Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

The difficult path from welfare to work

For five years, starting just after the 1996 welfare reform act, researchers in New Jersey followed 2,000 welfare recipients to discern how well individual families fared under the new policies. In "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: the Uneven Economic Progress of TANF Recipients," the authors write that most women ended up better off economically than they were at the start. But they also found that "the road to economic progress is a bumpy one."

Most of the welfare recipients suffered reversals and setbacks before achieving steady employment. And the road was especially bumpy for single mothers without high school diplomas, work experience, or good health. These women were most likely to find jobs and lose them, rise out of poverty and then sink back again. And yet even welfare recipients with relative advantages, such as health, more than a high school education, and significant work history—found it hard to escape poverty and welfare permanently. The study notes that New Jersey has a relatively strong economy. In other states, says the main author of the study, Robert G. Wood, welfare recipients could face even greater difficulties.

"The whole scenario is pretty fragile," says Wood, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. "It doesn't take much to upset it."

The study makes a case for giving single mothers more help after they leave welfare. The authors say that policy makers may have to rethink the "pure work-first approach to welfare reform" and put greater emphasis on efforts to help women achieve more sustainable progress, such as programs to provide education and training.