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.