Barriers to Self-Sufficiency and Avenues to Success Among Teenage Mothers. Designing Services to Promote Self-Sufficiency


Some young welfare mothers are able to become self-sufficient without intervention.  For many of them, however, the odds against success are great because of the multiple barriers they face.  This study highlighted several lessons related to designing effective programs and policies for welfare-dependent young mothers.

Mandatory Programs Are Feasible and May Be Critical

This study indicated clearly that mandatory programs for teenage mothers on welfare could be implemented without appearing to be punitive.  Negative comments about the program were rare.  Some young mothers did not need the welfare grant and so accepted the sanction or left AFDC rather than participate in the program.  The more typical response, however, was to acknowledge that the program gave them a needed "push" to get out of the house and work toward self-sufficiency.  Program staff also came to view the monetary incentive as a critical tool that enabled them to provide services to teenagers who might otherwise not have sought these services.

I was supposed to report to this school.  First I started going, but then I stopped, so if you stop, automatically you already know that your check is going to be reduced.  So it was nobody's fault but mine.

To me, I really didn't need it, you know.  I needed it, but I didn't need it, you understand.  It wasn't like, "Oh, my God, if I don't get this check."  It was like, "You can keep the check and everything else that comes with it."  'Cause you know, I was never down out struggling.

I like this program because it helped me out and it's given me the opportunity to start again, just like that little push that you need to get back on your feet.  Because you know, when I had him, after you have your baby you don't want to go back to school.  You want to sit home with your kid.

Financial sanctions are a powerful motivating tool.  One method of influencing teenagers' adherence to their self-sufficiency plans was the use of financial sanctions.  A substantial minority of teenagers in the in-depth study samples had been sanctioned (typically for a relatively brief period of time) or warned that they would be sanctioned if they continued to be noncompliant.  Although the teenagers were able to manage during the months when their grants were reduced, they reported that the sanctions (or the threats of sanctions) affected their behavior.  Program staff generally viewed sanctions as a useful tool for motivating teenagers to come forward for the needed services.  The sanctions were the prods that enabled staff to show the teenagers the "carrots" the program had to offer, including child care and transportation assistance, peer support, program workshops, and case management.

The first time they sent me a letter, I looked at it and threw it away.  The second time, I looked at it and threw it away again.  And then they cut my check and I said, "Uh, oh, I'd better go."  I was like, "Oh my goodness, these people really mean business.  And I'd better go down there and see what this is all about."

Young welfare mothers should be expected to participate in programs to enhance their self-sufficiency soon after their babies are born.  Delays in providing teenage mothers with needed services or in helping them to formulate long-range goals may well foster their welfare dependency.  The personal resources available to many are often fragile and may erode over time.

Sanctions alone are unlikely to prove effective in promoting active program participation or changing behavior.  Although many of the young mothers responded positively to the sanctions, continuous, active participation required considerable monitoring and assistance from program staff.  Sample members reported that they especially appreciated the program staff's care, nurturance, and willingness to work with them as individuals.

At first I didn't go.  They used to send me letters and call me.  I still wouldn't go.  And then they sent this man [a case manager] out to my house.  And I was like, I'll go and see what it was about.  Then the first time I went I didn't like it, because they would ask me little personal questions.  Then after I did that I never came back and they came out to my house again and called.  "Could you please come to the program."  And I finally went, and then after I went I liked it then.  I really liked it then.

Service Needs Differ Substantially

Because the population is quite diverse the programmatic response could well be different for different teenagers, especially when resources are constrained.  For certain groups -- especially high school dropouts -- a strong, supportive intervention with close monitoring of progress seems especially appropriate.  For others, periodic monitoring may be sufficient.

High school dropouts may be most in need of intervention.  The data from the in-depth study suggest that those young women who were high school dropouts when they entered the enhanced-services program were extremely needy and at highest risk of becoming entrenched in long-term welfare dependency.  It appears that other teenagers who were enrolled in school at intake were likely to make progress toward self-sufficiency on their own -- although many of these young women also appeared to benefit from the program's assistance.

Out-of-school young mothers proved to be the most difficult subgroup to serve successfully.  A major responsibility of case managers was to identify appropriate educational or training placement or employment.  Program staff often had problems placing school dropouts, who sometimes had a checkered pattern of starting and stopping different programs or activities prior to completion.  For high school graduates, postsecondary and job-training options were generally easier to identify than employment opportunities.

Early Repeat Pregnancies: An Ongoing Concern

Helping young women who have already had one pregnancy avoid subsequent pregnancies is challenging but very important.  These young women typically assert that they do not want another child in the near future.  But a sizable percentage experience a repeat pregnancy within two years of their first child's birth.  Programs should endeavor to hire staff who are comfortable talking about sexuality and contraception with teenagers and address this issue continuously.

Addressing Limited Life Skills

Disadvantaged teenage mothers are often hampered in their efforts to achieve self-sufficiency by their limited world view and the absence of skills that most adults in our society take for granted.  To become mainstreamed into our society, these young mothers need to acquire the broader life skills that employers and other institutions expect.

Programs should address psychological barriers to self-sufficiency.  Limited self-confidence and distrustfulness, which are common among welfare-dependent teenage parents, often can be addressed through the creation of a program atmosphere in which the teenagers feel cared for and respected.  The psychological barriers faced by many of these young mothers, however, are far too complex and profound for program staff to address.  Programs need to develop linkages with mental health services and drug treatment programs so that severe problems can be referred to trained professionals.

A Special -- and Separate -- Intervention

Teenagers are most likely to respond to an intervention that is developmentally appropriate -- one recognizing that these young mothers are barely more than children and require considerable structure and discipline in their lives.  Although welfare mothers of all ages share many things with respect to the barriers they face in achieving self-sufficiency, young mothers need special help to surmount those barriers.  Their needs are likely to get lost if they are integrated into an adult program.

Strong Case Management Is Essential

Because of the complex needs and diversity of this population, strong case management appears to be an essential feature of a successful intervention strategy.  Services for young welfare mothers need to be individualized and modified over time.  This individualization can best be accomplished if a single staff person -- a case manager or continuous counselor -- becomes familiar with and has ongoing responsibility for the teenager.

Case management services were almost universally appreciated by the young mothers.  Despite the fact that many young mothers had been sanctioned or warned that they would be sanctioned, their feelings about the program were generally extremely positive.  Praise for the personal and caring attention of case managers and other program staff was especially high.  Case managers linked the teenagers to the services they needed, monitored their progress in the program, offered advice and guidance for personal problems, and provided much-needed support and encouragement.  For many young mothers, the case managers served as role models or surrogate parents.

When I go to Project Advance, they know me, they speak to me.  Some of the people there were on a first-name basis.  It's another part of home.  If I do something that's stupid, they know it, they tell me.  When I do something good, they all praise you for it.

It is the one program that actually motivates someone to do something.  There was always something going on even if you weren't working.  You didn't have to be in the street, and you didn't have to sit in your house.

Addressing Fears and Concerns

Many of the young mothers in the enhanced-services program took advantage of child care that was paid for through program funds, but others did not.  By preference, the majority of the teenagers in the in-depth sample who were active participants in a program component relied on unpaid relative care.

Program staff should assist the teenagers in understanding what to look for when they are selecting a child care arrangement.  Then, when possible, they should offer to accompany the teenager on a visit to the provider, or at least be sufficiently knowledgeable about potential providers to give information or respond to questions.  Program staff also need to evaluate the teenagers' child care situation continuously.  Arrangements with relatives often break down for a variety of reasons, and alternate arrangements may need to be found.

View of a Young Mother

Lorissa -- Youth Ambassador

I am lucky to have been selected to be a part of Project Advance.  This program has given me hope for a better life.  They have helped me to learn a lot about life: how to make goals and work toward them, the importance of birth control, and child support from my children's father. . . .  My case manager is a delightful lady, who is a lot like my mother, in fact I think of her as a second mother.  She constantly encourages me to go forward, not backwards, and reminds me that no matter how hard it is I can advance my goals.  It seems as though we have always been friends because I can count on her for needed child care, transportation, help in making decisions, and just to be there when I need her.  To top it off, she is also a lot of fun.  I need that when I am sad.