Mothers' Leaving Welfare Had No Effect on Preschoolers: Slight Improvement Seen for Young Adolescents

Mothers' transition from welfare to employment did not seem to have any negative effects on preschoolers or young adolescents, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University, and Boston College.

In addition, young adolescents showed slightly reduced levels of anxiety when their mothers entered the work force, and slightly increased anxiety levels when their mothers left the work force.

The study appears in the March 7 Science.

The Science study is the first analysis of an extensive effort to collect information on how the transition from welfare to work affects women, their children, and the surrounding community. As part of this larger effort, the researchers expect to track the children's development through early adulthood. Roughly 60 percent of the funding for this $20 million research effort was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). In addition to funding from a number of private organizations, the study also received support from other agencies and offices of the Department of Health and Human Services: the National Institute of Mental Health, also at the National Institutes of Health; the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; the Administration on Developmental Disabilities; Administration for Children and Families; and the Social Security Administration.

"This study provides reassurance that mothers may leave welfare and enter the job market without harmful effects to their preschoolers or young adolescents," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD. "The well being of our nation's children is of great concern to the NICHD. We look to this study to provide useful information on how changes in mother's employment may influence their children's development."

The researchers conducted the study to determine possible effects of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed into law by Congress in 1996. The PRWORA mandated stricter work requirements for all welfare recipients, tougher policies for not complying with welfare rules, and a five-year limit on maximum lifetime benefits.

The researchers collected information from 2,402 low-income mothers and their children in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio, explained the study's lead author, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Ph.D, professor of developmental psychology at the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy and research fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

The researchers chose these cities for the study to reflect different regions of the country and to obtain a diverse mix of racial and ethnic groups for their analysis. Children in the study were either preschoolers (from 2 to 4 years of age) or young adolescents (from 10 to 14 years of age). Families participated in two interviews, each lasting two and a half hours. The families were first interviewed in 1999, and 16 months later in 2001. At each of the two time periods, the children underwent a variety of tests to measure their intellectual (cognitive) achievement, their psychological well being, and their tendencies toward problem behaviors.

Mothers of the preschoolers provided answers to a 100-item child behavior checklist measuring emotional and behavioral problems, such as depression, anxiety, aggression and delinquency. The adolescents responded to a questionnaire on depression, anxiety, delinquency, and drug and alcohol use.

Dr. Chase-Lansdale said that the study's in-depth measures and use of trained interviewers may have provided for a more thorough, accurate analysis than was possible with earlier studies.

"Direct assessments of children's reading and math skills may be more valid and reliable than teacher or mother reports of school progress employed in other studies," she said.

Between the two time periods, the researchers noted whether the mothers made the transitions from:

  • receiving welfare payments to not receiving welfare payments
  • not receiving payments to receiving payments
  • unemployment into employment
  • employment into unemployment

The researchers found that preschoolers were unaffected by whether their mothers went on welfare, left welfare, or entered or left the workforce.

"One argument is that the positive and negative aspects of going off welfare or getting a job may cancel each other out," Dr. Chase-Lansdale said. "Take, for example, the tradeoff of time and money when mothers of preschoolers went to work. Family income increased and mothers' time with children decreased, so these two effects may have offset each other."

Mothers' transition from welfare to employment appeared to have a slight favorable effect on adolescents, with teens whose mothers took a job having somewhat lower levels of anxiety than did those whose mothers remained unemployed or out of the labor force. This finding held true for whether or not mothers worked for as little as one hour a week or as much as 40 hours a week, and whether they were employed for a long period or a short period.

"Our best guess is that when the mothers went to work, the teenagers' levels of anxiety went down," Dr. Chase-Lansdale said. "This is a reasonable explanation, when you consider how perceptive teens are to their environments."

Moreover, the researchers did not find evidence of a tradeoff between time and money for the adolescents in the study as they did for preschoolers. When they went to work, mothers of adolescents did not significantly reduce their time away from their adolescents as did the mothers of preschoolers. Rather, the teens' mothers cut back on personal time-time spent on sleep, leisure, or volunteer activities-to make up for the time away from their teenage children while working.

The researchers also pointed out that their study took place during a 16-month interval and was confined to children in two age groups. A much longer study could have shown a different effect on children's development. Moreover, children in other age groups may have been affected differently by maternal employment. The study also may have had different results if it was conducted during a period of economic decline, rather than in strong economic times.

Other authors of the study were Brenda J. Lohman and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, IPR Research Fellows; Robert A. Moffitt, Andrew J. Cherlin and Jennifor Roff, Johns Hopkins University; Rebekah Levine Coley, Boston College; and Laura D. Pittman, Northern Illinois University.


The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web site,, or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail The NIDCD supports and conducts research and research training on the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech and language and provides health information, based upon scientific discovery, to the public. For more information about NIDCD programs:

top of pageBACK TO TOP