Do Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs Affect the Well-Being of Children?. Impacts on Children


Impacts on children were based on data collected in three child development areas: behavioral and emotional adjustment; cognitive functioning and academic achievement; and health and safety. In-depth data are available for preschool-age children in three of the sites (as part of a special Child Outcomes Study); more limited data are available for children of all ages in all seven sites. An examination of findings from both sets of data suggests the following regarding all children:

  • Measured effects on children were infrequent. In addition, most effects could be considered small in magnitude.
  • Both favorable and unfavorable child impacts were found. Notably, however, they were consistently favorable in the cognitive development area, consistently unfavorable in the health area, and both favorable and unfavorable in the behavioral and emotional adjustment area.
  • Child impacts were not systematically different for mothers subject to employment-focused programs than for those subject to education-focused programs: They were not clustered in one of the two types of program, and neither type had consistently favorable effects while the other type of program had consistently unfavorable effects.

An examination of impacts on subgroups of young children (as part of the Child Outcomes Study) indicates the following:

  • As was true for all studied children, few child impacts were found for subgroups of young children who, as of study entry, were at either high risk or low risk for poor development. (This analysis was conducted for preschool-age children in three of the sites in which employment-focused and education-focused programs were operated simultaneously.)
  • The few impacts on children at higher risk for poor development were small, and in two of the three sites tended to be favorable for education-focused programs and unfavorable for employment-focused programs.
  • The few impacts on children at lower risk for poor development were larger, tended to be unfavorable, did not tend to vary by program approach, and were clustered in three programs.

Further research and longer follow-up are needed to clearly determine the mechanisms through which some of the programs affected children. Nonexperimental methods  which lack the rigor of the experimental methods that produced the findings reported above but are needed to examine the processes through which programs might affect children  were used in an attempt to explain the few found child impacts. The results are thus suggestive, but not definitive. They suggest that, for families with all school-age children, programs that place little emphasis on helping welfare recipients obtain good child care or that result in decreases in family income may tend to have unfavorable impacts on children. (There is also some indication that increases in employment may be connected with unfavorable child effects, but this finding held true for one source of data on employment and not for the other.) Most likely, these program characteristics or effects interact with each other in particular (as yet unknown) ways to affect children. Other examined program features or effects  whether programs were employment- or education-focused, the extent to which a mandatory participation requirement was enforced, increases in parents' high school diploma or GED receipt, or decreases in health insurance coverage  do not appear, by themselves, to relate to impacts on children. Analyses of selected impacts on the younger children in the study also suggest that programs might affect children to the extent that they affect mothers' employment and/or affect children's home environment (for example, mothers' psychological well-being and parenting). These analyses of preschool-age children did not find that increases in the use of child care, decreases in health insurance coverage, or changes in family income played roles in explaining the selected child impacts examined.

Because the 11 programs operated under JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program), which preceded TANF, they did not invoke the TANF time limit on eligibility for welfare, try to meet its participation goals, impose full-family financial sanctions, or put in place the generous financial work incentives of many current programs. They also did not have available to them the recent and substantial increases in federal funding for child care or expanded eligibility for health insurance through Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. It is plausible that some of the current generation of programs will produce larger effects on adults than those reported here; as a result, it is possible that they may have larger effects on children. The new policies also may result in stronger and more divergent impacts on children with varying initial levels of being at risk for poor development(3).

The remainder of this synthesis expands on the above findings. Section II presents a conceptual model of how mandatory welfare-to-work programs might affect children. Section III describes aspects of child well-being examined in the NEWWS Evaluation. Section IV discusses the characteristics of the adults and children in the evaluation samples. Sections V, VI, and VII summarize program implementation and program effects on targeted and nontargeted outcomes, highlighting any situations where effects were different for mothers in a special Child Outcomes Study sample focusing on young children, as compared to mothers with children of all ages. Section VIII  the heart of the document  presents child impacts.