Impacts of a Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Program on Children at School Entry and Beyond: Findings from the NEWWS Child Outcomes Study. What Explains the Few Impacts that Did Occur?


Despite the absence of far-reaching impacts on children in either the short-run or longer-term, the evidence for young children suggests that mandatory welfare-to-work programs aimed at adults can have "spillover" effects on children. Understanding the mechanisms that carry program impacts to children can inform policy makers about how to bolster positive impacts on young children and buffer against potentially negative impacts. So how did these impacts on young children come about? Unfortunately, the answers are not straightforward. As suggested above, there does not appear to be a single pathway through which children were affected by each of these six JOBS programs.

There is some evidence that program impacts on mothers' psychological well-being and parenting may underlie impacts on children in some cases. For example, a statistical examination of factors explaining selected impacts on children at the two-year point revealed that improvements in parenting were related to improvements in young children's academic school readiness and behavior in Atlanta's employment-focused program. In addition, the program-induced increase in maternal depressive symptomatology and reduction in warm parenting in Grand Rapids' employment-focused program was related to the increase in young children's externalizing behaviors in this program.

There is some evidence that program impacts on maternal education may underlie impacts on children. When programs affected maternal education at either the two-year or five-year point, children's outcomes were often affected in the same direction. This pattern was especially strong for higher-risk families at the two-year point. Four programs increased (relative to the control group) the proportion of mothers receiving either a high school education or GED or obtaining a trade degree by the two-year follow-up, and these were the same four programs having predominantly favorable impacts on children at the two-year point.(23)

It is important to note that impacts on young children did not likely come about as a result of program-induced changes in total income, since none of these six JOBS programs altered  at either the two-year of five-year point  total income, on average, in the Child Outcomes Study sample.(24) In addition, there is little evidence that impacts on children resulted from contemporaneous changes in families' poverty status, employment, earnings, or child care.(25) Nevertheless, the possibility exists that earlier program impacts on key adult and family outcomes led to later impacts on children. For example, it is worth noting that the pattern of impacts on poverty (in four programs) at the two-year point is consistent in direction with the pattern of impacts found for these program children at the five-year point. Specifically, both programs in Grand Rapids increased poverty in the month prior to the two-year survey and worsened child outcomes at both the two- and five-year follow-ups. The Riverside education-focused program decreased poverty, and the Atlanta employment-focused program decreased "deep" poverty, at the time of the two-year survey, and the pattern of impacts for children in these programs was largely favorable three years later. This pattern is consistent with research suggesting that childrens early poverty experiences may be more important for their developmental outcomes than later poverty experiences.(26)

In sum, there is no single answer to the question of what led to impacts on children. It is likely the result of multiple factors  some of which, like education and employment, were targeted by these programs, others, like income and parenting, were not. In addition, the ways in which a given welfare program affected children may not be the same as the ways in which a different welfare program affected children. And despite the in-depth information collected on children's environments, it is possible that the evaluation failed to measure other key outcomes that served as the conduits through which young children were affected by their mothers' enrollment in one of these JOBS program. Findings from the Child Outcomes Study suggest that characteristics of the research site  including characteristics of the population served, local economic conditions, welfare benefit levels, and the ethos and practices of the local welfare office  may be important for understanding impacts on children and families.