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


Since its inception the primary goal of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, as well as successor programs funded under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), has been to provide government support for poor children. Over the years, this public assistance has become more and more predicated on custodial parents' involvement in work or mandatory welfare-to-work program activities, as policymakers have sought to balance the goal of fostering poor children's well-being with that of encouraging adults' self-sufficiency. Currently, there are strong incentives for states to run mandatory, work-focused welfare-to-work programs: States face financial penalties if they fail to meet TANF-defined participation standards, which require large proportions of welfare recipients to be working or in work-related activities, and states must require recipients to work after two years of assistance. In addition, federal funds now may not be used to support most families on welfare for longer than five years, and a number of states and localities have shorter welfare time limits.

This document examines the effects of welfare-to-work programs on the children of the adults (almost all single mothers) mandated to participate in such programs. Synthesizing the results from two recently completed reports from a large-scale evaluation  the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS Evaluation)  the two-year effects of 11 welfare-to-work programs that operated in seven sites in the early to mid 1990s are summarized.(1) The sites included in the evaluation are Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Portland, Oregon; and Riverside, California. While the programs operated under the federal Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program that preceded TANF, and thus did not invoke a time limit on eligibility for welfare, they shared TANF's primary goal of moving welfare recipients into paid work and off assistance, and they reflect a range of approaches, implementation features, and environments: Some were strongly employment-focused while others emphasized basic education; they varied in how broadly the program participation mandate was applied to the welfare caseload and how strictly it was enforced, in the amount of child care support provided for program participation or employment, and in methods of case management; and the programs served different welfare populations and operated in a variety of labor markets. Although the NEWWS evaluation was designed to address the effects on children of requiring parents to participate in welfare-to-work programs, there are many other policies  for example, child care and health insurance policies that can affect children, and those policies can be examined only indirectly in this evaluation.

To determine program effects on children, the NEWWS Evaluation uses a very strong research design: a random assignment experiment. In each evaluation site, adults who were required to participate in the program were assigned, by chance, either to a program group that had access to employment and training services and whose members were required to participate in the program or risk a reduction in their monthly welfare grant or to a control group that received no services through the program but could seek out such services from the community(2). (Control group members were eligible for child care assistance, similar to that offered to program group members, if they were participating in nonprogram activities in which they had enrolled on their own.) Notably, in four of the sites, there were two program groups (plus a control group). In three of the sites, one program group was employment-focused while the other program group was education-focused; in the fourth site, the two program groups varied in their case management staffing structure. This random assignment design assures that, within each site, there were no systematic differences between the background characteristics of families in the program and control groups when they entered the study. Thus, any subsequent differences in outcomes between the groups  for adults, children, or families as a whole  can be attributed with confidence to the effects of the programs. These differences between outcomes are called impacts, and all those reported are statistically significant and hold for the whole sample unless otherwise noted.