Since TANF was introduced in 1996, most recipients have been required to work. However, important questions have remained unanswered regarding how mothers' increased participation in work affects their children. If a mother's work experience improves her self-esteem and motivation as well as family income, she may be able to provide better parenting, and thus have a positive effect on her children. On the other hand, if a mother lacks adequate child care and/or coping skills to manage work stress, work participation may have a negative impact on her children. Only empirical analysis can provide a definitive answer for which scenario is more prevalent. Therefore, using longitudinal data, this study examined the underlying pathways between welfare participation and children's outcomes.
There is another question unanswered by previous welfare reform research. States were allowed to design their own welfare programs under TANF, and the large variations in state welfare policies are expected to have different effects on children. Yet, no studies have examined how state polices affect children's outcomes differently. Therefore, state welfare policies were integrated as moderators into this study's estimating model.
To capture the complexities of pathways from welfare participation to children's outcomes, this study used structural equation modeling (SEM) in which mother's employment and parenting practices were considered as mediators. The study also integrated a multi-level SEM to examine the moderating effects of state welfare policies on children's outcomes through changes in parental practices.
The study analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY), which included a sample of children born between 1990 and 2001. The NLSY provided various measures of child development and parenting practices.
This study found that welfare participation had indirect, negative effects on children's outcomes through parenting practices and mother's work, although it had no direct effect on children's outcomes.
With regard to parenting practices, two distinct pathways were identified. First, mothers who received welfare benefits for longer periods of time were less likely to provide cognitive stimulation at home, which, in turn, negatively affected children's cognitive development. Second, they were also less likely to engage with their children, which then resulted in negative impact on children's behavioral outcomes.
A similar pathway was identified with respect to mother's work. Welfare mothers who worked were less likely than those who did not to engage their children, which then negatively affected children's behavioral outcomes. Moreover, the study found that the negative effect of mother's work on children's outcomes was larger under TANF than AFDC.
Finally, with regard to state welfare policy variations, this study showed that more lenient work requirements appeared to moderate negative effects of welfare participation on parental engagement.
The study findings suggest that the negative effect of welfare participation on children's outcomes can be reduced by promoting cognitive stimulation for children and mother's engagement with children. Thus, states should invest more in programs for children's cognitive development. States also should relax strict work requirements, in order to encourage welfare mothers to engage more with their children.