The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 3, 1998
August 3, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 41


What Welfare Recipients Are Saying About Reform

Leslie Rice
News and Information
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In the debate surrounding the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the voices of the people directly affected by welfare reform have rarely been heard.

In a study released in June, sociologists Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins and Linda Burton of Pennsylvania State University gave voice to current and former welfare recipients with some surprising results, including widespread support for time limits on the receipt of welfare benefits.

The study involved focus groups held in Baltimore, Boston and Chicago between November 1996 and November 1997. The groups were made up of men and women who were or had been welfare recipients, or who had family members on welfare. The makeup of seven focus groups was African American; six, Hispanic, one, white; and one, a mix of white and African American. Eleven groups were all-female; four were all-male. The focus groups were formed to help design a larger four-year, three-city project slated to begin later this fall.

"On the whole, the predominant tone of the focus groups was one of cautious optimism, surprisingly so, given that welfare recipients face the threat of time limits and sanctions," Cherlin said. "Most seemed willing, even eager, to move from welfare to work. Whether this cautious optimism will be borne out by the future course of welfare reform is one of the key questions our research group will be studying over the next several years."

Much of the report is told in the participants' own words and offers some surprising insights, including:

  • The majority of the participants favored time limits on welfare receipt and viewed the new provisions as providing them with the motivation to find jobs and improve their lives. Many qualified their support, however, by saying some people needed more time to make the transition.

    "Welfare is to help you. They brought it about to help us to stand out a little more until we can do better. It wasn't meant for us to stay on for years and years and years. It was meant for us to stay on for a short period of time and go look for jobs like they're trying to make us do now." (African American woman, Chicago)

  • Participants expressed qualified support for work requirements, as long as exceptions were made for parents who could not find adequate child care or had children with special needs.

    "I think [it] is a good change. But it depends of the mother's situation. If it is a mother who has a handicapped child, they should not make her go to work. But if it is a mother without any problems, they should offer day care services that they have, and yes, indeed, they should demand it." (Hispanic woman, Boston)

  • A majority favored "family cap" provisions that deny increases in cash assistance to mothers who have additional children while on welfare.

  • Participants emphasized the importance of the non-cash benefits that welfare provides, such as Medicaid and child-care assistance. Many argued that the non-cash benefits were more important than the cash benefits.

    "Sometimes some people find a job but without benefits, and do not have health insurance. She is worse off than the person who is on welfare." (Hispanic woman, Boston)

  • When asked what advice they would give the president and state officials, participants asked for more time to make the transition; more child care, educational and training assistance; continued medical coverage; and help in learning English.

    "I would tell him that we need, they need to find more day care for our children or after-school programs if they want us to work, so that our kids are safe and in a safe environment." (White woman, Boston)

    The study was funded by the Boston Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Woods Fund of Chicago and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

    More information about the project is available on the Web at