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Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997

Welfare to Work: Analysis and Recommendations
Mary B. Larner Donna L. Terman Richard E. Behrman


Policymakers have long hoped to find ways to buffer children from the ravages of poverty without excusing parents from the responsibility of providing for their offspring. For 60 years, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program guaranteed cash assistance for poor single-parent families, allowing the mothers to remain home with their children. In 1993, federal and state governments spent $22.3 billion on AFDC benefits to about 5 million families, reaching 9.5 million children. In recent years, however, frustration with the welfare program has escalated, and the faces of the children who depend on welfare have faded into the background.

Public opinion polls indicate that many Americans think the welfare system traps families in poverty and dependency, harming the very children it is designed to help.1 Many believe that the welfare system defies American values that stress work and self-sufficiency and is unfair to the working families who survive on low wages without government assistance. Policy discussions about welfare have also been colored by concerns about the cost and size of government and about the rising number of children born out of wedlock. Together, these factors contributed to the dramatic restructuring of the nation's welfare system for poor single-parent families, when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act became law in August 1996. Now states will design their own welfare programs within broad federal guidelines, recasting welfare as only a temporary support for needy families and requiring that single mothers leave home for work.

Often lost in the rhetoric is the most poignant and perplexing aspect of welfare reform—the fact that two-thirds of those who receive AFDC benefits are children.2 Children are not only the most numerous welfare recipients, they are the most vulnerable. The AFDC program was designed to assure them a basic living when their parents could not. Changes in welfare policy may alter the most basic aspects of their lives—their access to food, shelter, and medical care; their exposure to good or harmful child care; the time they can spend with their parents; perhaps even their aspirations for success.

This journal issue examines how children may be affected by one aspect of welfare reform—the increased emphasis on employment for single mothers. The new federal welfare law will propel mothers into the workforce by imposing work requirements as a condition of receiving cash assistance and by placing lifetime limits on eligibility for assistance. The articles included here examine the nature of the jobs that mothers leaving welfare are likely to find, discuss public policies that help those mothers juggle work and child-rearing responsibilities, and consider the ways in which a low-income mother's work shapes the daily life and well-being of her child.

This analysis reviews the changes the 1996 federal welfare legislation will bring to the welfare system and suggests what may lie ahead for the children of single mothers who face new work expectations. It highlights the heterogeneity of the welfare population, suggesting that families will follow different pathways with different consequences for their children. Children in families that move from welfare into employment will need access to affordable child care and health insurance, and assistance in times of unemployment. Children in the smaller subset of families headed by adults who cannot work because of health problems, or do not work for other reasons, will face more serious risks. Their well-being may depend on individualized, concrete assistance. The federal welfare reform legislation opens the door to allow state governments to craft assistance packages suited to families with different prospects and needs. The analysis therefore closes with a set of broad recommendations for policymakers to consider when designing policies that will meet the needs of children as welfare is reformed.