Welfare Reform—The First Eight Years - Characteristics Of Those Who Leave Welfare And Those Who Remain On The Rolls, Work Participation, Employment And Earnings
children family married families
Eight years after the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA; PL 104-193), welfare reform remained a hotly debated topic. In April 2003 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its fifth annual Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) report to Congress. The report showed that welfare reform has caused major changes in welfare caseloads and expenditures, but noted that some aspects of the reforms have had adverse effects on child well-being, family income, and marriages.
A new aspect of welfare reform, initiated in 2002, is the development of programs to promote marriage among unwed parents and to advocate "responsible fatherhood." This initiative is based on the findings in numerous studies that married-couple households do better economically, and that children of married-couple households seem to enjoy better health, education, and employment opportunities than children from single-parent households, especially those headed by an unwed female. In Are Married Parents Really Better Off for Children?: What Research Says about the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, May 2003), Mary Parke reported that the relationship between marriage and child well-being is not as clear-cut as policies suggest. Recent research into the effects of various family structures on the well-being of children suggests that, while there is a strong relationship between living in a two-parent biological family and achieving the best educational, psycho-social, and economic outcomes for a child, there are many complexities that have not been considered by policymakers who have framed initiatives designed to promote marriage and strengthen families.
One of the interesting findings of recent research is that certain types of married and non-married families bear strong similarities to one another in child outcomes. For example, children in formal (married-couple) and long-term informal (cohabiting-couple) stepfamilies demonstrate similar rates of school achievement and behavioral problems. While children in low-conflict married families fare well, children in high-conflict married families are exposed to high levels of stress. It has been found that children in married-couple families affected by chronic conflict often fare better when their parents divorce than they do if the high-stress family situation continues. Parke concluded, "Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step-or cohabitating-parent households," but she pointed out that, despite the higher risks they face, "most children not living with married, biological parents grow up without serious problems."
A concern among observers is that the "work-first" emphasis of welfare reforms may not be helping people escape poverty, since many who leave the welfare rolls because their jobs raise their incomes above eligibility levels work in minimum-wage jobs. A family with one parent working at minimum wage full-time, year round will gross $10,300, well below the federal poverty standard of $18,850 for a family of four and even below the standard for a family of two, $12,490. A family with three children and two parents working full-time, year round at minimum-wage jobs will gross $20,600, still below the poverty level for a family of five, $22,030. Aggressive work-first programs also place the disabled, those with severe health problems, and families with disabled or seriously ill members at a disadvantage. Members of such families are unable to meet work requirements either because of their own infirmity or disability or because they must care for a family member with serious health problems. Single mothers whose children suffer from asthma, for example, retain jobs for shorter periods of time and work fewer hours than mothers whose children are well. The time taken from work to care for a child with asthma can jeopardize employment as well as prevent a worker from fulfilling her TANF job-hours requirements.
Many welfare recipients appeared willing to give welfare reform a try. In What Welfare Recipients and the Fathers of Their Children Are Saying about Welfare Reform (Linda Burton et al., Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 1998), a report about fifteen focus group discussions in Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, the general tone of the focus group interviews was one of cautious optimism. In Boston an African-American male focus group participant called welfare reform a definite step forward. By giving recipients the necessary assistance to enter the workforce, it not only encourages them to get training and find work, but it also helps build character and self-esteem.
As proposals to reauthorize TANF were being debated, the National Governors' Association (NGA) recommended continuing the primary focus on work and allowing states more flexibility in defining work activities. States are finding that a combination of activities, including training, education, and treatment of substance abuse produces the greatest success, particularly for the harder-to-serve clients.