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Implementing Welfare Reform Requirements for Teenage Parents: Lessons from Experience in Four States

Publication Date
Oct 30, 1997

Robert G. Wood and John Burghardt
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation


Current federal welfare policy requires minor custodial parents receiving cash assistance to attend school and live with their parents or in an adult-supervised setting. Congress established these requirements as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which created the program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. While we have little ability to examine how these requirements are being implemented under TANF at this early date, we can observe how several states implemented similar requirements under federal waivers.

his report summarizes lessons based on an examination of the operational experiences in four states that implemented school attendance and living arrangements requirements using federal waivers under the prior AFDC program. The four states are Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The report draws lessons in three areas: (1) identifying teenage parents, (2) implementing school attendance requirements, and (3) implementing living arrangement requirements.


Implementing policies and programs that target teenage parents requires, first of all, the ability to identify them. The new federal TANF regulations require states to deny cash assistance to unmarried minor custodial parents who do not live in an adult-supervised setting and who do not attend school regularly if they do not yet have a diploma or its equivalent. Therefore, compliance with TANF may require some states, which previously had no operational need to identify minor parents, to develop the capability to identify this population. Moreover, states may want to target supportive services to this high-risk population. Many teenage parents face substantial obstacles to future success: unsupportive home environments, social isolation, long-standing poor school performance, lack of role models from whom they can learn parenting and other life skills, and struggles over child care. If state welfare agencies want to provide meaningful assistance to help teenage parents meet the new requirements, they must be able to identify teenage parents and refer them to the necessary support services.

Identifying teenage parents, particularly those on someone else's grant, can be a major challenge.

Welfare policies that apply specifically to teenage parents pose a special challenge, because many young parents do not head their own cash assistance case. When an assistance case includes an older adult, an adolescent, and a very young child, it is often unclear whether the adolescent or the older adult is the parent of the young child. Income eligibility staff must identify relationships among the household members, record these relationships, and act upon the information appropriately. Since minor parents are a relatively small proportion of most welfare caseloads, staff may have no opportunity to become proficient in applying the complex rules to them. Data systems that record the characteristics of parent-child relationships among all case members greatly facilitate identifying teenage parents, especially those who receive assistance as a member of someone else's grant. If existing data systems do not provide this support and cannot easily be modified, staff effort can compensate.

Several strategies can help identify all teenage parents. Programs can pursue strategies that support the efforts of busy staff in applying complex rules to a small proportion of their caseload. Among the strategies we observed are (1) persistent staff training to correct errors, (2) use of alternative information sources to identify teenage parents eligibility workers may not have identified and referred, and (3) establishing positive incentives for identifying and referring all teenage parents.

Attendance policies covering all school-age minors allow TANF compliance without identifying minor parents. Requiring all children in families receiving cash assistance to attend school as a condition of assistance eliminates the need to identify teenage parents in order to enforce a school attendance requirement. If all school-age minors--including those who are custodial parents-- must attend school, then the TANF requirements can be met without separately identifying minor parents. Such policies, however, may sacrifice the capacity to target teenage parents for special services that support school attendance.


States may not use TANF block grant funds to provide financial assistance to unmarried minor custodial parents who do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent unless they are attending school. To meet this requirement, state welfare agencies must define school attendance requirements, obtain attendance information, and follow up with teenagers who fail to attend school. Several lessons emerged from the experiences of the study states in implementing school attendance requirements.

A range of education options, including GED programs, should be available.

General Equivalence Degree (GED) programs are important for meeting the educational needs of teenage parents, especially those who have dropped out of school. Because many teenage parents leave school before giving birth and others do so shortly after, providing programs for youths who have dropped out of school is important for implementing a meaningful school attendance requirement. A substantial number of teenagers attend and complete high school after becoming parents. However, many teenage parents prefer GED programs over regular high school programs as a faster and more flexible route to a high school credential. Directly funding GED programs for teenage parents is a way for welfare agencies to ensure that suitable school placements are available for teenage parents receiving cash assistance. The capacity of public education to serve school dropouts, especially those who are parents, varies greatly from place to place. GED programs can ensure that a program is available. Such programs also can build in a variety of supportive elements (such as parenting education, life skills training, and child care). These program elements may not be critical for the average adult learner, but they are important for young parents.

Programs must determine the focus and scope of case management in light of goals and costs.

To implement a school attendance requirement, a welfare agency must have a system for managing individual cases. This system must gather information about attendance and, if attendance is unsatisfactory, take action to change the grant. In addition, an agency may decide to provide other services that support students' efforts to attend school, such as: (1) help in selecting a suitable program or arranging child care; (2) assessing needs for and securing other services such as housing, health care, and counseling; and (3) providing practical help in solving problems.

Conducting case management for teenage parents through existing systems developed for the AFDC and JOBS programs allows states to build directly on existing staffing and data management systems. However, these systems only monitor teenagers enrolled in school every six months and, therefore, may not identify attendance problems promptly enough to prevent the teenagers from dropping out.

Concentrating all case management functions--including administration of the cash grant--with specialized eligibility workers who work exclusively with cases involving a teenage parent streamlines information flow and allows for the development of specialized knowledge in working with teenage parents. This approach, however, requires staff flexibility, care in delineating the responsibilities of these specialized eligibility workers, and training to allow staff to handle new responsibilities.

Intensive case management requires small caseloads and specialized staff.

Incorporating intensive case management into the responsibilities of a case manager of a teenage parent allows the agency to provide intensive, long-term personal support across a range of areas for the teenage parent and her child. Such support, provided through the public health system, has been found to improve birth outcomes and the health of young families (Smith et al. 1990). The approach, however, requires highly trained staff whose background and orientation differ from that of eligibility workers and JOBS case managers. Intensive case management is relatively expensive because caseloads per worker must be small (40 cases or less in programs we observed). Implementation requires developing staff capability or forging working relationships with agencies outside the income assistance agency.

Monitoring attendance increases welfare agency workload, sometimes substantially.

States must plan for additional staff time in which to monitor school attendance, whether they monitor the attendance of all students receiving cash assistance or just teenage parents' attendance. The amount of staff time will depend on how case management is organized and integrated with the work of eligibility workers, how data systems support information flow, and the other duties assigned to teenage parent case managers.

Monitoring attendance can complicate the relationship between welfare agencies and schools.

Many local welfare agencies and schools have not previously worked together. Schools may be reluctant to monitor school attendance of welfare recipients because they do not consider it part of their mission to enforce welfare agency policy. Welfare agencies must also address school districts' concerns about the burden on their staff time and the privacy of their students. Focusing the attendance requirement on teenage parents and making the teenage parents responsible for securing reports on their attendance will reduce the burden on schools and eliminate concerns about privacy.


States may not use TANF funds to provide assistance for unmarried minor custodial parents unless they are living with an adult relative or legal guardian, or unless certain exceptions apply. This requirement necessitates procedures for monitoring the living arrangements of minor parents and for determining when exceptions to the requirement serve the well-being of the teenage mother and her baby. The experiences of the states studied illustrate several lessons concerning implementation of living arrangement requirements.

A very restrictive living arrangement requirement may create implementation difficulties.

Current federal law requires that, except in certain limited circumstances, unmarried minor custodial parents must live with a parent, adult relative, or legal guardian as a condition of receiving cash assistance. One state in the study initially required that a minor parent live with a parent, if at all possible. Living with a grandparent was not an acceptable arrangement unless there was a substantiated claim against the parent of abuse or neglect. This policy was problematic, however, because in some cases it disrupted stable living arrangements. Concerns of local agency staff about the problems this created for clients led state policymakers to make the policy more flexible.

Funding group homes may enable states to have fewer exceptions to the requirement. The option of group homes enables welfare staff to enforce a strict policy in which few exceptions are granted, while at the same time assuring a safe alternative for young mothers if their parental home is unsafe. Without a group home option, welfare officials must pursue one of three approaches to dealing with situations in which a minor parent has no adult relative or legal guardian with whom she can live: (1) allow more minor parents to live independently; (2) accept a broader interpretation of what constitutes an acceptable adult-supervised arrangement; or (3) accept that some minor parents who do not meet the state's requirements will be denied cash assistance.

Group homes offer a safe, structured, and supportive environment; even so, only a small fraction of teenage parents may choose to reside in them.

Like intensive case management for teenage parents and school programs tailored to their needs, supervised group living arrangements are a way to provide support for young parents who lack constructive involvement with peers and adults. Yet the experience of one study state suggests that only a small percentage of teenage parents will use this option even when it is readily available. For this reason, although the costs per client housed in group homes can be high, the overall cost of providing this option for teenage parents may be relatively modest. If the proportion of teenage parents residing in group homes increases, however, overall costs will also increase.

Youth | Parents
Location- & Geography-Based Data
State Data
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)