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New research: Has welfare reform hurt children?

Rebekah Levine Coley. By Lee PellegriniSince 1996, when the Welfare Reform Act attached stricter work requirements and a five-year lifetime maximum to the receipt of benefits, mothers on public assistance have moved into the workforce in increasing numbers. Assistant Professor Rebekah Levine Coley in the Lynch School of Education has been examining the effect of this shift on children. With fellow researchers from Johns Hopkins and Northeastern universities, she presented research findings in the March 7, 2003, issue of Science magazine.

Coley and her colleagues focused their study on children at two key developmental stages: ages two to four and early adolescence. They reported on 2,402 mothers and their children living in low-income neighborhoods of Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. The families were interviewed in 1999 and again in 2001. According to the study, preschool children showed no pattern of effects when assessed in the areas of cognitive achievement, behavior, and psychological well-being—regardless of whether their mothers had transitioned onto or off of welfare, into or out of employment.

"I don't think that means the changes from welfare reform are having no negative effects," Coley cautions. "Some families are struggling" more than others—for instance, when it comes to finding suitable childcare.

Among children ages 10 to 14, there was a slight indication that the youngsters benefited psychologically from their mothers taking jobs. Based on the children's own admissions, it seems that having a working mother relieves some of the worry that young adolescents feel over family finances, even as having a job, the study suggests, increases the self-esteem of mothers themselves, making them stronger role models.

Overall, Coley calls the initial findings "hopeful." The researchers didn't turn up "the negative trajectory that some people expected," she says. But several caveats accompany the report: Little can be concluded about the long-term effects of welfare reform, because the surveys took place over only 16 months. And since the study was conducted during a period of marked U.S. economic health that brought higher wages to unskilled labor, it tells little about the impact that a worsening job market might have on welfare families.

Coley expects to have new data in 2004 that will reflect the economic downturn of the past few years.

Nicole Estvanik


Photo: Rebekah Levine Coley. By Lee Pellegrini


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