Investigators Probe Impact of Workfare on Children's Health

The 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (known as welfare reform) changed the focus of welfare from providing open-ended financial aid to providing transitional assistance while the head of household secures work.

From 1997 to 2003, a collaborative team of investigators from the University of Texas, Austin; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.; Northwestern University, Chicago; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; and Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., conducted a large multisite, multidisciplinary study to examine the impact of welfare reform on low-income families and their children called Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study.

Their research sought to describe the strategies adults developed in response to welfare reform, to examine the role of welfare reform on children's health and development and to make their findings accessible to a broad audience.

Key Findings

  • The March 7, 2003, issue of Science reported the following investigators' findings:

    • "For preschoolers, neither mothers' employment transitions nor their welfare transitions appear to be problematic or beneficial for cognitive achievement or behavioral problems."
    • "For adolescents, the dominant pattern was also one of few associations. But where findings did occur, the most consistent pattern was that mothers' transitions into employment were related to improvements in adolescents' mental health."
    • The ethnographic studies found that across and within families, caregivers and children frequently experience concurrent physical and mental health problems. Primary caregivers most commonly reported:
      • Severe obesity.
      • Arthritic conditions.
      • Cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
      • Depression.
      • Anxiety and stress, among their ailments.

      Among children, the most common ailments included:
      • Severe asthma.
      • Obesity.
      • Seizures.
      • Lead poisoning.
      • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
      • Depression.