Programs should emphasize aid for working poor, researchers say
Working mothers who qualify for limited welfare benefits including cash payments, health insurance, food stamps and low-cost child care are in a better position to provide for their families than women who make more than twice as much but do not collect benefits, according to researchers at The Johns Hopkins University.
The conclusion is the result of the latest research conducted in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio through Welfare, Children & Families: A Three-City Study. Started in 1998 by researchers at five universities, its purpose is to examine the consequences of welfare reform for the well-being of children and families. The results of the three-city study are more relevant than ever as Congress begins to debate the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform law.
Different from other welfare studies that focus on how welfare "leavers" have fared in terms of employment and income, the study's latest policy brief, The Characteristics of Families Remaining on Welfare, tracks welfare "stayers" -- specifically mothers who continue to receive benefits after the sweeping welfare reforms in the early 1990s.
Prior three-city research has shown that limited education, serious health problems, domestic violence and low employment rates plague mothers who live in poverty. But in this study, researchers found that mothers who receive welfare benefits while working experience those problems to a lesser degree, according to the study's co-authors, Robert Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins, and Andrew Cherlin, chair of the Johns Hopkins Sociology Department and lead investigator of the three-city study.
"There are two stereotypes about welfare: One is that all mothers who are on welfare are not working and the other is that once someone is off welfare, they are OK," says Moffitt, author of the recent book, Evaluating Welfare Reform in an Era of Transition. The researchers found that there are major exceptions to both of these stereotypes.
Most women choose to leave welfare -- even if they are not required to -- when they get a job or receive help from family members; generally, they do not leave welfare because of either income qualification rules or time limits set by the 1996 welfare reform law, Moffitt and Cherlin say. The average monthly income for a mother in the study who was employed but off welfare was $951. Women who remained on welfare but also worked had an average monthly income of $454. The average working "leaver" made more than double the amount of the working "stayer," but the greater average benefits drawn by the working stayers can provide a more secure income:
On top of her income, the average working stayer's household received $217 each month in the form of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the average working leaver received just $2.
The average working stayer received $238 in food stamps each month, while the average working leaver received just $87.
The average working stayer also received greater Social Security benefits: a total of $148 each month compared to $100 for the working leaver.
"Mothers who work but receive welfare are more likely to have access to other services as well, such as child care and medical benefits," Moffitt says. "The whole package is quite beneficial." Rather than aiming to move women off the welfare rolls, legislators should focus on changes to the 1996 law that will support employment opportunities for women on welfare, the researchers say.
"The general public probably would not be too concerned about providing benefits to supplement low-income families if they were working," Moffitt says. "People should be encouraged to stay on welfare even if they are working."
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