Mental Health and Public Assistance

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine
This is a review of a paper published in Social Service Review.

After welfare reform, more recipients have symptoms of depression

Fifteen years on, researchers have learned a lot about the effects of the 1996 welfare reform legislation: caseloads fell by more than half, more single mothers went to work, and poverty rates fell—although other factors, including a then booming economy, also contributed to these changes.

Less is known about the consequences of welfare reform for the physical and emotional well being of welfare recipients. Now, a new study finds more signs of mental illness among welfare recipients than before the reform.

Sunshine Rote and Jill Quadagno, researchers at Florida State University, studied data from more than 5,000 women taking part in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, one of the few surveys that reports on welfare status, alcohol dependence and depressive symptoms. They asked a simple question: Did welfare reform change the characteristics of welfare recipients with respect to depressive symptoms and alcohol dependence?

Before welfare reform, welfare recipients as a group did not differ from other poor women in prevalence of these factors. After welfare reform, the researchers found, there was still no difference in alcohol dependence. But they did find that recipients reported more symptoms of depression than poor woman in general.

Rote and Quadagno reported their findings in “Depression and Alcohol Dependence among Poor Women: Before and after Welfare Reform.” Their conclusions don’t necessarily imply that new welfare rules are making women depressed. Rather, the results seem to show that women with mental illnesses are not coping as well as healthy women with the new rules, which are aimed at moving single mothers off welfare into job training, education and permanent employment.

In other words, welfare reform has succeeded in moving many poor mothers into jobs, but it has struggled to help some of the neediest women. “It left the most vulnerable, in terms of mental health, on the rolls,” Rote says. Moreover, she says, the welfare system is failing to give these women the help they need. One implication of their research, Rote says, is the need for better mental health care in the welfare system, including better screening for mental health problems.

“I don’t think they’re completely ignored,” she says. “I just don’t think they’re a huge part of what case workers are looking for.” Sunshine Rote and Jill Quadagno,

“Depression and Alcohol Dependence among Poor Women: Before and After Welfare Reform,” Social Service Review 85:2, June 2011, 229-245.