Welfare Reform Inadequate without Marriage Component

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Thursday, June 6, 2002

By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

With reauthorization of the welfare reform legislation pending in Congress, several studies measuring the effects of the 1996 reforms have recently been released. The results are somewhat discouraging, especially for marriage and family advocates. Yet in some ways they also further confirm the need to encourage marriage as the best way to lift people out of poverty and to keep them from falling into poverty in the first place.

As reported in the June 3 edition of the New York Times, two recent studies measured the effects of the stricter work requirements enacted in the 1996 reforms on marriage rates in two states –Connecticut and Iowa. In the Connecticut study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, mothers assigned to the state’s welfare-to-work program, Jobs First, were less likely to be married three years later than a group of mothers randomly assigned to receive traditional welfare benefits, similar to the old AFDC program, with very minimal work requirements. Only 7 percent of the Jobs First participants were married after three years compared with 15 percent of the mothers that received traditional welfare benefits. The as-yet unreleased Iowa study showed similar results; only 24 percent of the mothers subject to stricter work requirements were married after three years, versus 24 percent of the mothers in the traditional group. In Connecticut, among women with strong employment histories the gap was much more dramatic –6 percent married versus 18 percent unmarried.

Researchers suggest that success in the workforce may make women more self-sufficient and therefore more selective about the men they will consider marrying. In addition, more time at work means less time to pursue relationships, especially for single mothers whose time is already stretched thin.

The results of another study, conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), “How Welfare and Work Policies for Parents Affect Adolescents,” reveal another downside of the strict new welfare work requirements. Subtitled, “A Synthesis of Research,” the Manpower study looked at data from several of their own recent studies and found that adolescent children of mothers in welfare-to-work programs did worse in school than their peers whose mothers were in more traditional welfare programs. Based on surveys of parents, surveys of test scores (where available) and interviews with adolescents themselves, the study found that adolescents of welfare-to-work parents showed poorer school performance, and were more likely to drop out of school, to repeat a grade and to make use of special education services than their peers whose parents were in traditional welfare programs. Teenagers with younger siblings were especially prone to failure, perhaps because they are often called upon to care for younger siblings rather than to study. The most likely explanation offered for the results is lack of adequate supervision; most teenagers need parental supervision –in some ways, more so than younger children –to avoid getting into trouble or simply goofing off and neglecting their studies.

President Bush is pushing for even stronger work requirements in the new welfare reform legislation, so the new studies are bound to stir debate on the subject. Suggested solutions by some child and family advocates include outright opposition, calls for increased authority for states to waive the work requirements, and increased funding for child care –and for after school programs for adolescents. In this respect the new debate echoes the old. It is similar in another respect as well, except that this time those who see marriage as an essential –perhaps the essential component of welfare reform now have the support of the White House. The Bush administration recognizes that no government welfare program can take the place of married parents, and the Bush welfare proposal strongly supports funding for programs that encourage strong marriages as a means to escape and to avoid chronic poverty.

“Raising children is a tremendous joy, but it is also an unrelenting responsibility,” said Janice Shaw Crouse, Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute. “Single parents face an especially heavy burden when it comes to the day to day supervisory tasks associated with this responsibility. And children in single parent families are more vulnerable to a whole host of social ills. For example, they are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, to have children out-of-wedlock, to do worse in school –as the Manpower study reminds us. In a recent movie, a 12-year-old character with a single mother suddenly grasps the truth that parents ‘need back-up.’ Certainly the best thing we can do for both parents and children in poverty is to help them find ‘back-up.’ That is, we can encourage them to form strong marriages, before they have children, so that this generation and future generations can escape the devastating consequences of broken families.”

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