Welfare Receipt

If income improves children's life chances, then the source of that income should not matter. Income from welfare should be as beneficial as income from parents' earnings. Many have argued, however, that welfare receipt in and of itself has negative effects on children because it results in a "welfare culture" that places families outside the mainstream values of work and self-sufficiency. The influence of welfare per se on children (as opposed to lack of resources) is difficult to tease apart because welfare families have very low incomes and few assets (see Huston, 2002). However, studies that have examined the differences in child well-being between children living in poor families that did and did not receive welfare (as well as comparing families that were and were not poor) found that for the most part, children's achievement differed by poverty level and not welfare (AFDC) receipt (Zill, Moore, Smith, Stief, & Coiro, 1996).

This conclusion is consistent with other research. For example, Levine and Zimmerman (2000) examined the relations between children's exposure to the welfare system prior to adolescence and several developmental outcomes using data from the NLSY. Children in households headed by mothers receiving welfare, and especially those who were on welfare for much of the child's life, scored lower on tests of cognitive development and had greater behavior problems than other children. However, three methodological strategies were employed to examine whether these negative associations between living in a welfare household and poor developmental and behavioral outcomes in children was attributable to welfare receipt per se or other characteristics of mothers (observed or unobserved). They found no causal links between welfare receipt in and of itself and children's development, and concluded that income from welfare receipt does not affect how much mothers invest in their children.

In a review of two nationally representative datasets from pre-welfare reform periods (early 1970s and early 1990s), Duncan and Chase-Lansdale (2001) found large differences between welfare families and middle-class families on time use, mental health, and expenditures, adjusting statistically for differences in demographics such as mothers' age and education level. Often the outcomes favored middle class families (e.g., lower levels of maternal depression, lower family tension, greater involvement in youth activities); on other measures however, there were no differences between the two groups

(e.g., parental attitudes regarding monitoring, parent-teacher involvement). However, as Duncan and Chase-Lansdale (2001) point out, welfare reform is unlikely to raise low-income families into the middle class, and therefore it is more fruitful to make comparisons between low-income families receiving welfare and low-income families not receiving welfare. When these comparisons are made, for the most part, there are few differences between these two populations.

Some research suggests that welfare receipt in the early or middle childhood years may have more sustained and negative effects on children's academic outcomes than later in life. Welfare receipt in early childhood is related to lower high school graduation rates, higher grade failure rates, and lower literacy scores, even after controlling for school readiness (Baydar, Brooks-Gunn, & Furstenberg, 1993; Brooks-Gunn, Guo, & Furstenberg, 1993; Guo, Brooks-Gunn, & Harris, 1996). Welfare receipt in middle childhood years (roughly ages 5-12) has been associated with more negative outcomes in adolescent years (see Duncan, Dunifon, Doran, & Yeung, 1998).

Many studies have focused on how welfare receipt in early adolescence affects later schooling and demographic behavior, particularly in late adolescence and early adulthood. For example, after controlling for personal and family characteristics, Gottschalk (1992) found that childbearing by the age of 18 was 50% higher for Whites and 100% higher for Black and Hispanic adolescents whose parents received welfare than those whose parents did not receive welfare. There is some evidence suggesting that the duration of welfare receipt may matter. In one sample, children in families receiving welfare for less than 2 years had better scores on tests of school readiness than those families receiving AFDC for more than 2 years (Zaslow, McGroder, Cave, & Mariner, 1999). On the other hand, results from some studies suggest positive impacts of welfare receipt. For instance, children whose families receive welfare are more likely to have health insurance and better health (Wertheimer, 2001).

There are other reasons why welfare income might not confer the same benefits as earnings. For instance, after controlling for background characteristics (including parental schooling, race, household composition, marital status, income, and residential location), women from poor families who received welfare as children were more likely to be on welfare themselves as adults than those from poor families who did not receive welfare (Martin, 1999). One possible reason is that adolescents whose parents receive welfare are more likely to have a child themselves by the age of 18 (Gottschalk, 1992); these teens may require more of a safety net than those not having children before the age of eighteen. Another possible reason is that children living in welfare families may be less likely to perceive any stigma associated with welfare receipt than children living in poor families not receiving welfare, and, in turn, may be more likely to turn to welfare assistance themselves during times of financial difficulty.

Because the 1996 law resulted in many families leaving the welfare roles, those who remained were likely to have more barriers to employment and self-sufficiency than those who were able to meet the requirements for employment. We analyzed longitudinal data for low-income families from 1995 through 2000, showing that children and parents receiving welfare prior to the new welfare requirements did not differ substantially from those who had similar low incomes, but who did not receive welfare. By the year 2000, however, the small number of families who continued to receive welfare were disadvantaged in many ways; they had considerably more material hardship, and their children were performing poorly on academic skills (Huston, Mistry, Bos, Shim, Branca, Dowsett, & Cummings, 2003). It appears that these families had multiple sources of disadvantage, and that the low incomes provided by welfare were not sufficient to counteract the other problems faced by these families.

Conclusions From Longitudinal and Experimental Studies

Collectively, existing data provide evidence for the "correlated disadvantages hypothesis"; that is, that other factors lead to both welfare receipt and less than optimal outcomes for children, and thus it is probably not welfare receipt in and of itself that causes negative outcomes for children. These correlated disadvantages may distinguish the population of families receiving welfare in the post-PRWORA era more than they did in earlier years because families with fewer barriers have managed to leave the welfare roles.

The overall conclusion from both longitudinal and experimental studies is that family income (regardless of its source), plays an important role in children's cognitive, academic, and social development, especially during the early years. The magnitude of the effect, relative to other family variables associated with poverty, is difficult to determine. Reported income is only a partial index of the material resources available to a family or the material hardships experienced. Moreover, the effects of income are probably are not linear. The difference between incomes at 50% versus 100% of the poverty threshold is potentially more influential than the difference between incomes at 350% versus 400% of the poverty thresholds (e.g., Dearing, McCartney, & Taylor, 2001). Most of this research has not taken into account the fact that long-term persistent poverty has different consequences than transitory poverty or income loss. For example, children in persistent poverty have lower scores on cognitive and achievement tests than those in transitory poverty (Duncan et al., 1994). For many socio-emotional outcomes, including aggression and antisocial behavior, however, income loss and transitory poverty are at least as strongly implicated as is persistent poverty (e.g., McLeod, et al., 1994).


Even if we agree that family income and material resources affect child development, there are many questions about the pathways and processes by which these effects take place. What experiences occur in children's worlds as a result of poverty or affluence? And, what are some of the important individual differences in the experience of poverty that lead to better or worse outcomes for children? Two theoretical models provide hypotheses about environmental influences associated with poverty—one based on resources and one positing on socialization processes (Huston, 2002). Both emphasize the environments of poverty as links between income and child development. In the following section, we ask whether family economic resources predict the socialization environments in which children develop. If so, to what extent do these socialization environments mediate the effects of economic resources on child outcomes? We examine three socialization contexts: family, child care, and out of school activities. We begin with what we know about the family environment.

Environments of Poverty Family Resources

In the resource model, income provides material goods and opportunities as well as a range of nonmaterial resources including parents' time, parents' ability to teach and provide guidance, parents' emotional support, quality schools, safe and supportive neighborhoods, and community resources. These are described as human, social, and cultural capital (Becker, 1981; Haveman & Wolfe, 1994; Johnson, 1996). Poor families have more difficulty than more affluent families in providing intellectually stimulating home environments (Zill, 1992; Zill, Moore, Smith, Stief, & Coiro, 1996). The most frequently used index of home environment is the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) Scale, which is based on both interview and observation of the mother and child at home. It includes ratings of maternal affection and discipline, learning opportunities, the physical quality of the home, and children's opportunities for exposure to different environments outside the home (Caldwell & Bradley, 1984). Low-income families have lower HOME scores than do more affluent families, even when parent education, family structure, ethnic group, and a number of other child and family characteristics are statistically controlled (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal, Pipes-McAdoo, & Garcia Coll, 2001; Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov, & Liaw, 1995; Duncan et al., 1994; Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, & Duncan, 1994; Watson, Kirby, Kelleher, & Bradley, 1996). Perhaps more interesting is the finding that changes in income from birth to age 4 predict changes in the HOME score (Garrett, Ng'andu, & Ferron, 1994).

Existing evidence suggests that family resources, particularly cognitive stimulation, are important mediators of the effects of poverty on cognitive and academic development (Bradley, Corwyn,

Burchinal, Pipes-McAdoo, & Garcia Coll, 2001; Yeung, Linver, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002). In analyses of two samples, for example, HOME scores accounted for one third to one half of the relations of family income to IQ, vocabulary, reading, and math scores in middle childhood (Duncan et al., 1994; Smith et al., 1997). On the whole, family resources appear to mediate poverty effects on cognitive and academic performance more consistently than on social and emotional development. In a review of the literature, Bradley and Corwyn (2002) concluded that access to stimulating learning materials and opportunities for exploration mediate the relation of socio-economic status to both cognitive performance and behavior problems, but others have found that stimulating learning environments account for the relation of poverty to school achievement but not to behavior problems (e.g., Yeung et al., 2002).

Parents' Socialization Practices

The socialization model posits that family income influences parents' psychological well being, parenting practices, values, aspirations, and modeling as well as other socialization environments (Conger, Ge, Elder, Lorenz, & Simons, 1994; McLoyd, 1990, 1998). Poverty and economic hardship are conceptualized as sources of psychological distress for adults, that in turn, lead to unsupportive or harsh, punitive parenting. There is strong support for this hypothesis in studies of poverty and of family income loss. Parents living in poverty report more financial stress, depression, and psychological distress than do more affluent parents. They worry about providing for basic needs like food and housing, racial and ethnic discrimination, dangerous neighborhoods, unemployment, lack of support systems, and lack of status in the society (McLoyd, 1990, 1998). The psychological stresses generated by poverty or income loss can affect interactions with children. Low family income is associated with: (a) harsh discipline and punitiveness (Conger & Elder, 1994; Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994; Hashima & Amoto, 1994; McLeod et al., 1994; McLoyd, Jayaratne, Ceballo, & Borquez, 1994; Sampson & Laub, 1994); (b) low levels of warmth and support (Dodge et al., 1994; Hashima & Amoto, 1994; McLeod et al., 1994; McLoyd & Wilson, 1991); (c) for older children, low levels of supervision and monitoring (Sampson & Laub, 1994); (d) marital or cocaregiver conflict (Brody et al., 1994; Conger & Elder, 1994); and (e) repeated child abuse (Kruttschnitt, McLeod, & Dornfeld, 1994).

The hypothesis that parental psychological distress, lack of warmth, and harsh and insensitive parenting mediate some of the effects of poverty on social behavior has extensive empirical support (Eamon, 1998; Huston, McLoyd, & Garcia Coll, 1997; McLoyd, 1998; Mistry, Vandewater, Huston, & McLoyd, 2002; Yeung et al., 2002; NICHD ECRN, in press). For example, the mother/child data set of the NLSY was used to test the effects of poverty on the math and reading achievement of 1,324 youth aged 12-14. In this study, poverty was indirectly related to lower math and reading achievement through the mediation of less emotionally supportive and cognitively stimulation home environments; which in turn, predicted adolescents' behavior problems in school (Eamon, 2002). Although socialization processes account for poverty effects on academic performance, they appear to be particularly important reasons for poverty effects on children's socio-emotional development. Socialization theory implies that individual differences in parents' responses to poverty affect the likelihood that children will experience psychological distress and behavior problems. Parents who have strong social networks and social support socialize their children with less harshness and more positive interactions than do people who lack social support, suggesting that social networks can buffer the stresses associated with poverty (Brody et al., 1994; Hashima & Amoto, 1994; Leadbeater & Bishop, 1994; McLoyd et al., 1994).

Although longitudinal and correlational studies support the hypothesis that parenting practices mediate the effects of poverty, the experimental studies of welfare and employment policies show consistently that participation in these programs does not affect parenting practices (Morris, Knox, & Gennetian, 2002). My colleagues and I have conducted one of these studies of the New Hope program (see Huston, Duncan, Granger, Bos, McLoyd, Mistry, Crosby, Gibson, Magnuson, Romich, & Ventura, 2001; Huston, Miller, Richburg-Hayes, Duncan, Eldred, Weisner, Lowe, McLoyd, Crosby, Ripke, & Redcross, 2003).

We measured parents' and children's reports of parenting processes and parent-child relations. The experimental program had little effect on parenting after 2 years, but after 5 years, program parents reported that they were more effective in managing their children's behavior. It appears that this change in parenting was a result of improvements in boys' social behavior rather than a direct change produced by the program (Epps, 2004).

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