Commentary | Education

Lessons—When Mothers on Welfare Go to Work

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JUNE 5, 2002 ]

When mothers on welfare go to work

By Richard Rothstein

When Congress changed welfare in 1996, critics worried that forcing mothers to work might harm their children’s development unless adequate and subsidized child care was provided. Fewer worries were expressed about teenagers. Indeed, it was thought that the changes in welfare would help adolescents because their newly disciplined mothers would be positive role models.

As Congress debates renewal of the welfare law this year, new evidence sheds light on these expectations. Surprisingly, forcing mothers to work appears to harm adolescents rather than younger children. When welfare recipients get jobs, their teenagers tend not to do as well in school.

The evidence is scanty but consistent, based on experiments in the United States and Canada to test new welfare-to-work rules. In 11 states and provinces, women on welfare were randomly assigned to groups where they were required or encouraged to work or to control groups where benefits continued under the old rules. In some cases, the control groups were temporarily exempted from work requirements so the experiment could continue. In all, 5,500 women took part and data were gathered on their 6,500 adolescent children.

Yesterday, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which contracts to conduct social science research for governmental agencies, published a statistical synopsis of these experiments, “How Welfare and Work Policies for Parents Affect Adolescents.” The summary reported that adolescents of the working mothers did worse in school, on average, than adolescents whose families continued to receive aid under the old rules.

Relying mostly on surveys of mothers about their children’s school performance (evidence that was confirmed by test scores, when available, and by interviews of some teenagers themselves), the researchers estimated that scores of teenagers whose mothers worked dropped about 4 percentiles, on average, and their chances of repeating a grade increased by about 2 percentage points.

The experiments shed little light on why performance declined, but there is a likely culprit: inadequate supervision. If their mothers are at work, teenagers are more likely to get into trouble. They are more likely to take drugs. They are less likely to turn off the television, stop hanging out with friends and do their homework.

Lisa A. Gennetian, an author of the Manpower report, noted that the data revealed that teenagers who have younger siblings also have a greater chance of being suspended from school or dropping out before graduation. Dr. Gennetian speculated that when mothers are at work, their adolescent children may watch their younger brothers and sisters rather than study.

Congressional debate over renewal of the welfare law centers mainly on how much new money should be provided for child care. More accessible child care could help adolescents if it relieved them of responsibility for baby-sitting.

But child care is unlikely to help teenagers if good after-school activities are not provided. Many women who have gone to work under the new welfare rules have taken night and evening jobs, and often more than one low-wage job to make ends meet. Too often, adolescents are left to their own devices in the afternoons and evenings when their mothers work.

Middle-class working mothers who have never been on welfare also leave their teenagers unsupervised. They could use after-school programs, too.

In April, an organization of police officers, sheriffs, district attorneys and crime victims, calling itself Fight Crime, released a survey of youths from 14 to 17 representing all social classes in New York State. Fight Crime found that 38 percent of the teenagers were not supervised after school for three or more days a week. They were twice as likely as supervised teenagers to drink alcohol, five times as likely to take drugs and four times as likely to commit crimes or misdemeanors.

While mothers inclined to tolerate such activities may also be those who leave teenage children unsupervised, it is more likely that the lack of supervision contributes to this harmful behavior.

When the welfare law was enacted in 1996, Congress relied heavily on results of an experiment in Riverside, Calif. — also reported by the Manpower research group — that showed welfare mothers could move into jobs without further education. Though this was only one study, Congress paid attention because it was scientific.

Congressional leaders and the Bush administration have recently insisted even more strongly that policy be based on scientific research. It would be a shame if Congress abandoned this faith and failed to ensure that every adolescent child of a working mother could enroll in after-school activities that provide the supervision mothers can no longer give.

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