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Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 | Fax (410) 516-5251

July 19, 2000
CONTACT: Leslie Rice

Study Finds Welfare Recipients Understand Reform Rules
Only Generally, Are Increasing Their Work Effort

Four years after legislation was passed mandating time limits for those receiving welfare benefits, many welfare recipients -- though generally aware that there are time limits -- are unsure about specific details of their state's new policy rules. In the first of series of reports by researchers of Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study (www.jhu.edu/~welfare/), Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin (pictured at right) and colleagues from Hopkins and several other universities examine how well welfare recipients understand the new reform rules and how they say welfare reform has affected their behavior.

"Most welfare recipients in our study understand that there are time limits, but many are unsure of the specifics of their state's rules," said Cherlin, chair of Hopkins' Sociology Department and its Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy. "As a result, some recipients may be unprepared when they hit the limit. Others may not be able to take advantage of the incentives to work or the opportunities to return to the rolls that some states have built into their programs.

After rising through 1994, welfare cases have since dropped sharply. The 1996 welfare reform legislation has contributed to much of that decline, but so has a booming economy and the lowest unemployment rate in three decades. Very little is known about how the new welfare time limits and restrictions affect recipients and their behavior.

Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study is an on-going study begun in 1998 by researchers at five universities that examines the consequences of welfare reform for the well-being of children and families.

So far, the study has identified four elements of current and recent recipients' understanding of the welfare rules and responses to them:

  • Recipients generally know there is a time limit. In two of the three cities, a substantial majority knows how long the time limit is. Nonetheless, there exists widespread uncertainty about the details of time limits and related policies.

  • Recipients indicate some support for time limits and strong support for work requirements.

  • Some recipients say they are increasing their work efforts in response to the welfare rules. About 14 percent said that, because of the rules, they had taken jobs that had less desirable characteristics like lower wages or inconvenient hours than they otherwise would have accepted.

  • The pro-marriage, anti-non-marital-childbearing messages of the federal welfare law appear not to have had much influence so far. More than half of those surveyed took steps to avoid having children; but few said they did so because of welfare rules. Less than 1 percent of the recipients said that they had married because of the welfare rules, and about 5 percent said that they had tried not to have a child in the past two years because of the rules. "Judging by what people say," said Cherlin, " they appear to be changing their work-related behavior more than their family-related behavior."

  • This is a summary of the first of a series of monthly policy briefs written by the study's principal researchers. To see the full brief, visit its Web Site at www.jhu.edu/~welfare.

    Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study is underway in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. It is comprised of three interrelated components. First, it includes a longitudinal survey of approximately 2,400 families with children in low-income neighborhoods, about 40 percent of whom were receiving cash welfare payments when they were first interviewed in 1999. In addition, at the 36-month mark, a second sample of about 1,200 families, focused primarily on young parents encountering the welfare system for the first time under the new rules, will be selected and interviewed. Second, the project includes an embedded developmental study of about 630 children who were ages 2 to 4 in 1999 and their caregivers. Parents and children in these families were videotaped, child care settings were observed, and fathers were interviewed. Finally, it includes an ethnographic study of about 215 families not in the survey, but residing in the same neighborhoods, who are followed continually throughout the project using in-depth interviewing and participant observation. About 45 of the families in the ethnography will include a child with a physical or mental disability.

    The principal investigators of the study are Cherlin, Ronald Angel, University of Texas; Linda Burton, Pennsylvania State University; P. Lindsay Chase- Lansdale, Northwestern University; Robert Moffitt, Johns Hopkins University; and William Julius Wilson, Harvard University.

    Andrew Cherlin's bio and vitae can be found here: www.soc.jhu.edu/.

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