The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 28, 2002
January 28, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 19


Economist Gets NIH 'MERIT' Award

Robert Moffitt's research examines welfare, out-of-wedlock childbearing

By Glenn Small

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Robert Moffitt, an economist who has spent the past decade delving into the possible relationship between welfare and out-of-wedlock childbearing, has been recognized for his outstanding research with an National Institutes of Health MERIT Award.

The rarely given award--less than 5 percent of NIH investigators have received one since the program began 16 years ago--essentially guarantees Moffitt funding for the next 10 years.

MERIT is an acronym for Method to Extend Research in Time.

Robert Moffitt, speaking here with graduate student Eva Sierminska, will begin to look at whether a recent surge in marriage rates can be linked to welfare reform or other factors.

"The MERIT award is really our best way of saying, 'Well, you've carved out a niche for yourself in the field, and we're going to make it easy for you to continue to receive our support of that,'" said Jeff Evans, a senior project officer with NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "That's a signal from us that he's arrived as a scientist."

The soft-spoken Moffitt, a professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said he was grateful for the support and is looking forward to embarking on the next phase of his research, which will be to try to determine if the surge in marriage rates in the past five years can be linked to welfare reform or other factors, such as a turn toward conservatism in the United States.

Winning the award, which provides for $675,000 over the first five years and at least that much over the last five years, was particularly gratifying for Moffitt, as these types of MERIT awards traditionally go to researchers in the hard sciences.

Evans agreed.

"MERIT awards are rarities in and of themselves," he said, "because they're really reserved for people who have established themselves beyond question and who are working in high-profile areas and are likely to be on the cutting edge for the foreseeable future."

Moffitt began his work in this area more than 10 years ago, with an eye toward discovering whether there is actually a relationship between welfare benefits and women having children outside of marriage.

In the first phase, he decided to look at states with generous welfare benefits, like New York and California, to see if they had higher incidences of out-of-wedlock childbirth--and they did.

"The results of that analysis showed that states with higher benefit levels do have higher rates of single motherhood than most low-benefit states," Moffitt said. "However, the lower-benefit states were also located in the South, and that area of the country has high marriage rates."

The South, being a more conservative area with a strong social tradition of people getting married, might have accounted for the difference rather than the more generous welfare benefits of California and New York, Moffitt reasoned.

He decided to examine California and New York over a long period of time. So he looked at welfare benefits in those two states historically, examining what happened when benefits went up and when they went down--and he didn't notice any corresponding rise or fall in out-of-wedlock childbearing as a result, he said.

"What I found was that there was almost no correlation between trends in benefits and trends in out-of-wedlock childbearing by state," he said.

That was the focus of his first five years. In his second, he decided to try to find out what was causing out-of-wedlock childbearing, which was certainly on the rise in the last 50 years, if it was not welfare.

"I looked at what other things could be causing it," he said.

What he found was interesting, he said, if not entirely obvious. "The earning levels and employment levels of less educated men have been declining," he said. "And that had an effect on the attractiveness of these men as marrying partners."

In addition to statistics, Moffitt said, surveys of low-income women confirm that they are not interested in marrying men with low income and low job prospects.

However, Moffitt said, that doesn't mean women on welfare do not have men around. "Many women on welfare are not married, but they do have a cohabiting male around," he said. Thirty percent of welfare mothers have some man in a boyfriend-type relationship.

He said the welfare rules seem to encourage women to live with men who aren't the father of their children, noting that a survey of welfare offices in all 50 states that he and his students conducted found that there is no rule against a woman cohabiting with a man, provided he is not the father of her children.

His next research effort in this area will be to look at the effects of welfare reform on out-of-wedlock childbearing. He noted that one of the goals of the 1996 welfare reform legislation was to discourage people on welfare from having more children out of wedlock. And in fact, marriage rates have increased in recent years.

But is it because of welfare reform or other factors, like a general shift to conservatism in American society? Moffitt wants to find out.

Over the next five years, he and his graduate assistants--he plans to employ five or six at any one time--will pore over several longitudinal surveys, census records and vital statistics in an effort to find out if welfare reform can, indeed, be credited with a decrease in out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Aside from hiring graduate assistants to help him, most of the money will be used to buy high-speed computers capable of crunching large amounts of data, he said.

Evans, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said Moffitt's work could have considerable impact on the public policy debate that is sure to continue as policy-makers decide whether to extend the 1996 welfare reform law.

"There's been a tendency to look at NIH-supported investigators as the gold standard of basic research," Evans said. "His project is really going to focus on one of the most contentious aspects of welfare reform, whether or not people modify their intimate behavior in light of public policy influences ... I think that means that Robert is going to have quite a lot of impact in the world of public policy, as well as in the world of basic research."