Do Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs Affect the Well-Being of Children?. How Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs Might Affect Children


At the outset of the NEWWS Evaluation, it was an open question as to whether, and how, welfare-to-work programs designed for adults would affect children. For 20 years prior to 1988, women receiving welfare who had children under age 6 generally were not required to participate in such programs. With the passage of the Family Support Act in 1988, women with children as young as age 3 (or as young as age 1, at state option) were newly designated as mandatory participants. Thus, in the early 1990s there was much interest in how welfare-to-work programs might affect children, particularly preschool-age children, who were seen as particularly vulnerable to changes in their family situation. Expectations regarding possible effects on children varied. On the one hand, given that all aspects of the programs were aimed at changing adult behavior, one might expect few effects on children, particularly if effects on adults were not dramatic. On the other hand, if effects on adults for example, increased employment or participation in program activities such as job search or education, or increases or decreases in family income were large or pervasive enough, one might expect effects on children, either positive or negative.

The most prevalent current theories about how mandatory welfare-to-work programs might affect children hypothesize that program effects on adults' employment, earnings, and income may, in turn, affect the resources available to children's development, either positively or negatively(4). The resources available to children shape the daily experiences that contribute to their health, safety, and development. These resources can be material (for example, housing) or social (for example, interactions between mothers and children)(5). As a positive example, welfare-to-work programs that raise income might allow families to afford better and safer housing. Additionally, employment may improve mothers' self-esteem, enhancing their ability to be a role model for their children. As a negative example, the reduction of working mothers' time at home may result in decreased overall supervision of their children. Additionally, the requirement to participate in a welfare-to-work program or the experience of holding a new job may result in increased stress for mothers, affecting parenting practices.

Figure 1 depicts the theoretical model described above(6). The pivotal box in this model, labeled "Targeted Outcomes" (box C), represents the adult outcomes targeted by welfare and employment policies and programs (box A) that can be affected through implementation of the policies and programs (box B). Changes in the targeted outcomes, which can affect the resources available to families as well as family socialization patterns, can produce effects on nontargeted outcomes (box D). These nontargeted outcomes represent other avenues through which child outcomes (box E) might be affected(7).


Conceptual model of the pathways through which welfare and employment policies and programs influence child outcomes

As evident in the model, it is important to establish that impacts on the targeted outcomes or nontargeted outcomes exist. If impacts on children are found, but no impacts are apparent for the targeted or nontargeted outcomes, it will be unclear what led to the child impacts. (While the rigorous NEWWS research design can provide solid evidence about the existence of impacts on children, it does not allow firm causal inferences to be made about the processes through which mandatory welfare-to-work programs may affect children's well-being.) Associations found among program features, adult impacts, environmental effects, and child impacts, however, can give clues about possible pathways of effects. These can then be investigated through further research and result in modifications to the conceptual model.