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UT Austin researchers to begin $20 million study on welfare reform

Two University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts researchers will play key roles in a monumental study of the effects of welfare reform on low-income families scheduled to begin this month.

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AUSTIN, Texas — Two University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts researchers will play key roles in a monumental study of the effects of welfare reform on low-income families scheduled to begin this month.

Ronald Angel, chairman of the department of sociology, is co-principal investigator on “Children, Families and Welfare Reform: a Multi-City Study.” The $20 million, four-year project, which has sweeping public policy implications, is federally funded through a $12 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), with additional support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other private sources. Angel will operate out of San Antonio, one of three cities (along with Boston and Chicago) selected as sites. Closely collaborating with him will be Laura Lein, a UT Austin ethnographer in the department of anthropology and the School of Social Work.

Angel came on board a year ago by invitation of colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago. Following preliminary discussions and reviews of the project by a federal review panel, San Antonio — the nation’s 11th-largest city — replaced Baltimore as the designated third study site. That move served to broaden the study’s racial and ethnic diversity by including a large southwestern city with a predominantly Latino population alongside sites typical of the midwest and the northeast. Moreover, all three states represented have distinctly contrasting welfare policies.

“We didn’t want cities from just the east coast or the midwest. . .the rust belt cities,” Angel said. “San Antonio has some real differences. It’s 60 percent Hispanic and, unlike Boston, there are no concentrations of poor white families in neighborhoods. That’s the contrast.” Angel, in turn, recruited Lein, who has worked in San Antonio extensively over the years, as lead ethnographer for the Texas contingent.

The landmark study represents the most ambitious initiative yet to monitor short-and-long-term consequences of 1996’s federal welfare reform act coupled with recent changes to most state assistance programs — policies that, together, have transformed welfare from an open-ended matched entitlement to one that is temporary, capped, linked to a paid-job requirement, and unevenly implemented across states. How will mothers make do economically as they move from the home to the low-paid workplace? Who will mind the children? Will parenting improve, or the reverse? Will the poverty community’s traditional anchors — churches, clinics, soup kitchens, homeless shelters — be overwhelmed? How will fertility and mobility be affected? Will people fare significantly better in some states than others?

“Children, Families and Welfare Reform” will address these questions and more through its multi-pronged, in-depth approach. It will follow 2,800 families (half receiving cash welfare payments), all with a targeted child in the 0-4 or 10-14 years age group, and will proceed to track the children and their caregivers for four years as welfare reform evolves — with particular attention to the consequences of poverty for children’s mental, developmental and physical wellbeing. It comprises three interrelated components: (1) longitudinal surveys that include assessments of families’ and children’s functioning; (2) an intensive embedded developmental study; and (3) contextual, comparative ethnographic studies. Ethnography is the study of community dynamics while physically residing in the community.

Both Angel and Lein are nationally recognized experts on poverty in the United States. Angel, whose past work has focused heavily on Hispanic populations, is co-author (with his wife Jacqueline, a member of UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs) of two recent books: Painful Inheritance: Health and the New Generation of Fatherless Families; (1993) and Who Will Care for Us?: Aging and Long-term Care in a Multicultural America (1997). Lein co-authored the 1997 Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work with noted University of Pennsylvania sociologist Kathryn Edin.

The project’s website is http://www.jhu.edu/~welfare/.