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UT Austin professor finds welfare reform policies improve school performance

Children in families in the welfare-to-work programs that provide financial and other support for parents are demonstrating improvements in their school performance, according to Dr. Aletha C. Huston, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin who is co-author of a study examining the effects of 11 welfare reform programs.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Children in families in the welfare-to-work programs that provide financial and other support for parents are demonstrating improvements in their school performance, according to Dr. Aletha C. Huston, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin who is co-author of a study examining the effects of 11 welfare reform programs.

Huston is the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development in the UT Austin College of Natural Sciences.

The study was conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York and is the first comprehensive look at whether welfare reform polices are helping or hurting children. The research links improved achievement in school to those welfare reform programs that simultaneously increase work and income — including those that provide earning supplements or child care subsidies. The research found that programs that required work without providing support had few effects on children.

The study found that, contrary to the concerns of some, the efforts to increase single parents’ employment that were studied produced little evidence of harming elementary school-aged children. Programs that required single mothers to work and offered substantial support for child care had few effects on children, and the effects found were as likely to be positive as negative.

Researchers said there is strikingly consistent evidence that programs that supplement single parents’ incomes when they work succeed in two ways — increasing employment and income among single parents and improving children’s well-being. Four programs that supplemented the earnings of working families led to higher school achievement, especially for children of long-term welfare recipients — a group of children who are particularly at risk.

The improvements in achievement they produced correspond to an increase of 5 percentage points in a test score at the 25th percentile, raising it to the 30th percentile. Some of the programs also reduced problem behaviors such as hitting and bullying other children. For instance, one program reduced the proportion of children with high levels of problem behavior by almost 8 percentage points.

The study is less conclusive about the effects of time limits. Based on only one program that combined time limits with work requirements, there were few effects on children’s outcomes, according to interviews with families conducted shortly after they reached the time limit.

“This study is not a summary of how welfare reform has affected children across the nation since 1996. Instead, it informs decision-makers about how children are affected by three central elements of many states’ welfare reforms: mandates, supplements and time limits,” Huston said.

The authors of the study, How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Children: A Synthesis of Research, are Pamela A. Morris, Aletha C. Huston, Greg J. Duncan, Danielle A. Crosby and Johannes M. Bos.

It examines welfare reform programs that began between 1991 and 1994, prior to passage of the 1996 federal welfare reform law. It was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Researchers said the study was possible because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a number of states began examining the effects of welfare policies on children as far back as 10 years ago.

For more information, contact Dr. Aletha C. Huston at (512) 471-0753 or Judith Greissman at the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation at (212) 340-8659 or (212) 532-3200.