Beyond Work: Strategies to Promote the Well-Being of Young Children and Families in the Context of Welfare Reform

Cauthen, Nancy K.; Knitzer, Jane

Three years have passed since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) restructured the nation’s welfare system. During that time, caseloads have dropped 40 percent, and many former welfare recipients have found employment. Yet, while some families are better off financially, others are spending more time in work activities with no financial gain. Because of low wages, many employed parents continue to struggle to pay their rent and provide food for their families. Lack of affordable child care and health care continues to threaten job stability for many as well. A portion of those who remain on welfare will require substantial assistance to prepare for work, while others will be unable to handle employment because of poor health, substance abuse, domestic violence, or other challenges. The changes in welfare have also had unanticipated effects on other social welfare programs. Medicaid and food stamp caseloads have dropped more than expected, suggesting that some eligible families are not being enrolled. Policymakers at all levels of government are taking note of these changes. They have begun to debate what steps are needed to help families make lasting transitions to employment and to ensure that work pays more than welfare. Missing from much of the debate, however, is a discussion of the implications of welfare reform for children and the opportunities that it holds to strengthen child outcomes. Children comprise 70 percent of all welfare recipients, and more than one-third of them are younger than age six. When welfare reform is viewed from the perspective of young children’s needs, the policy picture changes. Although children may benefit from policy efforts to promote work and increase family income, additional steps are needed to ensure their healthy growth and development and to see that welfare reform helps and does not hurt them. Like all young children, those growing up in low-income families need regular health care and positive early learning experiences. They also need nurturing relationships with their parents and other adults who care for them. To provide for these basic needs, all low-income parents transitioning to employment need access to high-quality health care for their families and high-quality child care and child development programs for their young children. Some parents need additional services, such as family support or parent education, to help them meet the complex demands of work and parenting. A significant proportion of low-income parents with young children need intensive services, such as substance abuse treatment or mental health services, for themselves and their children. Still others need access to shelters to exit abusive relationships. In short, if policymakers are concerned about improving young children’s health and development as a way to impact their immediate well-being as well as outcomes for the next generation of families, the policy debate about welfare reform must be broadened beyond employment and income. Policymakers need to focus on the full array of basic and specialized supports required to enhance the well-being of low-income young children and their families. This means that in addition to efforts to promote employment and increase family income, deliberate policy, program, fiscal, and collaborative strategies are needed to: ■ Strengthen basic supports (e.g., access to health care and child care); ■ Promote young children’s health and development (e.g., high-quality child care, comprehensive early childhood programs, and family support activities); and ■ Address specialized child and family needs (e.g., mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence interventions for children and their parents). As the title Beyond Work suggests, this issue brief focuses on non-economic strategies to promote child and family development in the context of welfare reform. It is based on interviews with directors of child development and family support programs, statewide early childhood initiatives, state and local partnerships between early childhood and welfare programs, and Starting Points initiatives (a multisite effort to support young children and families funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York). The first section discusses why it is important to integrate child and family development perspectives with welfare reform implementation. The second section describes specific strategies and provides examples from initiatives and programs across the country.


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National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University

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Academic Units
National Center for Children in Poverty
Children and Welfare Reform, 6
Published Here
February 22, 2019