Campus & Community

Gains outpace losses for single moms

2 min read

Kennedy School study documents progress since welfare reform legislation

The lives of single mothers and their families improved in the post-welfare reform age, despite the negative impacts of the 2001-02 recession. That’s the finding in a new study authored by Wiener Center Research Fellow Scott Winship and Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy Christopher Jencks, both at the Kennedy School.

The study examined the lives of single-mother-led families between April 1995 and December 2002. Winship and Jencks found that poverty and food-related problems were less common among single mothers and their children in 2002 than in 1995. The data indicate that food-related problems declined among mother-led families between 1995 and 2000, then rose slightly between 2000 and 2002. Overall, however, the decline in food-related problems in the years immediately following enactment of welfare reform legislation in 1996 was far larger than the subsequent increase during the recession years of 2001-02.

The authors focused specifically on one form of material hardship – the degree to which single mothers experienced problems feeding their families. More than 56 percent of the full survey sample reported running short on money and stretching the food budget in April 1995. Just 45 percent reported similar problems in December 2002. More than 10.5 percent of survey mothers reported having a child not eating enough in 1995. That figure was down to 8.1 percent in 2002.

“These conclusions were a bit of a surprise,” said Jencks. “We had feared that while moving mothers from welfare to work would boost their income, it might decrease their material standard of living. But these results disprove that theory.”

Winship and Jencks found that trends in the official poverty rate were valid indicators of trends in material hardship between 1995 and 2002. The poverty rate dropped substantially during that time period.

“Whether or not welfare reform is responsible for these positive trends is still a question, but the results of our study contradict the prediction that welfare reform would lead to larger reductions in poverty than in material hardship,” Winship said. “They also disprove the claim that rising employment among single mothers would not raise their material standard of living.”