Academic journal article Social Work Research

Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Welfare Use

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Welfare Use

Article excerpt

Recent changes in welfare programs, including expanded and strictly enforced work and community service requirements, have raised interest in the factors that lead to welfare receipt and that might affect recipients' success in leaving welfare. Most earlier studies focused on welfare recipients' labor market experiences and human capital characteristics, but recent research has begun to examine psychosocial characteristics, such as self-esteem and self-efficacy. The study described in this article investigated whether family background characteristics and self-esteem and self-efficacy measured early in life related to welfare use in young adulthood. Female welfare recipients scored lower on measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy before they entered the welfare system compared with other women. Multivariate analyses showed a robust and substantive association between self-esteem and welfare use but not between self-efficacy and welfare receipt. The finding that low self-esteem is associated with welfare receipt suggests that welfare recipients may find it much harder to comply with the expanded and stricter work or community service mandates than previously thought.

Key words: self-efficacy; self-esteem; welfare receipt

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 10493) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent children (AFDC) with a capped block grant, temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which mandates a five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of federally funded welfare benefits and requires most welfare mothers to work within two years of entrance into the program.

These new policies have raised interest in the factors that lead to welfare receipt and those that might affect recipients' success in leaving welfare. Most studies of such factors focus on welfare recipients' labor market experiences and human capital characteristics (for example, Blank, 1989; Burtless, 1995; Kunz & Born, 1996). However, recent research has examined the psychosocial characteristics of welfare recipients, and some studies link welfare receipt with low self-esteem and self-efficacy (that is, an external locus of control). For example, Nichols-Casebolt (1986) found that among low-income mothers, those who did not receive welfare scored significantly higher on measures of personal efficacy and self-satisfaction. Popkin's (1990) qualitative study of 149 welfare mothers in Chicago found that long-term welfare recipients had a lower sense of personal efficacy than their short-term counterparts. Mothers with a lower sense of personal efficacy were less likely to mention work as an alternative in Popkin's study and were more likely to report thinking of no alternatives when asked to speculate about what they would do if they could not receive welfare. In contrast, mothers with high self-efficacy were more likely to state that they would not need welfare in one year and that there would be no obstacles to finding work in the future. Similarly, in a longitudinal study of 851 welfare recipients, Parker (1994) found that an enhanced level of mastery, or self-efficacy, was related to reduced welfare reliance. Finally, Pavetti, Holcolmb, and Duke (1995) summarized evidence from welfare workers who reported that low self-esteem is extremely prevalent among welfare recipients.

Recent political debates about welfare reform reflected some of these research findings. Indeed, a popular justification for time limits and early work requirements was the intention to transform the nature of the welfare system from one that saps recipients' self-esteem and self-efficacy by allowing mothers to receive welfare without work requirements or "self-improvement" activities to one that fosters self-motivation and independence (Ellwood, 1987; Mead, 1992). Such notions reflect Kane's (1987) theory, which faults the pre-TANF welfare system as instilling a sense of"learned helplessness' in recipients and suggests that the longer women remain on welfare, the less likely they are to believe in their ability (and consequently make efforts) to leave the welfare system. …

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