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What Happened to Welfare?

Although welfare reform pushed more single mothers into the labor force, there is no consensus about how this change affected their children. Both President Clinton and Governor Thompson claimed that children were better off when their mothers went to work, but as DeParle shows, these claims were often based on anecdotes that did not withstand close scrutiny. DeParle also observes that Angie, Jewell, and Opal all had working mothers, and that the same was true for most of their boyfriends. Yet Angie was the only one who worked steadily.

Recent experimental studies support DeParle’s skepticism about the claim that putting single mothers to work will be good for their children. In these experiments families headed by poor single mothers were randomly allocated to either a “treatment” or a “control” group. Mothers in the treatment group were helped to find a job and also given various combinations of wage supplements, child care, and health benefits if they continued to work. Such benefits were not offered to the control group, but some members of the control group managed to get similar benefits from other government programs. Nonetheless, mothers in the “treatment” group worked more often than those in the “control” group.

After reviewing the results of these experiments, however, DeParle, along with other analysts, concludes that there were few differences between the children in the two groups. DeParle cites evidence from several work programs that young children of poor unmarried mothers do better in formal day care than when they stay at home. There is also some evidence that when such children reach adolescence they get into more trouble if their mothers work, and are better off when their mothers stay home. In most cases, however, there is little evidence that maternal employment has any effect, either positive or negative. As DeParle says, what is most striking is “the long list of things that don’t seem to change when mothers leave welfare for work.” This list “includes parental control, cognitive stimulation in the home, family routines, and harsh parenting.”11


DeParle argues that the problems of the men, women, and children in the three households he observed were partly attributable to the fact that none of them had “a functioning dad and the emotional and financial support that a second parent can bring.” To support this argument he cites the work of two sociologists, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, whose analysis of five different surveys showed that

children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries…. [They] are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be “idle”—out of school and out of work—in their late teens and early twenties.12

Although the existence of such differences is undeniable, there is no consensus about what causes them. The advantages enjoyed by children who live with both biological parents appear to be partly economic. When McLanahan and Sandefur compared children raised by both biological parents to children raised by a lone mother, the difference in their chances of finishing high school, attending college, or having a child while still a teenager was cut in half if the lone mother had the same income as the couple when their children were sixteen years old.

But money is not the entire story. If a divorced mother remarries, her family’s income usually rises to about the same level as that of other married couples. Nonetheless, her children’s prospects do not seem to improve. Indeed, her children may actually fare worse than the children of mothers who remain unmarried. One reason seems to be that the benefits of the stepfather’s income are offset by the psychological costs of having him in the house. Few children regard a stepfather enthusiastically. Most are reluctant to accept his authority, and many are jealous of his relationship with their mother. Stepfathers often reciprocate in kind, creating a vicious circle of resentment and recrimination. When Angie was doing badly in school and her mother hired a tutor, Angie liked him. When her mother married the tutor, however, Angie resented his presence and moved back to her father’s house, where she got far less parental attention. Jewell and her siblings got on so badly with their stepfather that they tried to poison him. Because unmarried mothers select stepfathers more carefully than live-in boyfriends, boyfriends can be even more of a problem.

DeParle makes a carefully hedged case for the benefits of marriage:

McLanahan didn’t argue that all fatherless families would be better off with their particular father in the home; were he, say, violent or drunk, things could be worse with him nearby than gone. But on average at all tiers of society, having a father helps.

Unfortunately, conclusions about the average effect of having a father do not tell us much about whether any of Angie or Jewell’s children would have been better off if their mothers had married their fathers. Angie and Jewell lived on the lowest tier of society, and they had little chance of meeting, much less marrying, someone likely to become an “average” father. When DeParle’s story ends, Angie, Jewell, and Opal had produced thirteen children with seven fathers, only one of whom was still living with his child. None of the others was paying child support, and two were serving long prison sentences. Judging from what DeParle tells us, the odds that marriage would have made any of the six “missing” men into a responsible, loving father seem low, although Angie might disagree about Greg.

Nonetheless, most Americans believe that children are better off if their parents are married. Many also believe that welfare discourages marriage, although past studies of AFDC suggest that its effect on marriage rates was surprisingly small.13 Most people familiar with this research doubted that replacing AFDC with TANF would have much impact on the proportion of children growing up with an unmarried mother. At the time I shared their skepticism, but now I am not so sure.

Figure 2 shows trends in the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers. After having risen rapidly between 1960 and 1994, the rate was almost flat between 1994 and 2001. Some have attributed the change between 1994 and 2001 to the fact that unskilled men were earning more, making them more likely to marry.14 The fact that out-of-wedlock births rose somewhat faster after 2000, when unemployment among unskilled men rose, is consistent with this view.

Conservatives often argue that welfare reform also sent a “signal” to young people that American society no longer saw having babies out of wedlock as acceptable, and that young people who had babies without marrying should not expect much help from the government. As far as economic assistance is concerned, that argument seems questionable. Single mothers are still more likely than married mothers to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. It became harder for single mothers to get welfare, but the Earned Income Tax Credit now gives many unmarried mothers who work as much as AFDC would have given them to stay home. Welfare reform did, however, send a “signal” that unmarried mothers would have to work more or less full-time to have enough money to live on. That message may have persuaded some unmarried women to use contraception more effectively or to seek abortions when contraception failed.


After spending eight years observing the effects of welfare reform, DeParle concludes that it moved a good many single mothers off the welfare rolls but that nearly all are still struggling to live on meager incomes. Every study I have seen supports that view.

In retrospect, it looks as if both the proponents and opponents of welfare reform overestimated its likely impact. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that abolishing AFDC would lead to large numbers of children “sleeping on grates,” and many other liberals made similar prophecies. Nothing like that has happened. If anything, material hardship among single mothers and their children has fallen slightly. Those who supported welfare reform also seem to have overestimated its benefits. More single mothers have entered the labor force, but because most mothers were already working the increase was hardly a social revolution. Thus far there is little evidence that making more mothers work has had much effect either way on children. Nor has it saved money, at least so far.

DeParle proposes several reforms to improve single mothers’ lives. He would expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, use housing subsidies to move poor families to better neighborhoods, offer better job training, and make sure that every school has an after-school program for children of working mothers. These proposals are familiar and, except for better job training, most states know how to carry them out. The obstacles are political, not technical. As DeParle says, “It’s hard to picture a radically new politics of poverty when politics remains so dominated by money and the poor so lacking in power.” But welfare reform has at least reduced popular opposition to such changes. Most Americans seem to share Clinton’s view that “those who work shouldn’t be poor,” and they are now more likely to see single mothers as working mothers.

Nonetheless, demands that all able-bodied poor women should work full-time are often unrealistic, as well as punitive in their effects. With four children to support, Angie had to work more than forty hours a week to keep her family going.15 Forcing unmarried mothers with four children to spend that much time at work can only lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, child neglect, and greater numbers of adolescents in trouble.

Reconciling the demands of work and parenthood requires a different system of child care. If all school districts offered year-round half-day pre-kindergarten programs, it would be relatively easy for mothers of young children to work half-time when jobs were available. This seems to me a far more reasonable goal than full-time work. If all schools also had after-school programs, mothers of school-age children could work full-time without worrying about their children neglecting their homework or getting in trouble. Work requirements that encourage parents like Angie to leave their children unsupervised cannot be a good idea. Most American politicians have been unwilling to acknowledge this risk. They and their constituents should think more seriously about what they can do for such mothers and children.

Those who still feel that welfare reform was a bad idea should also recognize that there is no going back. America will not revive welfare “as we knew it” in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. For that we can thank Bill Clinton.


What Happened to Welfare?’ April 6, 2006

Mothers of Ill Children April 6, 2006

  1. 11

    DeParle’s assessment is based mainly on an excellent review by Greg Duncan and Lindsay Chase Lansdale published in The New World of Welfare, edited by Rebecca M. Blank and Ron Haskins (Brookings Institution, 2001).

  2. 12

    Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent (Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 1–2.

  3. 13

    For a good review see Robert A. Moffitt, “The Effect of Welfare on Marriage and Fertility” in Welfare, the Family, and Reproductive Behavior, edited by Moffitt (National Academy Press, 1998).

  4. 14

    Between 1994 and 2003 the mean increase in hourly wages at the 10th and 20th percentiles of the male distribution was 14 percent (Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America, 2004–05, Table 2.7).

  5. 15

    DeParle does not report Angie’s annual hours, but he does report that she earned $18,500 in 1999 when she was making less than $9 an hour, suggesting that she worked more than two thousand hours that year.

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