Do Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs Affect the Well-Being of Children?. Possible Explanations for the Few Child Impacts That Were Found

06/01/2000

Further research is needed to clearly determine the mechanisms through which some of the programs affected children. As noted above, the strong experimental research design implemented in three of the evaluation sites allows for a rigorous examination of whether program approach affects child impacts. To examine whether other program features explain child impacts, however, nonexperimental approaches, which do not have the rigor of the experimental results discussed so far in the document, are required. At this point in the NEWWS Evaluation, two approaches have been used. Possible patterns in child impacts were ascertained by taking advantage of the large number of programs studied in the school-age child analysis and simply assessing whether child impacts clustered according to the size of the 11 programs' impacts on targeted and nontargeted outcomes. In addition, statistical mediational analyses were carried out for selected focal child impacts in the COS sample. Results from both approaches, which provide only suggestive explanations and do not indicate causality, are briefly summarized below.

  • Did programs with different sanctioning practices produce systematically different child impacts? For families with all school-age children in the 11 programs, measured child impacts were not necessarily different for mothers subject to programs with moderate to high enforcement of the participation mandate than for mothers in programs with low enforcement.

There is no obvious relationship between the frequency with which programs imposed sanctions and the observed patterns of child impacts for the client survey sample. (See Table 8, which arrays the same child impacts shown in Table 6 according to the magnitude of each program's impacts on various program implementation features and targeted outcomes. The child impacts are simply rearranged in each panel of the table.) For families with all school-age children, the two Columbus programs and the Atlanta HCD program had the highest sanction rates. Few child impacts were found for these three programs, with two favorable impacts for the Columbus Integrated program; an unfavorable child impact (an increase in the incidence of a child being removed from the mother's care) for the Columbus Traditional program; and no statistically significant child impacts for the Atlanta HCD program. Among the four programs in which sanctioning rates were the lowest for families with all school-aged children, child impacts were both favorable and unfavorable.

  • Did programs that increased the likelihood of parents' obtaining a high school diploma or GED tend to have favorable child impacts? For families with all school-age children in the 11 programs, measured child effects were not any more favorable in programs that did, in fact, increase the proportion of parents with such educational degrees than in those that did not have this result.

Impacts on parents' receipt of a high school diploma or GED do not appear to be associated with favorable child impacts. (See Table 8.) The largest impact on receipt of these credentials was found in the Riverside HCD program, a program that did not show any favorable impacts on the child outcome measures available for the client survey sample. The other program that produced smaller impacts on high school diploma or GED receipt also failed to result in any favorable child impacts.

  • Did programs that decreased health insurance coverage tend to have unfavorable child impacts? For families with young children in the COS sample as well as families with children of all ages in the 11 programs, there was not a pattern of unfavorable child impacts in the programs that decreased health care coverage.

For families in the COS sample, only two of the six programs — the Grand Rapids and Riverside LFA programs — decreased health care coverage as of the end of the two-year follow-up period. The decrease in mothers' rating of their focal child's health found for both the Riverside LFA and HCD programs does not appear to be connected to this finding: Both Riverside programs resulted in unfavorable child health rating impacts (similar in size in the two programs), while only the Riverside LFA program produced a decrease in family health care coverage. In addition, no other focal child impacts were found for Riverside's LFA (or HCD) program. For families in the COS sample, the Grand Rapids LFA program resulted in an unfavorable impact on focal children's externalizing behavior problems, but no child health rating impacts or other child impacts were found.

 

Table 8: For familes with all school-age children: Impacts on child outcomes, clustered by the magnitude of program impacts on sanctioning, educational attainment, employment, and income

Table 8 continued: For familes with all school-age children: Impacts on child outcomes, clustered by the magnitude of program impacts on sanctioning, educational attainment, employment, and income

Table 8 source and notes

For families with children of all ages in the 11 programs, four programs — Riverside LFA, Portland, Columbus Integrated, and Oklahoma City — decreased health care coverage levels. Only two of these programs had any child impacts for this group of families: The Riverside LFA program had one favorable and two unfavorable child impacts; the Columbus Integrated program had one favorable child impact. (These results are not shown in Table 8.)

  • Did programs that increased employment produce systematically different child impacts? For families with all school-age children in the 11 programs, there is some indication that increases in employment in the first two years of follow-up may be associated with unfavorable child impacts, but this finding held true for one source of data on employment and not for the other.

For families with all school-age children, the large employment impacts in the Riverside LFA program corresponded to unfavorable increases in school suspension rates and in attendance at a special class for behavioral or emotional problems, but also to a favorable decrease in grade repetition. (See Table 8, which presents two-year employment impacts based on Unemployment Insurance earnings records, as is the case throughout this document.) Employment impacts in the Riverside and Grand Rapids HCD programs also corresponded to unfavorable increases in attending a special class for behavioral or emotional problems and, in the case of the Grand Rapids program, to an unfavorable increase in the incidence of a child being removed from his or her mother's care. Programs that, for families with all school-age children, did not have impacts on employment in follow-up years one or two had a mixture of favorable and unfavorable child impacts.

When two-year employment impacts for families with all school-age children are based on parental reports of employment obtained through the client survey, the association between increases in employment and child impacts is no longer apparent. Using this data source, large or moderate employment impacts were found for the Riverside LFA, Riverside HCD, Portland, Columbus Integrated, and Detroit programs.(29) The Riverside LFA program resulted in an unfavorable increase in school suspension rates and a favorable decrease in grade repetition; both the Riverside LFA and HCD programs produced an unfavorable increase in attendance at a special class for behavioral or emotional problems. Child impacts for the Columbus Integrated and Portland programs, however, were all favorable: in the Columbus Integrated program a decrease in attending a special class for behavioral or emotional problems and a decrease in attending a special class for learning problems, and in the Portland program a decrease in behavioral or emotional problems. The Detroit program had no child impacts.

In sum, a clear connection between increases in employment and unfavorable child impacts is not evident.

  • Did programs that increased or reduced combined income produce systematically different child impacts? For families with all school-age children in the 11 programs, a relationship may exist between impacts on combined income and child impacts. In particular, there is some evidence that decreases in combined income may be related to unfavorable child impacts in this older-child sample.

Among families with all school-age children in the client survey sample, one program — Portland — increased combined income in year 2 of the follow-up period; this program also increased the proportion of families with incomes at or above the poverty level. Portland had one statistically significant child impact, a favorable decrease in the proportion of families reporting a child with behavioral or emotional problems. Two programs — Riverside LFA and Grand Rapids LFA — decreased income; these two programs, as well as the Atlanta HCD and Riverside HCD programs, also had the effect of pushing a proportion of families more deeply into poverty in follow-up year 2, that is, below 50 percent of the poverty line. In the Riverside LFA program, three child impacts were found, two unfavorable and one favorable. The Grand Rapids LFA and the Riverside HCD programs each had one child impact, which was unfavorable. The Atlanta HCD program had no child impacts. The remaining programs had no effect on combined income or poverty status for this sample, and had a mixture of favorable and unfavorable child impacts.

  • Did programs with different patterns of child care use and different child care assistance practices have systematically different child impacts? For families with children of all ages in the 11 programs, the data suggest that child care policies may be related to child impacts for some programs.

Patterns of child care use did not differ widely across the programs. Most programs produced an increase in the use of paid child care (relative to control groups), but varied to the extent that the child care increase was a function of increases in employment. The programs did differ, however, in their practices or policies concerning child care assistance. Given the impacts observed in most programs on the use of paid child care during employment, more information on the type of child care assistance offered by each program can illuminate the nature of the child care increases. For example, the interpretation of child care impacts similar in size for two programs might be different if one program paid only for licensed care while the other program emphasized low-cost, informal care.

In Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Portland, and Detroit, as noted earlier, child care assistance was a high priority for program staff. In addition, the Atlanta and Oklahoma City programs would reimburse sample members only for licensed child care. For families with children of all ages, these five programs' child impacts were generally favorable, although few were statistically significant. (These results are not shown in Table 8.) The Atlanta LFA program decreased the proportion of families with a child attending a special class for behavioral or emotional problems and the Atlanta HCD program decreased the proportion of families with a child who had recently repeated a grade in school. The Oklahoma City, Portland, and Detroit programs did not have any statistically significant child impacts for this sample. Staff in the Grand Rapids and Columbus programs largely expected parents to make their own child care arrangements. For families with children of all ages, the Grand Rapids programs did not have any child impacts, and the Columbus programs each had one impact: a favorable one in the Columbus Integrated program (a decrease in attendance at a special class for learning problems) and an unfavorable one in the Columbus Traditional program (an increase in the incidence of a child having been removed from the mother's care). In Riverside, low-cost, informal child care was encouraged. In this site, two unfavorable child impacts were found for the LFA program: an increase in the proportion of families with a child who had been recently suspended from school and an increase in attendance at a special class for learning problems.

  • What relationships do statistical analyses suggest? Mediational statistical analyses of selected impacts on young children in the COS sample suggest that welfare-to-work programs can 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).

Five of the 14 impacts on focal children in the COS sample (which reflect the general pattern of favorable cognitive, unfavorable health, and mixed behavioral impacts) were examined in more detail through an analysis that attempts to identify factors that appear to statistically explain the relationships between outcomes. According to this nonexperimental analysis, for example, the Atlanta LFA program's favorable impact on focal children's average school readiness score appears to be related to the program's favorable impacts on mothers' employment and parenting skills. As another example, the Riverside programs' unfavorable impacts on focal children's maternal health rating statistically appear to be related to mothers' increase in work hours and lower likelihood of receiving welfare at the end of the two-year follow-up period in the Riverside LFA program and to mothers' increased feelings of time stress in the Riverside HCD program. The Riverside LFA program's decrease in health insurance coverage for adults and children was not found to be linked to the unfavorable child health rating impacts; similarly, the Riverside HCD program's increase in the use of child care was not statistically related to these child impacts either.

These mediational analyses also suggested that child impacts may reflect a combination of both favorable and unfavorable program impacts on targeted and nontargeted outcomes. The Atlanta LFA program's favorable impact on focal children's reported externalizing behavior problems, for example, appears to be related to the program's favorable impact on parenting skills, despite two of the program's unfavorable impacts: an increase in mothers' time stress and an increase in the proportion of mothers who felt that they were "pushed" by the welfare office to find a job or go to school.

  • In summary, what might explain the few found child impacts?

As discussed above, the nonexperimental approaches that have been used so far in the NEWWS Evaluation to attempt to explain the few found child impacts lack by necessity the rigor of the experimental analyses presented in the rest of the document. The two nonexperimental approaches rest on many assumptions which may or may not be true. In addition, the two approaches invoked different assumptions, were applied to different sets of families, and sought to explain impacts on different child outcome measures. As a result, they also will not necessarily yield the same explanations for the found child impacts.

Nevertheless, the results for the families with all school-aged children in 11 programs suggest that 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 administrative records data on employment and not for client survey data on employment.) More likely, these program characteristics or effects interact with each other in particular (currently 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, and changes in health insurance coverage — do not appear, by themselves, to relate to impacts on children.

The results for the families with preschool-age children in six programs 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). This analysis did not find that increases in the use of child care, decreases in health insurance coverage, or changes in family income played a role in explaining the selected child impacts examined.

All of these findings suggest avenues for future research, and the longer-term impact data that will soon be available for both adults and children will provide a rich and more powerful data set with which to pursue these possible explanations of child impacts.