Teen Mothers and Revolving Welfare Door

By Lamanna, Mary Ann | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Teen Mothers and Revolving Welfare Door


Lamanna, Mary Ann, Journal of Marriage and Family


Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door. Kathleen Mullan Harris. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1997. 195 pp. ISBN 156639-499-6. $39.95 cloth.

Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door appears just as drastic changes in federal welfare are implemented. Kathleen Mullan Harris examines teen mothers' patterns of welfare use and assesses the role that work plays in women's avoidance of welfare. The book's unique contributions are a focus on poor, urban, Black women who bore children as teenagers (the stereotypical hard core of welfare dependency) and an analysis of welfare entry and exit. A review of welfare policy, politics, and research is a valuable resource in its own right.

Harris analyzes data from the well-known Baltimore study by Furstenberg et al. (Furstenberg, 1976; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987). Annual data on welfare participation exist for 288 Black women who gave birth as teens in the late 1960s. Life history calendars provide information on work, marriage, cohabitation, living arrangements, childbearing, and schooling. Event history analysis connects these developments to welfare use over the 20 years the women were in the study.

Assessment of the quality of data and comparison of the Baltimore sample with national data sets are carefully done. The author concludes that the Baltimore data can be generalized to poor urban Blacks of the sample generation. That these teen mothers lived in a different social world is an interpretative problem that is addressed. Harris details the differences between that time and this, so that the reader can evaluate the utility of the Baltimore study for current welfare policy.

Overall rates of welfare use challenge the presumption that teen mothers are qualitatively different from other welfare recipients and uniformly destined for a lifetime of welfare dependency. Instead, over half the sample used welfare for 2 years or less, and 29% of the group (n = 84) was never on welfare. Nevertheless, a high rate of exit in the short term obscures a significant amount of long-term dependency that often occurs in a cycling pattern.

Harris is most attentive to within-group variation.

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