Working Out: Welfare reform hasn’t changed kids so far

National welfare reforms enacted in 1996 imposed stricter work requirements for all recipients and established a 5-year limit for receiving federally funded welfare. Reformers and their critics clashed over whether children might suffer if their mothers were moved off welfare and into jobs.

A new study, published in the March 7 Science, offers encouraging but far from conclusive evidence that welfare reform hasn’t undermined children’s mental health or intellectual development, at least in the short-run.

Preschoolers in low-income families exhibited stable emotional health, consistent reading and number skills, and no change in problem behavior during the first 16 months after their mothers left the welfare rolls for either a full- or part-time job, say psychologist P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her colleagues. Young adolescents in low-income families also exhibited academic and behavioral stability, as well as a slight increase in emotional health, after their mothers found employment, according to the researchers.

“We can’t make policy recommendations based on these data,” remarks study coauthor Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Only long-term studies of families living in poverty can untangle the reasons for this pattern of findings, he asserts.

The researchers analyzed survey data on 2,402 children and their mothers–most of whom were single and either black or Hispanic–living in poor parts of Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. Families with a preschool child, age 2 to 4, or a young adolescent, age 10 to 14, completed interviews and testing in 1999 and 2001.

Preschoolers’ development wasn’t linked to whether or not their mothers entered welfare, left welfare, took a job, or left a job between the interviews. When mothers of preschoolers worked, their family income rose above the poverty line. Mothers, however, spent about 2 fewer hours each day with their preschoolers while working than while on welfare.

Adolescents reported a modest decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety and a slight drop in drug and alcohol use after their mothers got jobs. By cutting back on personal and social activities, these women spent nearly as much time with their school-age kids as they had before taking a job.

“These data don’t show what’s causing any changes in adolescents,” comments Gordon L. Berlin, a senior vice president at Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. in New York, a nonprofit organization that directs studies of welfare programs.

Shortly before the 1996 reforms, the organization’s researchers led a series of studies in which single welfare mothers in about a dozen states were randomly assigned to various work requirements or to stay on welfare. In this test of welfare-to-work strategies, grade-schoolers did better academically when their mothers worked and received income supplements. In contrast, adolescents’ school performance dropped slightly after their mothers went to work. This trend mainly affected teens forced to care for younger siblings and take on other responsibilities for their working mothers, Berlin says.


If you have a comment on this article that you would like considered for publication in Science News, please send it to

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.