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Chicago Tribune.

Study praises welfare reform
Debate not settled over reason for drop in the rolls
July 26, 2001

By Monica Davey

A dramatic shift in the nation's welfare laws, not the booming economy, has been the strongest force in sending single mothers to work since the mid-1990s, according to a new study by the Manhattan Institute.

The conservative-leaning think tank's report challenges central assertions of welfare-reform opponents and joins a growing stack of often-contradictory research as lawmakers consider reauthorizing the sweeping changes in welfare policy first passed five years ago. Before September 2002, Congress must decide what changes to make, if any. "Welfare reform is working," said June O'Neill, a co-author of the study and an economist at Baruch College in New York. "Many have tried, but this is the first [effort at reforming welfare] that has really ever succeeded. Many women have found that, given this push, once they start work, they actually like it and can do more than they actually thought. There really haven't been many upheavals."

The Manhattan Institute analyzed U.S. Census Bureau information about 80,000 single mothers from 1983 through 2000. The report concluded that the number of families on welfare has dropped by 50 percent since welfare reform passed in 1996, and that in that time many single women have gone to work "nearly as quickly as they have left the welfare rolls."

The most "disadvantaged" women, including high school dropouts, minorities, young women and mothers of young children, have shown some of the sharpest gains when it comes to getting off welfare and finding jobs, the report said.

The report concluded that changes in welfare rules, including lifetime limits on how long a person can collect benefits and requirements that recipients look for work or receive job training, have been responsible for more than 60 percent of the rise in employment among single mothers in the past few years. By contrast, the report said the strong economy accounted for less than 20 percent.

Experts have debated the reasons for welfare reform's success since its passage. Because the law coincided with an upturn in the national economy, researchers have struggled to sort out which effect--or combination of effects--has led more people to get jobs.

Supporters of welfare reform say the higher rates of employment show that the new welfare policies are working. Opponents say the economic boom has disguised the harshness of new welfare policies and their true effects on poor families.

Some earlier studies have contradicted the Manhattan Institute's findings, according to Stephen Bell, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied the issue. He said the consensus of about 10 separate researchers was that the economy had strongly influenced the drop in welfare rolls before 1999.

For every 1 percent decrease in the nation's unemployment rate, those researchers found, the welfare rolls dropped by about 5 percent.

"A very minor role for the economy is sharply at variance with all the prior research and to me doesn't seem credible," Bell said of the Manhattan Institute's conclusions.

With so much clashing research, another expert suggested caution. "Everyone wants to know the effects of welfare reform," said Susan Mayer, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago. "But we simply have not had enough time. We have not seen long-term effects. Five years simply is not going to have been enough time to know all the ramifications of this."

©2001 Chicago Tribune

 

 


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