Impacts of a Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Program on Children at School Entry and Beyond: Findings from the NEWWS Child Outcomes Study. Who are These Families and Children?


Though all families in the Child Outcomes Study had applied for or were receiving welfare at study entry, these families were fairly diverse in ways that challenge common stereotypes. For example, though all study participants were single mothers at the time they were enrolled in the study, between 31 percent (in Atlanta) and 57 percent (in Riverside) had been married previously. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of mothers in each site had only one or two children when entering the study. Most mothers (between 51 and 60 percent) had a high school diploma or its equivalent, though between one-third and one-half scored low enough on a literacy test to indicate they would have difficulty reading a map or a bus schedule. Between one-quarter and one-third of these mothers reported receiving welfare for less than two years, and two-thirds agreed that "it's wrong to stay on welfare if you can get a job, even a job you don't like."

Family Circumstances and Child Well-Being:
Findings from the Descriptive Study.

An in-depth study examining maternal, family, and child well-being was conducted for a subsample of COS families in the Atlanta site two to three months after enrollment. A look at how these children and families were faring early on reveals elevated risk on multiple fronts. Though most mothers in this sample held a high school diploma and had some work experience, more than half were assessed as having low basic skills in reading and math. Most mothers also reported experiencing difficult life circumstances, such as problems with housing and having a relative or close friend in jail. Forty-two percent reported depressive symptoms frequent enough to place them at risk for clinical depression.

Few mothers received financial support from the child's biological father, reflecting either the lack of paternity establishment, the absence of a child support award, or the failure of non-custodial fathers to make good on an established child support award. Children also had limited regular involvement with their biological fathers; only one-fifth of mothers reported that their children had seen their fathers at least weekly, while a quarter had not seen their father in the past 12 months.

Mothers and children in this sample did, however, have access to supportive adults: 90 percent said they had someone in their lives to whom they could turn for emotional support, and a majority said they had someone who would loan them money in an emergency. In addition, 63 percent saw their own mothers at least weekly, and about 33 percent noted that their mothers often helped to take care of their children.

How were these 3- to 5-year-old children in the Atlanta site faring? On a measure of vocabulary, which has been shown to predict later school achievement, scores for children in this sample averaged 70 (compared to 100 for 3- to 5-year-olds in a national sample).(5) In addition, an assessment of children's academic school readiness found that only 58 percent of children answered most of the items correctly. By contrast, mothers rated their preschool-age children as relatively mature, with few behavioral problems. A majority of mothers (78 percent) described their young child as in excellent health with no limiting condition.(6)

How were children in these families doing?  An examination of outcomes of young children in the control groups two and five years after study entry indicates how these children would have been faring had their mothers not been exposed to the requirements and services of JOBS.

Findings suggest that, when between 5 and 7 years old, children were developmentally disadvantaged especially with respect to academic school readiness, but also (to a lesser degree) with respect to behavior problems.(7) For example, only about 18 percent of young children in the Child Outcomes Study scored as high on a measure of academic school readiness as half of the children in a national sample of 5- to 7-year-olds.(8) This is not to say that all children the Child Outcomes Study showed delays in academic school readiness; some control group children answered all items correctly, consistent with the performance of an "average" 7- or 8-year-old. Moreover, an analysis of control group children in the Riverside site found one-quarter of the children performing at or above grade level. Nevertheless, half of these children were already at least one year behind in the number of basic concepts they should have mastered by school entry, indicating developmental risk for a substantial portion of this sample.(9)

Earlier delays in average school readiness appear to have manifested three years later as lower academic performance and more problem behaviors for some children. A disproportionate share of control group children in Atlanta and Riverside scored "below average" on reading achievement tests, compared to a national sample of 8- to 10-year-olds.(10) In addition, between 35 and 45 percent of control group children across the sites were performing below grade-level in math, and 43 to 54 percent were performing below grade-level in reading, according to their teachers. Teachers also reported that between one-quarter and one-third of these children were in a remedial math group, and almost 40 percent were in a remedial reading group. School behavior was also a problem for many of these children: One-third of teachers reported taking disciplinary action at least weekly with control group children. About one-third of teachers reported that these children needed but did not receive special resources or services, such as remedial instruction, speech therapy, or resources for emotional, psychological, or behavioral problems.