Bowdoin Economist Asks: Did Welfare Reform Work?

Story posted October 30, 2007

Bowdoin economist John Fitzgerald has been trying to get his hands around some of the nation's most pressing, and elusive, social issues for decades: the efficacy of public policies and programs on low-income populations.

Fitzgerald
John Fitzgerald, Bowdoin's William D. Shipman Professorship of Economics

His demographic studies of government welfare and anti-poverty programs have helped shape public discourse for over a decade, including a widely cited 2004 study of welfare reform that showed little, if any, decline in single motherhood as a result of reforms partially aimed at reducing the number of unwed mothers.

Fitzgerald summarized some of what was learned about policy outcomes—both as a researcher and as a concerned citizen—at a talk titled, "Did Welfare Reform Work?" at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, in Room 151, Cleaveland Hall.

The lecture commemorated his appointment as Bowdoin's new William D. Shipman Professorship of Economics, a faculty chair established in 1994 by Stanley F. Druckenmiller, a member of the Class of 1975 and trustee emeritus. The professorship honors Economics Professor Emeritus William D. Shipman, who joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1957 and inspired generations of Bowdoin students in economics.

About Welfare Reform
View a short video interview.
Prof. Fitzgerald discusses the history and challenges of welfare.

"Bill was a wonderful senior colleague whom I respect very much," noted Fitzgerald. "I am extremely pleased and proud to be awarded the Shipman chair, which will help me to continue my research."

The welfare reform bill that was passed in 1996 dramatically changed welfare rules to "end welfare as we knew it." Since then, researchers and policymakers have observed the impact of the new welfare environment on recipients and their children. Changes were designed to provide economic incentives for the formation of two-parent married households as well as increase work effort, noted Fitzgerald.

"Some features were tested in actual experiments where recipients were divided into a control group and a group that received a "treatment" of different rules relating to work, time limits on benefits, and other requirements," he said. "The groups were followed over time and outcomes compared."

The results offer insights into what worked and what didn't, but also raise questions, said Fitzgerald. "We know that the welfare case load fell and that work increased," he says. "But how did this affect incomes of recipients? What were the impacts on children and child achievement? Did it affect family structure? Did the training programs work as expected?

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"I think that all of us have concerns about these issues," he added. "From a moral viewpoint about helping the poor, and from the desire to see that children have an equal opportunity to do better in the future. As taxpayers we wonder how well these programs work. This talk is an opportunity to explore how best to design these programs to help low-income populations."

Fitzgerald joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1983. He earned his B.A. from the University of Montana and his M.S. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has been an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, an associate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, and an American Statistical Association/ Census Fellow at the U.S. Bureau of the Census in Washington D.C., a visitor at the University of Auckland, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the New Zealand Treasury. His research has resulted in numerous articles published in academic journals and conference proceedings.

John teaches courses in public economics, poverty policy, intermediate microeconomics, economic statistics and econometrics.

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