Welfare reforms may have hurt some single moms’ teenage kids

Policies need to provide after-school and other support while parents work, researchers say

teen boy

BEHAVING BADLY  Welfare reforms were meant to help the next generation. But a new study suggests that in families affected by the changes, they contributed to a rise in such bad behaviors as skipping school, fighting and underage drinking —especially among teen boys.

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Welfare reforms in the 1990s were meant to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. But they may have had an unanticipated side effect.

A new study suggests the reforms contributed to a rise in problematic teen behaviors, such as skipping school, getting in fights and using drugs. These problems were especially pronounced in boys, researchers report in a paper posted online February 11 on the National Bureau of Economic Research website.

The reforms set up work requirements for parents and put a five-year cap on benefits. In states where welfare reform had been in place for at least 12 months, the 10th and 12th-grade sons of poor, single moms with a high school education or less were 7 to 21 percent more likely than boys with poor, similarly educated married moms to skip school, damage property or get in a fight. These boys were also 6 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol, economist Nancy Reichman and her colleagues found. Girls were less affected, but those with poor, single moms were about 7 percent more likely than girls in the other group to skip school and 4 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol.

Due to the way data is collected — for instance, the single moms were used as a proxy for families affected by welfare reform — and the probable influence of other factors, the teens’ behavioral problems can’t be definitively pinned on changes in the welfare program. But economists suspect that policy makers’ failure to address how welfare reform would alter the family dynamic — such as where the kids should go after school and how parenting behaviors change when mom’s time gets squeezed — probably plays a role.

“If you put work requirements on people, you require them to spend time away from their family and you don’t provide them with good schools, after school, daycare and everything else that comes with a well-developed social policy, somebody is going to take a hit. In this case, it seems like it was the kids,” says Emilia Simeonova, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the study.

Though welfare was installed as a safety net for poor families in 1935, by the 1980s, politicians across the political aisle had begun to see that cash aid as fostering a culture of dependence. In 1992, President Bill Clinton let some states mandate that participants find jobs, as well as limit the time allowed for cash aid. Many states had already initiated these changes when, in 1996, those measures became federal law. By 1998, all states had come into compliance. The law has led to a 78 percent drop in recipients, from 5 million families getting monthly aid in 1994 to 1.1 million in 2017.

Work by Reichman, an economist at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., and others has found some positive benefits of welfare reform. For instance, poor, single, low-educated moms have lower rates of crime and drug use and higher rates of employment and voting than they had before the reforms.

But, says Reichman, “there is a lot in the ‘black box’ of the potential effects of welfare reform that we know very little about.” 

For instance, do welfare recipients’ gains transfer to their children? Fine-grained data focused specifically on welfare families are not available in the United States, Simeonova notes. That’s why the researchers compared proxy groups for families most likely affected or unaffected by the reforms. “With the data that they have on hand, I don’t think they can do much better than what they’re doing,” she says.

For teen behavior, the team relied in part on data from Monitoring the Future, an annual nationwide survey of teenagers, for the years 1991 to 2006. The survey includes questions about drug abuse, skipping school and aggressive behavior.

The gender difference isn’t surprising given that previous research has shown that teenage boys act out more in response to household stressors than girls, says coauthor Hope Corman, an economist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. For all teens, she adds, “the rates of engaging in these behaviors would have been lower had welfare reform not been implemented.”  

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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