Moving People from Welfare to Work. Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies.. Family Circumstances: Can programs have long-term spillover effects on family outcomes such as marriage and fertility?


Welfare reform is often seen as a tool that can be used to do much more than raise earnings and reduce dependence on government assistance. FSA, for example, sought to bring about a sea change in people's attitudes toward welfare receipt. Some policymakers believe that reducing welfare use will have positive spillover effects on poor families, such as increases in marriage rates, reductions in out-of-wedlock childbearing, and alleviation of a range of social problems that they see as being linked to welfare use. None of the NEWWS programs were designed to change family circumstances directly. Furthermore, even the five years of follow-up data collected in NEWWS might not be sufficient to detect such changes.

All 11 NEWWS programs, however, reduced welfare receipt -- in some cases dramatically -- and increased employment and earnings. As a result, the effects that the programs had on several aspects of family circumstances can be examined to shed light on whether decreasing welfare use and increasing work can indirectly affect other aspects of family life.

  • Programs that, like those in NEWWS, have participation mandates but no special financial work incentives are likely to reduce welfare dependence and increase employment and earnings with few long-term effects on marriage, fertility, or living arrangements.

At the time of study entry, all the NEWWS sample members were single mothers. Over the five-year follow-up period, roughly equal proportions of those in the control and program groups married, indicating that none of the programs had an impact on marriage. Several of the programs did, however, increase the proportion of sample members who cohabited with a partner. Similarly, most of the programs did not affect the proportion of single mothers who added a new baby to their household over the five years through birth, marriage, adoption, or foster care or the proportion whose households included extended family members or other adults. Finally, in only one site -- Grand Rapids -- were there effects on housing; compared with control group members, members of the program groups moved more often (to obtain better housing), and HCD group members were more likely to own homes.

  • Welfare-to-work programs can decrease the incidence of physical domestic abuse.

At the five-year follow-up point, NEWWS program group members were less likely than control group members to report having experienced domestic abuse of a physical nature during the prior year. (There were no differences between the groups on measures of nonphysical abuse and job-related harassment.) The rates at which people reported having experienced physical abuse during the last year of the follow-up period ranged from 19 percent to 22 percent among control group members; the programs decreased these rates by 3 to 6 percentage points. There is some evidence that these reductions were fostered by increases in employment -- which may have raised people's self-esteem or self-efficacy, ameliorated family stress, or simply reduced the amount of time spent with partners -- and by caseworkers' attention to support services. Notably, NEWWS did not try to identify women who might be in imminent danger related to abuse. For some women, work may lead to greater safety. For others, especially those in imminent danger of abuse, employment may not have such positive effects, which may make it difficult for them to work or comply with welfare-to-work program requirements.

  • Welfare-to-work programs like those studied in NEWWS are unlikely to have long-term effects -- positive or negative -- on the likelihood that adults or their children have health care coverage.

When people leave welfare for work, they run the risk of losing health care coverage, because they will immediately or eventually lose their Medicaid coverage and often are not offered or cannot afford private insurance -- which they would most likely get through their employer -- to replace it. Transitional Medicaid is available to families for up to one year after they leave welfare, but this benefit has been underused, probably because many newly employed welfare recipients are not aware of their eligibility for it. Some of the NEWWS programs decreased health care coverage two years into the study period, but none affected adults' or children's coverage at the end of the five years. Because the programs increased employment, however, they did lead to a shift from public to private coverage at the five-year follow-up point. Only two programs increased the use of Transitional Medicaid but, at the end of the five years, neither program had led to an overall rise in health care coverage.