Science News that Advocates Can Use: Known features of welfare programs that improve outcomes for parents and children

When I read a fascinating article in the journal Child Development about welfare program characteristics and both parent and child outcomes, I immediately searched Google news for a news story or editorial that may have attempted to relay these findings to the public. I found none. Such is often the case with scholarship – it is read and discussed by scientists, but often fails to get translated for public consumption.  This gave me the idea to occasionally blog about important science news that hasn’t yet become a public conversation, but which would be of great interest to advocates and policy makers. Of course, one misses a lot of interesting and rich detail in summarizing for a blog space, so please see the original research for the full account. That said, here is the inaugural post of Science News that Advocates Can Use.


Erin B. Godfrey of New York University and Hirokazu Yoshikawa of Harvard University conducted research that explored whether differences in how welfare offices implement welfare-to-work might be linked to parent and child outcomes.  The outcomes they studied were parents’ income and welfare receipt over time, and several important measures of children’s development.

Godfrey and Yoshikawa’s study draws on more than a decade of prior research on welfare policy, and decades of theory and research on both social support and family well-being. Considering parent outcomes, they hypothesized that:

1)   The amount of support provided to parents by caseworkers would improve parents’ earnings and income over time (measures of support included fostering trust, mutual respect, listening and openness)

2)   An office’s caseload size would have an inverse relationship to parents’ earnings and income over time (i.e. larger office caseloads would be associated with lower incomes), and

3)   The degree of emphasis placed by the welfare office on parents’ securing employment quickly would lead to larger increases in parents’ earnings and income over time, and larger decreases in their welfare receipt.

What did they find? Following the above hypotheses:

1)   Recipients with “high-support “ welfare offices had steeper increases in earnings and income over time (they measured over 5 years). The authors also found that caseworker support varied more across welfare offices than across caseworkers, and is thus more characteristic of the policy implementation setting than it is characteristic of the individual caseworker.

2)   Recipients in offices with high caseload sizes had greater decreases in both their earnings and their welfare benefit over time.  The authors note that prior research has shown that caseload size is an important determinant of the quality of relationship between caseworker and recipient – large caseloads may reduce caseworkers’ time with recipients, increase the chance of caseworker errors, and increase the chances that recipients are mistakenly sanctioned for program violations.

3)   Finally, recipients in offices with a strong emphasis on employment had large decreases in welfare receipt, but there was no detectable influence on income or earnings over time. The authors interpreted this to mean that these offices were successful at quickly moving recipients into employment and off welfare, but that the quality of jobs taken by recipients may not have been high.

The authors next set out to determine whether parents’ income over time had any impact on cognitive and behavioral outcomes in their children.

1)   They found that children whose parents experienced steeper increases in overall income over time had significantly higher scores on standardized tests of reading and math.

2)   They also found that children’s withdrawn and depressive behaviors decreased when either parents’ income from work or welfare receipt grew at faster rates.

The authors rightly note that their findings should be of interest to policy makers and service providers who are interested in improving economic circumstances for families and developmental outcomes for children.  They suggest, “Given that states have considerable flexibility in designing and implementing welfare programs (US. Government Accounting Office, 2002), they could design programs that reduce the negative influence of caseload size and foster caseworker support.” (p. 396)

It is always jarring to me to read scholarly research that shows what effective government programs look like (and with very real positive effects on families and children) at the same time that the widespread public story about government is that public programs need to be cut to “battle inefficiencies.”  Godfrey and Yoshikawa’s study adds to our knowledge of what efficiency and effectiveness look like in welfare-to-work programs:  reducing caseload size, ensuring offices foster a culture of supportive interactions between caseworkers and recipients, and being wary of strategies to secure quick employment regardless of the wages those jobs supply.  These features of how welfare-to-work programs are implemented improve the very outcomes we charge the programs with accomplishing, and more: improving families’ economic circumstances, but also the academic progress and mental health of their children.

Godfrey, E.B. and Yoshikawa, H. (2011). Caseworker-Recipient Interaction: Welfare Office Differences, Economic Trajectories, and Child Outcomes. Child Development, 83 (1), 382-398.

Faith-based group powerful messenger at rally on proposed state budget cuts

I am fortunate to be working with advocates who are toiling around the clock to organize and draft testimony and press releases to protect children, working families, people with disabilities, seniors and others who stand to be hurt seriously by proposed state budget cuts.

In the course of that work, the question of messenger is often raised. Who are effective messengers?  Today, in Maine,  Maine Can Do Better organized a rally to oppose Governor LePage’s drafted cuts to the DHHS infrastructure in the state. There was an enormous turn-out, and a particularly moving speech by a particularly moving messenger:  Rev. Jill Saxby of the Maine Council of Churches. What faith leaders can do, and what Rev. Saxby does so effectively, is call on us to ensure our state budget is a reflection of a just government:

“None of us shall be hidden, and none of us we shall be ignored, not by each other, and not by the government that belongs to all of us and is supposed to express our collective will.” Rev. Jill Saxby, Maine Council of Churches

Are the decisions we are making expressing our collective will? Are we preventing or promoting the health, well-being and dignity of our neighbors, our parents and grandparents, our children? Incredible questions that should be raised more often when the conversation turns, as it always does, to the role of government in our lives.   I urge you to listen to her speech, which can be found in its entirety, here on Maine Public Radio.


Beyond finger pointing in education reform discussions

I was taken aback by Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column this Sunday, How About Better Parents? He was compelled to call our attention to the importance of parents in children’s educational success: “Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.” Is this news? Hardly.  Are we supposed to throw out all efforts at educational reform and sit back and hope parents become “better parents,” as he suggests?

This is the kind of public conversation piece that is antithetical to helpful discourse on difficult social problems. Granted, he’s a columnist, can write what he wants, and is not charged with improving the policy discussion on any issue.  But his argument is surprising on a number of fronts: First, for its disregard of the complexity of the problem that confronts our commitment to public education for all. Second, for its reliance on test scores, and particular test scores at that, as the only valid yardstick by which success is measured. Third, for its failure to offer any achievable solution or even new idea to those who care to improve education.  Madeline Holler sums it up nicely on the parenting blog Strollerderby, suggesting that there’s no silver bullet to fixing American education, and asserting that “asking parents to be “better” is about as useful to education as condemning the teachers’ union.”

Just before I read the Friedman piece I happened to be reading some research on how the overreliance on the “achievement gap” frame serves to obscure the true sources of educational disparities and limits the scope of imaginable policy solutions (Ream, R., Ryan, S., Espinoza, J. (forthcoming). Reframing the ecology of ‘the achievement gap’: Why  ̳no excuses‘ reforms have failed to narrow student group differences in educational outcomes. In T. Timar & J. Maxwell-Jolly (Eds.) Connecting the Dots and Closing the Gap (Chapter 2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.). Just some light Sunday reading!

It is a gorgeous paper. I highly recommend the read.  Robert Ream and his colleagues suggest that if we are to remedy disparities in educational achievement, we must also look at the political, fiscal and social contexts in which schooling occurs (p. 27).  In short, they argue that we need a more contextualized view of educational inputs if we hope to have an accurate rendering of the drivers of educational outcomes and, therefore, solutions to inequities in educational opportunity and achievement.  As just one example of the what they characterize as the layered, linked, and overlapping sources of opportunity, they advise,

“From a top-down structural perspective one might perceive broad economic conditions as being linked to, say, state and local tax rate policies that bear directly, if also differentially, upon community labor markets and housing values—which, in turn, dictate school finance schemes.” (p. 15)

They offer a beautiful graphic of the structural and individual-level factors that influence achievement outcomes (click the pic for a larger view):

Ream, R., Ryan, S., Espinoza, J. (forthcoming). Reframing the ecology of 'the achievement gap': Why ̳no excuses‘ reforms have failed to narrow student group differences in educational outcomes. In T. Timar & J. Maxwell-Jolly (Eds.) Connecting the Dots and Closing the Gap (Chapter 2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. p. 16

Why is this important? It affirms by way of scholarly evidence that Friedman and all those who focus attention on only one source (whether parents, teachers, schools, unions, etc.) have missed the mark. But to me, it is also scholarship at its best:  scholarship translated for public good. These authors articulate how the diverse sources of disparities in educational outcomes are not singular, but are layered and intertwined. But they don’t stop with the analysis – they call for an equally layered approach to our public conversation about how best to resolve these disparities.  Why paraphrase, when the authors themselves say it best in their conclusion:

 “It is possible, we believe, to extricate ourselves from patterns of thought and policy practices that have worked, ironically, to perpetuate the inequality they were meant to redress. Our reflections here are offered in a spirit of optimism about what might be, not just what is, so that we can move toward greater alignment of what we expect of schools and what we expect of ourselves. For what the democratic eruptions so far away in Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli portend about the essential unfairness in American education here at home, if nothing else, is that the capacity to conceive a newly structured reality is a powerful form of causation; and inequities in American education, no matter how firmly established and long-lasting, may give way before the will of people truly oriented toward changing such conditions.” (p. 29)

Here, here!