Children and Welfare Reform: Analysis and Recommendations

By Shields, Margie K.; Behraman, Richard E. | The Future of Children, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Children and Welfare Reform: Analysis and Recommendations


Shields, Margie K., Behraman, Richard E., The Future of Children


Children do best when they grow up in low-conflict families, with parents who are married to each other and who earn enough to meet their family's needs. The evidence on this is strong and widely accepted. (1) The challenge for our nation's welfare system is to determine how best to help children in families that do not have the support of both parents and that do not have enough income. About half the children born in the 1980s will spend some time in a single-parent family before age 18. (2) More than one-third will spend some of their childhood living in poverty. (3)

The federal welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, sought to reduce the number of children growing up in poor, single-parent families by promoting marriage and requiring mothers to move from welfare to work. This journal issue examines not only whether the programs implemented since reform accomplished these goals, but also whether they benefited children. Such an examination is especially timely as Congress begins to debate reauthorization of the federal welfare reform law (which expires in September 2002) and as an economic downturn changes the prospects for families striving for greater self-sufficiency.

This article reviews the main themes of the journal issue by summarizing what the new social policy landscape looks like for children, how low-income children are faring in this new landscape, and how welfare programs and related support services might be restructured to better promote children's well-being. The 1996 law essentially transformed U.S. welfare programs into employment programs. Riding the wave of a strong economy, these new programs successfully moved many mothers from welfare to work, and improved many children's lives as a result--many, but not all. Even in very prosperous times, some families were unable to overcome their barriers to employment, and many families who found employment still needed additional supports to help make ends meet. As the economy weakens, the need for supports is likely to grow.

Reauthorization of the federal welfare reform law offers a critical opportunity to reexamine the goals of reform. If the ultimate goal of promoting work and marriage is not just to end families' dependence on government benefits, but also to improve disadvantaged children's chances for success in life, then more attention must be paid to structuring programs for low-income families in ways that promote positive child development and wellbeing. This is important not only for the children themselves, but for all of society, as we all pay the costs of educational failure, increased crime and violence, and reduced worker productivity--costs that inevitably result when children fail to get the nurturing and supports they need to achieve their potential.

The New Social Policy Landscape since Reform

Passage of the federal welfare reform law in 1996 brought many changes to the broad array of programs serving low-income children and their families, as detailed in the article by Greenberg and colleagues in this journal issue. Prior to reform, all children in poor families that met state eligibility criteria were entitled to assistance under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, although many states set the threshold so low that only the poorest families qualified. The federal government reimbursed states for at least half the cost of providing this assistance, with no cap on expenditures. AFDC receipt also assured ready access to other benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps. Families who participated in AFDC-related work programs were provided with child care assistance, (4) but these programs were often underfunded and involved only a fraction of eligible families. Most mothers receiving AFDC payments stayed home and cared for their children themselves.

Program structures, priorities, and funding streams all changed dramatically with passage of the 1996 law.

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