Journal Issue: Critical Issues For Children and Youths Volume 5 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1995
The Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration experience yields lessons that can be useful to policymakers eager to reform the welfare system. This effort showed that large-scale, supportive welfare-to-work programs for teenage parents can be implemented at relatively modest cost through typical human service agencies. The program's participants were not volunteers but representative samples of the teenage parents coming onto welfare in three cities. Consequently, the demonstration staff experienced the full spectrum of opportunities and challenges facing young parents as they attempt to move to a more stable and independent lifestyle, and the comprehensive evaluation provided further insights into the social, psychological, and economic forces that shape these young mothers' lives.
The demonstration program's combination of mandatory requirements and supports increased participation by teenage parents in activities thought to promote human capital development and self-sufficiency, such as school, job training, and employment. Moreover, the demonstration showed that, if a mandatory participation requirement for teenage parents is coupled with supportive case management and other social services, it need not add to the stress on young, poor mothers. Nor does that requirement appear to harm their parenting or their preschool children's development. Nonetheless, causing no harm is not the same as providing benefits.
These findings suggest that welfare reformers who hope to replicate or improve on the outcomes of the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration should focus their efforts in several areas: (1) communicate clear expectations about the need for education, training, and employment; (2) recognize and flexibly respond to the diverse needs and abilities represented in the teenage parent population; (3) be prepared to solve practical problems that keep teenage mothers from fully participating in activities that promote self-sufficiency; and (4) build in direct supports for both parent and child development, if the aim is to improve the life chances of the children of poor, teenage parents.
Because the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration anticipated major features of the Family Support Act, these findings have direct relevance to current debates about ways to build on the strengths and address the weaknesses of the JOBS program established by that legislation, the nation's most recent effort to reform the welfare system. In contrast, they offer little guidance as to the likely effects of the more drastic provisions now under discussion, such as two-year time limits on receipt of benefits and withdrawal of cash assistance for the children born out of wedlock to teenage parents. As policymakers, program designers, and the public consider such harsh and untested welfare approaches, they would be wise to take advantage of the understanding of welfare reform yielded by years of careful social experimentation and evaluative research on programs like the Teenage Parent Welfare Demonstration.