Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Implications of Welfare Reform for Housing and School Instability

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Implications of Welfare Reform for Housing and School Instability

Article excerpt

To determine the potential influence of welfare reform on housing instability, which influences school instability, the results of studies on the housing outcomes of welfare recipients are discussed. State studies suggest that welfare reform has increased the rates of family mobility, evictions, and the likelihood of sharing housing. The effects on homelessness are difficult to assess. Limited research on housing and child outcomes, combined with few resources for housing assistance and a lack of affordable housing, suggest that housing instability and homelessness will continue to be a major issue for families living in poverty, further increasing children's school instability.

When welfare became a federal public aid system in 1935, its intent and focus was to ensure the well-being of children by providing families with financial stability. The government gave cash and benefits to single mothers (mainly widows) to make sure they would have the minimal financial supports necessary to stay home and raise their children (Gordon, 1994). The purpose of welfare reform, as articulated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), has changed that focus. Welfare has become an attempt to reform parents (a large proportion of whom are never-married mothers and fathers) to be financially responsible to their children by paying child support, working, and marrying. By imposing time limits on benefit receipt and requiring work in exchange for resources, welfare reform dramatically changed the nature and intent of social safety nets for children in the United States.

As welfare reform was signed into law, some policymakers, academicians, and social service providers predicted increased demand for shelter and emergency food services and a dramatic rise in the numbers of homeless children. Such outcomes would inevitably lead to greater school instability and negative outcomes for children touched by welfare reform (Hartman, 2002). Housing instability and frequent school changes have been linked to lower reading and math skill achievement and greater rates of school dropouts (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994). If the suspected negative effects of a compromised safety net under welfare reform occur, we assume that children will bear the brunt of the suffering. This is particularly the case if their educational opportunities, one of the few universal guarantees for those living in poverty, are further limited or disrupted.

In this article, we attempt to determine what housing stability and homelessness look like under the restricted social safety net created with welfare reform. We ask: Given the dire outcomes predicted, what has occurred? And what are the subsequent implications of these effects for children's school outcomes?


Because Congress did not mandate federal monitoring of housing outcomes as part of the limited post-welfare reform data collected, we must rely on studies conducted by states, advocacy groups, and other researchers. These studies differ markedly in terms of who is followed and contacted (former, current, and/or potential future TANF1 recipients), questions asked, and whether results are compared to outcomes pre-PRWORA. Nonetheless, we compile these studies, noting potential methodological weaknesses, in an attempt to draw some conclusions about the effects of welfare reform and to consider the possible unintended impacts of the law on children.

Before beginning the analysis, we must note that families who live in poverty often experience housing instability. Frequent moves, moving in with family and friends, and the loss of basic utilities such as electricity and phone are common. In the following sections, we focus on studies conducted with those impacted by welfare reform and examine rates of moving, ability to pay housing costs, eviction rates, and homelessness.


Welfare recipients experienced problems with housing stability prior to welfare reform, and these problems continue in the current policy environment. …

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