Children whose parents entered an experimental welfare-to-work program in Milwaukee during the 1990s improved socially and academically, say authors of a study being released today.
These findings support the wisdom of expanding work supports for poor families, especially in child care, health care and the earned-income tax credit, said Aletha Huston, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC) study.
Roberta Gassman, secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, applauded the findings and said the experiment shows the long-term positive effects of welfare-to-work services.
The findings come as welfare reform remains stalled in Congress; the landmark 1996 reform law expired nine months ago. The House passed its reform in February, but the Senate Finance Committee has yet to produce a bill.
Congress has extended the welfare law through June 30 and is preparing to extend it again. The House is expected to take up the issue tomorrow.
The MDRC study looked at “New Hope,” a welfare experiment in Milwaukee conducted between 1994 and 1998 with 745 low-income parents who were willing to work at least 30 hours a week. Almost 90 percent of the parents were single mothers, and 80 percent were on welfare.
Half of the parents randomly were assigned to the New Hope program, which found them jobs or paid community service. It also gave them an earnings supplement and subsidized health care and child care during a three-year period. These services cost $5,300 annually per family, with the child care subsidy the largest expense, MDRC researchers estimated.
Parents in the control group received Wisconsin’s regular welfare and community services. Researchers followed both groups for five years.
Researchers found that New Hope parents worked more hours and had higher incomes than the control-group parents. Although these effects faded once the New Hope experiment ended, the New Hope parents tended to continue to have slightly more stable employment, lower rates of poverty and higher wages two years later.
Children of New Hope parents outperformed children of control-group parents in reading and exhibited more positive social behaviors, and these behaviors persisted after the experiment ended. New Hope boys performed especially well in school, according to teachers.
The New Hope experiment shows that if there’s “a set of supports around people when they go to work, you can get gains in employment and income, and those translate into benefits for children,” said Gordon Berlin, senior vice president of MDRC.
MDRC researcher Cynthia Miller added that improving the well-being of poor children as a purpose of welfare didn’t appear to conflict with the goal of moving parents to work.
The House welfare bill, passed in February, adds “improve child well-being” to welfare reform’s other purposes of assisting needy families, ending their dependence on government benefits through work and marriage, preventing unwed pregnancies, and encouraging the formation and maintenance of healthy, two-parent married families.