Welfare's New Rules: A Pox on Children

By Duncan, Greg J.; Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Welfare's New Rules: A Pox on Children


Duncan, Greg J., Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Issues in Science and Technology


Six decades of guaranteed government aid for economically deprived children ended on August 22, 1996, when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The law eliminated the open-ended federal entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). In its place, it provided block grants to states under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Two vocal camps have already boldly predicted the act's consequences. Proponents say that new time limits on the receipt of cash assistance and sanctions for failure to comply with work and other requirements will propel welfare mothers into the labor force and produce abundant benefits. These include higher family income; more regular family routines; greater maternal self-esteem; more positive role models for children; and, in the longer run, declining out-of-wedlock teen births as children learn that welfare no longer provides a viable alternative to marriage.

Opponents are convinced that time limits and sanctions will alter the source but not increase the average level of family income. They predict increased stress on single mothers; lower quality of care of younger children; a reduction in the ability of mothers to monitor the activities of adolescents; and, for the many women who are likely to be unable to find and hold jobs, deepened family poverty to the point that even basic needs cannot be met, with attendant increases in homelessness, hunger, foster care, and health problems.

There is little scientific basis for either set of predictions. Rigorous random-assignment welfare to-work experiments were conducted during the 1980s. Some featured sanctions for noncompliant behavior, but none imposed time limits and few looked beyond work and welfare receipt to evaluate the impact of maternal employment on family process and child development. Also, it will be a few years before we have meaningful analyses from research projects funded by the legislation itself.

Recent declines in the number of welfare recipients, coupled with media accounts of hopeful mothers beginning to work after years on welfare, have created a kind of euphoria over welfare reform. Some think that few if any recipients will ever hit the new five-year time limit. More than a decade of research, however, suggests otherwise.

Families use welfare in disparate ways, and the majority of women who have received AFDC assistance are neither extremely long-term nor shorter-term recipients. The current declines in welfare recipients undoubtedly reflect transitions off welfare by the more work-ready, short-term segment of welfare recipients. However, substantial numbers of longer-term recipient families remain, and it is unrealistic to believe that most will not have benefits cut off by the time limits. Still others will face benefit reductions or will lose benefits altogether because of sanctions.

Reform will indeed spur a substantial number of welfare-to-work transitions. Just as certainly, it will increase the depth of the poverty among families in which mothers cannot make successful transitions to full-time work. In other words, the 1996 legislation will have a much bigger impact on the distribution than on the average level of the economic well-being of children. Even if the total number of children living in low-income families does not increase dramatically, the gap between the family incomes of the poorest and the better-off low-income children almost certainly will.

Recent studies suggest that such deepening poverty, especially if it occurs early in childhood, can have detrimental effects on the cognitive development of children. This is our greatest concern about the changes in the welfare system. However, we believe that various policy changes, such as gearing assistance programs to the needs of the youngest children, could help minimize the negative effects of welfare reform on children. …

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