Does Working Hurt? How Welfare Reform Work Policies Affect Child Well-Being

Aurea Osgood, Bowling Green State University


It has been more than a decade since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was passed and welfare reform’s policies were put into place. These policies broke ground for new social policy that promised to significantly change the economic landscape for low-income families across the nation. Yet, it remains unclear whether the work policies are beneficial or detrimental for parents and their children. Using data from the first two waves of the Three Cities Study, this research addresses three questions: First, what predicts welfare-reliant mothers’ movement into the workforce? Second, how does the transition from welfare to work affect maternal well-being? Third, how does a mother’s transition from welfare to work affect child well-being? This research uses two major theoretical perspectives to address the three research questions: the investment perspective and the family stress model. For the first research question – predicting employment among welfare-reliant mothers – five individual human capital variables are used. Three of the human capital variables are significantly associated with mother’s employment: work experience positively predicts a transition into the work force; having physical or mental health problems and being a victim of domestic violence are negatively associated with the transition for mothers. For the second research question – assessing the effects of employment on maternal well-being – three dependent variables are used. Using a sample of mothers who are welfare reliant at the first wave and working at the second wave, results suggest that maternal employment is not significantly related to change between waves in mental distress or self-concept, but is related to significantly greater positive changes in parenting satisfaction than mothers who remain unemployed at wave 2. For the third research question – assessing the effect of maternal employment on child well-being – seven measures of well being are used for children in three different age groups (0-2, 2-4, and 10-14). This research finds that mother’s employment status is not significantly associated with the likelihood of development delays for children ages 0-2 or with scores on the W-J Letters-Word Identification or Applied Problems for children ages 2-4. For children ages 10-14, maternal employment is not significantly associated with school problems or psychological well-being. However, mother’s employment status is significantly and negatively associated with serious delinquency and alcohol/drug use among children in this age group. Limitations and strengths of this study are discussed. Specifically, the limitations of the data and measures, and the possible mediation of child well-being on the relationship between employment and maternal well-being are considered. In addition, several strengths are noted, including the inclusion of preschool children and adolescents, the examination of the mediation effects of maternal well-being on the primary relationship between maternal employment and child well-being, and the use of post-welfare reform data. Finally, policy implications are proposed. For instance, while employment should continued to be encouraged and supported, future policies must take into consideration larger structural and demographic factors such as family dynamics and income levels and the indirect relationships between employment and well-being.