Plunging caseloads and soaring employment among single mothers lead many to judge welfare reform a stunning success. Lost in the caseload counts and political rhetoric is the subject of our chapter: welfare reform and children. We sort through conflicting theory and evidence regarding the impacts of welfare reform on children’s well-being and development.
A brief examination of recent trends in national indicators of potential problems shows that the sky has not fallen. Poverty rates are down, as are teen crime and fertility as well as substantiated cases of child maltreatment. However, the dearth of timely and consistent state level data on indicators of child well-being precludes a serious analysis of the role of welfare reform, the booming economy and other recent changes for all but a handful of these indicators.
We turn instead to lessons that can be gleaned from a set of welfare-reform random assignment experiments conducted during the 1990s. Experiments provide strong evidence on the impacts of the welfare reform packages under evaluation relative to the old AFDC system. Regrettably, the reform packages evaluated in the experiments do not span the diverse set of reforms instituted by states in the late 1990s.
Our conclusions regarding likely child impacts depend crucially on the ages of the children studied. In the case of elementary-school children, the picture is fairly positive. We find strong evidence that welfare reform can be a potent force for enhancing achievement and positive behavior. When welfare reform packages do not appear to help younger children, there is little evidence of harm, even in the one experiment with time limits. If anything, the beneficial impacts are strongest for children in families with longer histories of welfare receipt. On the other hand, in the case of adolescents, more limited evidence suggests that welfare reforms may cause detrimental increases in school problems and risky behavior. The jury is still out on impacts on infants and toddlers.
Distinguishing among programs, we find that reforms with work mandates but few supports (e.g., wage and childcare subsidies) for working mothers appear to be significantly less beneficial for elementary-school-aged children than programs with work supports. Furthermore, and here the evidence is also less definitive, reforms with positive impacts on children appeared to operate more through changes outside the family – e.g., in childcare and after-school programs – than through changes in parental mental health, family routines or other aspects of the home environment. Finally, poverty, maternal depression, domestic violence and children’s developmental problems are alarmingly common, even among families offered a generous package of work supports.
Our list of policy recommendations includes ways of better supporting work, providing after-school and community programs for older children, addressing safety-net issues for families with barriers to stable, full-time employment, and encouraging fathers to become more involved with their children. More generally, we hope that the debate over the future of welfare reform will pay more attention to children’s well-being, to the diverse situations in which children in low-income families find themselves, and to the very different developmental needs of children of different ages. (author abstract)