Welfare Reform and Teenage Pregnancy, Childbirth, and School Dropout

By Hao, Lingxin; Cherlin, Andrew J. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform and Teenage Pregnancy, Childbirth, and School Dropout


Hao, Lingxin, Cherlin, Andrew J., Journal of Marriage and Family


This study estimates the effect of welfare reform on adolescent behaviors using a difference-in-differences approach. After defining the prereform and reform cohorts and considering the life course development of adolescent behavior by following each cohort from age 14 to age 16, we compare the welfare-target and nontarget populations in the two cohorts. The difference-in-differences estimates are obtained using an event history model. Our analysis suggests that welfare reform has not reduced teenage fertility and school dropout. We find modest evidence that welfare reform is associated with higher risk of teenage births for girls in welfare families and higher risk of school dropout for girls in poor families. A combination of a difference-in-differences approach and a life course perspective can be a useful way to delineate the effect of societal-level change on family phenomena.

Key Words: difference in differences, school dropout, teenage childbearing, teenage pregnancy, welfare reform.

Most of the attention paid to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), commonly known as welfare reform, has focused on mothers' transitions from welfare to work and on the time limits, sanction, and work requirements instituted to promote this transition. Improving the well-being of children and adolescents, however, was an important subsidiary goal of PRWORA. This was most notable in the case of adolescent childbearing and school enrollment. The legislation requires teenage mothers under the age of 18 to live with their parents and to remain in high school if they had not yet graduated in order to obtain welfare benefits. It also allows states to deny additional benefits to mothers of any age who bear a child while already receiving welfare to reinforce the disapproval of nonmarital births. But welfare reform also brought changes that could have increased the risk that adolescents bear children or drop out of school. Mothers' transition to work can change a family's daily routine dramatically, impose stress on adolescent children, and reduce the amount of parental supervision, particularly between the end of school and dinnertime, when adolescents may engage in high-risk behavior. Thus, the direction of change in adolescent behaviors cannot be determined a priori.

In this article, we examine data on two cohorts of young women to determine what changes, if any, in childbearing and school dropout appear to be associated with the experience of welfare reform. Welfare reform can directly influence adolescents through its implicit message of strong disapproval of unmarried childbearing and welfare dependency, which, if internalized by adolescents, may change adolescents' childbearing and school behavior. Indirectly, welfare reform can influence adolescents through family changes. On the one hand, the transition off welfare to employment may increase family income and mother's self-esteem, which may reduce the risk of teenage fertility and school dropout. On the other, the sudden reduction of mother's home time may reduce parental supervision and control, which may heighten the risk of teenage fertility and school dropout. Our data do not allow us to investigate the precise mechanisms by which welfare reform may affect adolescents' behaviors. Still, given the great changes in the welfare system produced by PRWORA, we argue that learning the direction and magnitude of change-whether PRWORA appears to have a positive or negative effect on childbearing and school dropout, and how large these effects are-is important to social scientists and policy makers.

Nonmarital births among adolescents appear to impose serious long-term consequences for the life chances of mothers and their children. Summarizing the research literature spanning 2 decades, by the late 1980s, the National Research Council concluded that women who become parents as teenagers are at greater risk of social and economic disadvantage throughout their lives than those who delay childbearing (Hayes, 1987).

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