Families Find Work After Welfare - But for Half of Them, Not Enough to Stave off Hunger

Study of the effects of welfare reform on the health of urban families

In 1997–2001, researchers at the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, New York, examined the effects of welfare reform on the lives of low-income families, the neighborhoods in which they live and the institutions that serve them, and analyzed how welfare reform strategies were implemented.

Legislation enacted in 1996 ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the country's major safety net program for low-income families, and replaced it with the state-administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The new program imposes time limits on eligibility for welfare, adds work requirements for recipients and establishes incentives and sanctions to help recipients make the transition from welfare to work.

Researchers used welfare and employment records, health and social indicators, surveys and interviews to conduct five qualitative and quantitative studies targeted on welfare reform in the counties that incorporate the cities of Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia.

Key Findings

  • Welfare recipients had substantially higher rates of health problems than did national samples of women and children. Working women had the best health status and women who neither received welfare nor worked had the worst health status.
  • About half of the women were not sure they could secure nutritionally adequate food or could obtain food without resorting to emergency food supplies, or what they called desperate strategies.
  • Despite increased employment, most women earned too little to escape poverty; they faced several challenges to stable employment, and were under stress trying to juggle conflicting demands.
  • In general, the counties succeeded in making sweeping changes without significantly fraying the social safety net.
  • Prior to 2000, staff often did not inform welfare recipients who got jobs that they would most likely continue to be eligible for childcare payments, food stamps and Medicaid, though agencies subsequently made improvements.
  • Welfare receipt declined and employment increased after the 1996 law was implemented. However, an analysis of records back to 1992 shows that these trends started before welfare reform and cannot be attributed solely to the effects of new welfare initiatives.