Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Administrative Data on the Well-Being of Children On and Off Welfare

06/01/2002

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) significantly altered the way the United States provides assistance to its neediest citizens. The act eliminated the federal entitlement to services that existed under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced it with the block grant program Temporary Assistance for

Needy Families (TANF). TANF provides temporary financial assistance while recipients make the mandatory transition from welfare to work. These efforts to move adult recipients toward self-sufficiency may have consequences for the well-being of their children (Collins and Aber, 1996; Zaslow et al., 1998). Potential implications include changes in children's health, safety, education, and social competence.

Whether these consequences are positive or negative depends on how reforms impact family income, parenting practices or parental stress, and access to services (Collins and Aber, 1996; Zaslow et al., 1998). For example, economic hardship related to loss of benefits or other supports may complicate families' efforts to provide supportive environments for their children (Knitzer and Bernard, 1997). Increased parental stress related to economic, employment, or child care difficulties also may lead to poor parent/child interactions or exacerbate existing mental health conditions such as depression or substance abuse, thereby increasing the risk of negative outcomes (Knitzer and Bernard, 1997; Zaslow et al., 1998). Child health and safety also might be compromised if TANF alters access to non-TANF services such as health and childcare.

In contrast, positive changes in these areas may be beneficial to children and families (Collins and Aber, 1996; Zaslow et al., 1998). Specifically, policy changes might lead to improved outcomes for children whose parents become employed successfully. Children might benefit from access to more comprehensive health care, opportunities to observe parents coping effectively with work demands, higher educational aspirations and achievement, and exposure to parental peers who are engaged in more prosocial activities.

PRWORA currently is being praised by some, and criticized by others, for moving nearly 1.7 million recipients from welfare to work. However, until the impact of these reforms on child well-being is known, such celebrations are premature. Even if reforms succeed in moving mothers from welfare to work, if this in turn has negative consequences for children, its effectiveness will need to be reevaluated in light of these costs.

Prior to passage of welfare-to-work legislation, more than 40 states received waivers to experiment with welfare-to-work programs. Experimental evaluations of these initiatives now under way will provide valuable information about possible effects of certain aspects of PRWORA. Most, however, focus primarily on adult outcomes such as changes in income, employment, family formation, and attitude, and cover only a limited number of child outcomes (Research Forum on Children, Families, and the New Federalism, 1999; Yaffe, 1998). Additionally, those child outcomes "typically lack depth and uniformity" (Yaffe, 1998). Several states (e.g., Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota) are looking at child outcomes resulting from parental participation in AFDC waiver conditions that approximate TANF and that eventually will yield child-level outcome data. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the Department of Health and Human Services has implemented the Project on State-Level Child Outcomes to assist waiver states in using administrative data to expand these child outcome measures and make them comparable across states. Although this uniformity will allow for the assessment of different state models, their utility is limited by their small sample sizes. In particular, small sample sizes make subgroup comparisons difficult and prohibit evaluation of rare events such as foster care placement or child mortality. Current evaluations of state welfare-to-work initiatives under PRWORA suffer from similar limitations. Given these limitations, researchers increasingly are turning to administrative data to try to gauge the relationship between receiving income assistance services under TANF and child well-being.

The purpose of this paper is to assist researchers in addressing the following questions:

  • What are the key policy issues and related domains of child well-being associated with the impact of PRWORA?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges in using administrative data to measure the impact of PRWORA on children?

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