education, idleness, and income) during the transition to adulthood. Examining parents from Wave 1 and older youth from Wave 2, researchers linked childhood poverty, parents' work history, family income from work, years on public assistance, and family income from public assistance with youth outcomes. Consistent with previous research, links exist between poverty in childhood and transition outcomes; however, these outcomes are not mediated by parental work history or extent of welfare reliance during childhood. Multivariate analyses indicate that growing up in a heavily work-oriented environment or a heavily welfare-reliant environment made little difference in the youth's ability to successfully transition to adulthood. Results are discussed in terms of their implications for welfare policy.

Keywords: poverty, welfare, adolescent transitions

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There is substantial evidence that growing up in poverty challenges children's optimal development. Children who grow up in low-income families are often in poorer health, less prepared academically, and have less successful transitions to adulthood than their more advantaged peers (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 2000).

According to the Census Bureau (2004), for the third year in a row the US poverty rate grew, from 12.1% in 2002 to 12.5% in 2003, moving an additional 1.3 million people into poverty. Considerable research has assessed the impact of public provisions (e.g., cash aid, Medicaid, and food stamps) on these families (e.g. Moffit, Cherlin, Burton, King, & Roff, 2002; Vandivere, Moore, & Brown, 2000). Further, with current welfare policies promoting work, the body of literature related to program efficacy continues to grow. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about the differential effects of work-reliant versus welfare-reliant environments on the outcomes of low-income children.

This study aims to fill that gap by examining the effect household environment during childhood (i.e., work-reliant or welfare-reliant) has on adolescent transitions to adulthood. Areas of interest include future public assistance use, educational attainment, income and idleness (i.e., neither working, in the military, or in school). The central question explored in this study concerns the extent to which these markers of successful transitions to adulthood are shaped by the family's source of income, as well as the adolescent's gender, ethnicity, parental education, and family structure. We expect that the environment poor parents provide for their families, either work-reliant or welfare-reliant, will lead to different outcomes in their children's transitions to adulthood.

Poverty, both directly, through poor nutrition, dangerous neighborhoods, and inadequate housing, and indirectly, through parenting styles, can negatively affect children's life chances. Poor children are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems, be in fair or poor health, have problems in school, such as increased risk of grade repetition and high school dropout, lower college attendance and fewer total years of education, and live in poor neighborhoods and unhealthy home environments, characterized by exposure to crime and toxins (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Sherman, 1997; Vandivere, et al., 2000).

Low-income parents are more likely to be in poor health, both emotionally and physically (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 2000; McLoyd & Wilson, 1990). Parent irritability and depression are associated with more conflictual interactions with adolescents, leading to less satisfactory emotional, social, and cognitive development (Flanagan, 1990; Lutenbacher & Hall, 1998).

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