Welfare Policies Matter for Children and Youth

Lessons for TANF Reauthorization

By Pamela Morris, Virginia Knox, Lisa Gennetian

This policy brief deepens our understanding of how changes in welfare policies affect the well-being of elementary school-age and adolescent children by showing how reforms targeted at parents can have important consequences for their children. Specifically, the findings reported here demonstrate that welfare policies that aim to improve the economic security of families can benefit elementary school-age children and can complement school-based interventions by giving children a better start in their education. For adolescents, the results suggest that policies that increase parental employment can have negative effects on school achievement, suggesting a new reason for policymakers to spur efforts to develop more flexible child care as well as strategies that can effectively engage low-income youth and help them move successfully into adulthood.

Building on a synthesis of random assignment studies that evaluated nearly a dozen programs, this brief incorporates new long-term results from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS) and the Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project (SSP), as well as just released findings from Connecticut’s Jobs First program, to explore the effects of welfare and work policies on elementary school-age children. For adolescents, this brief reports emerging findings from syntheses of eight studies that evaluate the effects on adolescents of 16 programs that aimed to increase the self-sufficiency of low-income parents.

Key findings:

  • Programs that increase both parental employment and income by providing a supplement to the earnings of welfare recipients when they go to work improve the school achievement of their elementary school-age children. In the one study for which longer-term follow-up results are newly available, these benefits to children have persisted four-and-a-half years.

  • Programs that mandate participation in employment-related services (including job search, education, and skills training) typically increase parental employment but not income and have few effects on elementary school-age children through five years of follow-up. These long-term results reinforce those previously drawn from shorter-run data about the effects of programs with mandatory employment services.

  • Results from two studies indicate that time-limited welfare programs can be implemented in ways that avoid widespread harm for elementary school-age children. At the same time, combining earnings supplements with short time limits on welfare may reduce the positive effects such supplements bring to children.

  • In both voluntary and mandatory programs that promote work and programs with and without time limits on benefit receipt, adolescents’ school achievement and progress have been negatively affected by their parents’' participation in welfare and employment programs. The programs, on average, have no effects on suspensions, school dropout, or childbearing, nor do they appear to affect the school completion of older adolescents as they enter young adulthood. Although average effects are small, increases in maternal employment may be adding to the challenges faced by an already disadvantaged group of adolescents.

  • There is some evidence indicating that these negative effects on adolescents are a result of the “child care problem” associated with maternal employment. Not only may adolescents have been left unsupervised as their parents increased their employment, but they also appear to be caring for younger siblings and working more than part time.

  • For infants and toddlers, data are too limited to permit definitive conclusions. Information from two studies — one of a program with earnings supplements and the other of a program with mandatory employment services — reveals little evidence of either harm or benefit to younger children’s development.
Morris, Pamela, Virginia Knox, and Lisa Gennetian. 2002. “Welfare Policies Matter for Children and Youth.” New York: MDRC.