Journal Issue: Critical Issues For Children and Youths Volume 5 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1995
The Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration
In 1986, two years before the Family Support Act was passed, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiated the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration to test a new model of welfare which might stem the burgeoning of welfare caseloads by reducing teenage childbearing and improving the employment incentives and prospects of teenagers who do have babies.39 Three principles undergirded this model: (1) parents have primary responsibility for their own health and welfare and for the health and welfare of their children; (2) the government has an obligation to help welfare-dependent mothers overcome barriers to self-sufficiency; and (3) intervention should begin early, before welfare dependency patterns develop.
Demonstration programs were established in Chicago and at two sites in New Jersey (Camden and Newark). At each site, teenage parents eligible for welfare who were assigned to the demonstration group received the maximum grant only if they actively pursued skills and experience that would boost their earnings potential and promote their self-sufficiency. Special program offices administered the new welfare requirements and provided comprehensive services to reduce the barriers that impeded the young mothers' participation in required activities. Thus the demonstration programs linked education, job training, and employment opportunities for the young mothers to services such as child care, parenting supports, and case management assistance that addressed the needs of children, following the model of two-generation programs.40,41
The Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration was designed as an alternative approach to routine welfare services which should apply to all the teenage parents entering the welfare system at each site, not only to individuals who might volunteer to receive special assistance in redirecting their lives toward self-sufficiency. By contrast, most previous program initiatives targeted volunteers.15,42-45 Each Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration program identified all teenage mothers of a single child when they applied to receive AFDC and enrolled all who completed applications into the experiment (approximately 6,000 mothers over the two-year demonstration period). About half of these young mothers were randomly assigned to participate in the enhanced services program in their city, and the remainder were assigned to a control group who received regular AFDC services. This article summarizes information gathered after two years on the effects that the demonstration programs had on the activities, educations, earnings, and childbearing of these young women42,46,47 and on parenting behavior and child outcomes.48Program Components
Participation in self-sufficiency activities was mandatory for those individuals assigned to the enhanced services group. To continue receiving their full welfare benefits, these young mothers had to develop and comply with approved plans for engaging in school, job training, or employment. Case managers worked with 50 to 80 young women at a time and helped them decide what education or training to pursue, found open slots in education and training programs, coaxed them to persist in their plans, and counseled them when problems arose.49 They also helped the young mothers find child care, deal with personal and family crises, and take advantage of program and community support services. If a young mother failed to persist in her planned activities despite the program's help in addressing obstacles, the case manager applied financial sanctions by cutting her welfare benefits by the amount normally allocated to the mother's needs. For instance, the young mother's monthly AFDC grant (in 1991, a mother with one child received $322 in New Jersey and $268 in Chicago) would be reduced by about $160 until she resumed participation.
Early on, participants were required to attend workshops focusing on personal skills, their new parental responsibilities, and the demands they would face in later education, training, and employment activities.50 Program staff linked participants to education, training, and employment services both in-house and in community agencies. All three programs offered classroom high school equivalency (GED) courses, on-site job readiness workshops, referrals to counseling, and job skill training provided in other agencies. Each program also conducted problem-solving workshops to help selected participants cope with particular problems or pursue particular goals. After the initial workshop series, case managers helped the participants handle parenting issues on an individual basis, and they occasionally made home visits.
The programs provided child care and transportation subsidies to participants, and they paid for training and education expenses such as uniforms, registration fees, and tools. Parents who used licensed child care centers and approved family child care providers could receive child care payments, and when they were at the program site they could use on-site child care. The Chicago and Newark programs provided specially equipped child care rooms, and in the Camden program staff members were available to care for children on an as-needed basis.37,38
The costs of the demonstration program were relatively modest. About $6.8 million covered operating costs at all three sites, including $4.1 million in federal demonstration funds.51 Total expenditures for the four years of program operations averaged about $2,000 for each of the approximately 3,500 participants. Aggregate resource costs, including the costs of community-provided services such as alternative education and job training services, were about $2,400 a year for each young mother. This sum included about $500 per person for child care and transportation services, including the on-site child care facilities in Chicago and Newark.The Participants
As mentioned above, the demonstration's target population consisted of all teenage mothers beginning to receive AFDC who had only one child or who were in the third trimester of a pregnancy. Although only 6% to 17% of new AFDC applicants at the three sites were teenage parents, because they typically depend on welfare for a long time, past experience suggests that they would eventually make up about half of the welfare caseload at each site. The Family Support Act, passed after this demonstration was well under way, made participation in JOBS activities mandatory for AFDC recipients between 16 and 19 years of age who had dropped out of school. Roughly one-third of the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration participants fit those criteria and would be considered mandatory participants in the JOBS program, and another third were likely to become mandatory when they reached 16 or dropped out of school. The JOBS program would not require participation of the final third because they had either completed high school or were older than 19. They were, however, required to participate in the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration activities.
As a group, the mothers in the demonstration were highly disadvantaged, and virtually all faced significant barriers to self-sufficiency (see Table 1). They were young, averaging 18 years of age, and 5% were 15 or younger. About 30% had dropped out before completing high school, and most who were still in school were behind grade level. Some 55% to 60% of the demonstration participants had reading scores below the eighth grade level, which is the minimum level often required for participation in Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) job training courses. More than half of the young mothers had had some work experience. One-third reported child care problems, and one-fourth cited transportation problems that had limited their employment options. Many of these teenage mothers had left their parents' homes; only about half were living with other adults who potentially could offer economic and social support. Only one-third received financial assistance from the child's father (30% received child support, 4% lived with the father). The profile of teenagers in this sample is one of young mothers who clearly need a great deal of help if they are to make progress toward economic self-sufficiency.Research Questions and Procedures
The demonstration was designed to address a number of important policy questions. At the most basic level, it sought to increase understanding of the size and characteristics of the population of teenage parents on welfare. Even today, most state welfare agencies cannot review their caseloads and distinguish the teenagers in AFDC households who are themselves parents from those who are not. Little is known about the particular strengths and service needs that characterize the teenage parent population.
Another central goal of the demonstration concerned the feasibility of implementing a universal-coverage, mandatory employment and training program for young parents on welfare. Could states design and operate programs on a sufficient scale to meet the needs of all their clients? Could they develop enough education and training opportunities, and address adequately the child care needs of large numbers of infants? How important and effective would the financial sanctions be in promoting program participation among this special population?
The ultimate questions posed by the architects of the demonstration concerned whether this reformed welfare program would reduce significantly the incidence of long-term welfare dependency. In the short run, this meant looking at the effects of the program on progress toward self-sufficiency. Did the reformed welfare program promote higher levels of participation in activities such as school or job training? Did the young mothers in the reformed system experience higher employment and earn more? Did they delay subsequent childbearing? Were they likely to receive greater financial assistance from the fathers of their children as a result of special efforts by the welfare program to establish paternity and secure child support awards? Over the longer run, the evaluation will also reveal beneficial or harmful impacts on children that might result from the mothers' activities outside the home, their parenting behaviors, or their decisions concerning child care.
The evaluators used a multipronged approach to answer these questions. They gathered baseline information from 5,297 young mothers prior to their assignment into the regular or the demonstration welfare programs and made site visits to observe the programs. A follow-up telephone interview was conducted with 3,867 randomly selected mothers about 30 months after they enrolled in the demonstration, with a response rate of 88%. In addition, 70 mothers responded to in-depth interviews, 88 participated in focus group discussions, and the experiences of 46 were discussed in case conferences with program staff. The evaluators also reviewed state agency administrative records to gather longitudinal data on the young mothers' receipt of AFDC, food stamps, child support, unemployment compensation, and wages. Finally, a special study involving interviews and videotaped observations conducted at one of the sites assessed parenting abilities and styles, and aspects of the children's development. From these multiple sources of data, a picture emerges of how the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration was implemented, the experience of the teenage parents in the demonstration, and the short-term effects of the demonstration on the mothers and their children.
Mothers' Responses to the Program
No program takes place in a vacuum, and the interviews and focus group discussions brought to light many differences in the ways the teenage mothers responded to the opportunities and demands of participating in a welfare-to-work program.52 All the young women lived in poverty, often in dangerous neighborhoods that provided relatively few role models to guide them toward social and economic independence. They differed considerably, however, in personal characteristics, such as motivation, cognitive skills, self-esteem, and social support, which can impede or facilitate their participation and progress. Examples of these differences are offered here to bring the experiences of the participants to life, and comments by the participants are included in Box 1.
Experiences with Education
As a group, the 30% who were high school dropouts faced the greatest barriers to self-sufficiency. Some had extremely poor basic skills and no family resources to support them; many confronted barriers compounded by deep personal problems, dysfunctional home situations, and welfare system entrenchment. Others had dropped out of school because of transitory circumstances—for instance, when the pregnancy coincided with another major family crisis—and they were more responsive to the program's pressure to return to school.
Similar contrasts were found among groups of mothers who had more success and stronger attachments to school. Some of the mothers had enough ambition or family support to remain in school after giving birth; others needed the assistance provided by the demonstration program to maintain attendance. In still other cases, even the program's support failed to keep the teenagers enrolled in school. The high school graduates varied as well. Some already had the skills they needed to pursue employment or higher education, but they lacked motivation or faced family problems and other impediments. Others, on the path to self-sufficiency, took advantage of program resources to expedite their achievement of this goal.
Resiliency and Determination
In spite of the difficult circumstances in which they were living, many of the mothers were highly motivated to improve their own lives and to provide their children with a better childhood than they had experienced. Almost none of the young mothers envisioned permanent dependence on welfare. On the contrary, there was a strong and almost universal hatred of it. Many of the teenagers who participated in the focus groups commented that women on welfare often become "addicted" to receiving public assistance and, over time, lose the motivation and ability to care for themselves.
As new parents, the teenagers were inexperienced with child care. Although the demonstration programs helped participants find and pay for licensed child care, many young mothers reported they were afraid to trust a stranger to care for their children and would not even consider care provided by nonrelatives. Ultimately, most of the young mothers were able to rely on relatives to care for their babies.37 While they were generally satisfied with the child care arrangements they made with relatives, recent research raises concerns that the quality of the care provided by relatives may compare poorly with the quality of licensed forms of child care.53
Child Support by Fathers
Only a handful of mothers in the sample cooperated with the efforts of child support enforcement agencies to secure support payments from the children's fathers. Half of the mothers who were interviewed in person indicated that they were in touch with the fathers of their babies, who provided groceries, diapers, and baby clothes, or small amounts of cash. Yet, the young women felt that it was in their best interest not to cooperate with child support enforcement agencies. Many who received no child support stated that they preferred to have nothing further to do with the babies' fathers.
Although most of the young mothers wanted to postpone further childbearing until they were more financially secure, many acknowledged having problems managing their fertility. Two years after program enrollment, two-thirds of the mothers had experienced a repeat pregnancy.47 Typically, the young mothers had not planned these pregnancies; rather, many commented that they had "just happened."
Rewards of Parenthood
The young mothers emphasized the positive aspects of having a child. Their children provided a source of love and affection, enhanced their self-esteem, and made them feel more mature and responsible. Given the limited rewards many teenage parents derive from their lives, these benefits of motherhood can seem quite powerful to them. Some saw working or attending training programs as interfering with their parenting responsibilities. Most teenagers, however, felt it was not only acceptable but desirable to work before their children started school, primarily because they wanted to provide for their children's needs.Program Design and Implementation Lessons
The experience of implementing a large-scale, supportive welfare-to-work program for this population of young parents afforded many lessons relevant to future initiatives in welfare reform.54
To implement a mandatory program successfully, welfare staff members had to accept an approach that required teenage mothers to go to school, job training, or work, and that imposed consequences on mothers who failed to accept this responsibility, even though it meant the mothers had to leave their babies in the care of another person for substantial blocks of time. This represented a major shift in thinking for those staff accustomed to approving AFDC benefits for mothers who stayed at home.
The program staff also had to recognize and deal creatively with the problems that prevent some young mothers from maintaining a full-time schedule of work or school, spending project resources to resolve those difficulties. For instance, when one case manager visited the home of a young mother with poor attendance, she found the mother and her partner were sleeping in shifts at night to guard the baby's crib from rats. The case manager helped the couple find better housing, and the young woman began attending program classes. Specialized training was needed to prepare staff who were experienced with adults to work supportively with a teenage population.
Services for teenage parents—those offered by community agencies as well as by the program itself—had to be tailored to respond to individual circumstances that often changed rapidly. For instance, many teenage parents would not return to their former high schools for a variety of reasons, including boredom, embarrassment, and conflicts with school staff; yet many also found it difficult to enter educational programs focused on adults. Imaginative programs that combined academics, work experience, and intensive personal attention seemed to work best at sparking their interest and commitment. Schedule flexibility was also imperative to enable the teen mothers to deal with sick children, child care breakdowns, transportation problems, and other crises.
Child Care Support
This demonstration underscored that any program intent on engaging teenage mothers in out-of-home activities must deal sensitively with their child care needs. Money to pay for care is needed by those who cannot use free care by relatives: 60% of those who used paid care relied on the subsidies provided by the program. However, most of these young mothers were acutely aware of the widely publicized (if rare) incidents of child abuse in child care settings, and they were reluctant to leave their infants with anyone whom they did not know well and trust. Moreover, the part-time nature of the mother's activities often prevented her from using center-based child care, and the difficulty of using public transportation when carrying a baby and a day's worth of baby supplies limited the choice of child care to the immediate neighborhood, where quality was questionable.38,55,56 Subsidies were only part of the child care assistance needs of this population.Program Impacts on the Behavior of Mothers
The Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration program showed that it is possible to achieve high rates of participation in activities oriented toward self-sufficiency—such as education or job training—so long as program staff members are committed to work with the young mothers to remove the barriers they face and are willing to use financial sanctions constructively to underscore the responsibilities of parenthood.57 Table 2 shows the program's effects on the mothers-their involvement in education and employment, their incomes, their ties to the fathers of their children, and their subsequent childbearing.
The three programs succeeded in enrolling nearly 90% of the teenage mothers they targeted. However, this high enrollment rate rested on the emphasis given to mandatory participation requirements and on the efforts of case managers to coax, pressure, and cajole troubled and uncooperative teenage parents into joining the program.50 Only one-third of these young mothers responded to routine notices about the program participation requirements, but follow-up communications and threats of grant reduction increased the percentage joining the program by an additional 50 points. The 10% who did not complete the enrollment process did not receive any welfare benefits; they were not considered AFDC recipients.
More than 80% of the mothers in the enhanced services group developed a self-sufficiency plan which established long-term goals and specified the steps required to move toward these goals, such as attending school, enrolling in job training, or finding work. Through persistent monitoring and provision of assistance by case managers, the programs were able to keep between 40% and 60% of the teenage mothers involved in approved activities each month. Over the course of the two-year program, two-thirds of the young mothers in the enhanced services group received formal warnings that they were in jeopardy of having their grant reduced, and one-third suffered a grant reduction. The majority of those warned or sanctioned subsequently came into compliance with the participation requirements. Participation in program activities was highest among those who entered the program with relatively strong basic skills, were still enrolled in school, did not have any health problems, were black, or lived at home with nonworking mothers.
The two-year demonstration programs improved the life chances of many of the teenage parents they enrolled. Among the program participants, rates of school attendance, job training, and employment increased compared with those for the mothers in the regular services group, while the mothers in the control group faced their challenges with little assistance. The differences between the groups were all statistically significant, though most were only modest in size. The teenage mothers who were assigned to the enhanced services program were considerably more likely to be enrolled in school (41% versus 29% of the regular services group attended school). They were also somewhat more likely to be receiving job training (27% versus 23%), and more of them held a job at the end of the two years (48% versus 43% in the regular services group).
Understandably, the programs increased school attendance most among younger mothers, those with low basic skills, and those who had not graduated from high school. Their impacts on job training and employment were especially large among participants who began with higher basic skills and among older youths. Program impacts on all three self-sufficiency activities (school enrollment, job training, and employment) were the largest among Hispanic participants, the group who were least likely to succeed without the assistance the program provided.46 Of the Hispanics in the enhanced services group, 42% attended school, 23% took job training, and 42% had a job. The comparable percentages for the Hispanics in the regular services group were 21% in school, 17% in job training, and 25% employed.
Gains in earnings that averaged $23 per month followed from the increased employment among the mothers in the enhanced services group. Also, the combination of those increased earnings and the financial sanctions imposed on the mothers who failed to participate as expected reduced the amount of public assistance received by the program group. They averaged $21 less in AFDC benefits and $2 less in food stamps. As a result, program involvement yielded little or no overall change in the economic welfare of the teenage mothers.
The programs did not succeed in convincing the teenage mothers to limit or delay repeat pregnancies and births, even though they offered specific services, such as family planning, intended to affect childbearing directly. Nor did the participants in the enhanced services group secure more financial support from their children's fathers. Both childbearing decisions and negotiations concerning child support are more personal than choices about education and employment, yet they also influence a teenage mother's prospects for self-sufficiency. In future endeavors with this population, efforts should be made to strengthen those aspects of the intervention which deal with family planning and parenting to minimize the challenges to success in school and employment posed by continued childbearing.Effects of Participation on Parenting Behavior and on Children
The evaluation of the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration went beyond assessing the mothers' abilities to move toward self-sufficiency to determining whether participation in welfare-to-work activities had positive or negative effects on the parents' behavior with their children and on the development of the children themselves.58 Unintended negative consequences for children could result if the stress of juggling work and childrearing leads mothers to spend less time with their children or to be harsh or unresponsive. On the other hand, self-sufficiency activities might enhance parenting skills if they include parenting classes or if they increase the mother's confidence and feelings of efficacy. To explore the effects of program participation on parenting and child outcomes, the researchers conducted an observational study of 182 mothers and their three- to five-year-old children, all of whom were African American, from the Newark site. The sample included mothers from the enhanced services program and from the group that received regular services for AFDC recipients. The mothers were very disadvantaged; only 20% had finished high school after their two years in the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration, and 40% had worked.
Researchers visited the mothers and children at home to conduct interviews and videotape play sessions in which the child tried to complete a puzzle that required help from an adult. During the play session, observers noted the mother's use of harsh control (authoritarianism) and her negativism toward the child. They also recorded the child's enthusiasm, persistence, and anxiety. In addition, the mothers rated their children on checklists of sociability and mental health problems, and the evaluators administered a standard brief test of verbal ability, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-R).
The results of comparisons on these outcomes showed that being assigned to the mandatory enhanced services program did not influence the behavior of the mothers or children during the play session, nor did it affect the children's development. The mothers in the enhanced services program were neither more positive with their children nor more negative and harsh. Their children did not behave differently in the play sessions or differ on the other developmental measures. Policymakers may be encouraged by the suggestion that mandating participation in self-sufficiency programs like the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration does not, in itself, impose hardships that express themselves in negative parenting or problems for children. On the other hand, these results also suggest that, in the short term, welfare-to-work programs do little to enhance the development of the children of poor teenage parents.
Of course, mothers in both groups participated to differing degrees in self-sufficiency activities. To determine whether involvement in education, job training, or employment affected parenting overall, the program and control groups were combined. The videotapes of the mothers who did not participate in any self-sufficiency activities were compared with those who were moderate or very active participants. Here a number of differences emerged (see Figure 1). The mothers who were involved in activities outside the home were less controlling, less negative, and more engaged when they played with their children than were the mothers who were not involved in school, job training, or work. The children of the more active mothers, in turn, showed more enthusiasm and persistence as they played and completed the puzzle task.
While these results are likely to reflect preexisting differences between the mothers who are motivated to take advantage of self-sufficiency opportunities and those who remain indifferent, they also fit with the idea that both employment and preparation for work can be a positive influence in the daily lives of poor adults and their families.59,60