Bowdoin Economist Studies Single Women and Welfare Reform

Story posted June 17, 2004

Welfare reforms enacted in the 1990s were intended to get Americans off welfare and back to work. Perhaps more controversially, they also were designed to encourage two-parent families - or, as many detractors put it, to penalize single mothers.

According to a study co-authored by Bowdoin Economics Department Chair John Fitzgerald and George Washington University economist David Ribar, there is no evidence those welfare reforms deterred women from becoming single mothers.

Their study, "Welfare Reform and Female Headship," appears in the most recent issue of the journal Demography , which also includes a study of the effects of welfare reform on marriage and divorce rates, sponsored by the Center for Public Information on Population Research. His work also was cited in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor (visit: www.csmonitor.com).

"We did a very careful study and controlled for all of the changes during the '90s that should have been relevant," said Fitzgerald, "and we could not find evidence that welfare reform significantly altered the decision to be an unmarried mother."

Fitzgerald said his work was not advocating a particular position on welfare reform, but described his research as "a cautionary tale ... in trying to design programs that accomplish their objectives in the best way."

Their study used data for 1990 to 2000 on income and household living arrangements from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a nationally representative sample of 20,000 to 40,000 households tracked regularly. Among the factors they considered were a variety of state welfare reform policies, local economic and social conditions, and the availability of potential marriage partners.

"We were looking at transitions," said Fitzgerald, "people becoming single mothers or not. One way you become a single mother is divorce, another is having an out-of-wedlock child." They could find no evidence that the total number of single mothers, or the number of women each year who became single mothers or who left single motherhood for marriage, were tied to welfare reforms.

Their study also examined other influences that may have contributed to the decline of the welfare caseload during the 1990s. "At that time, the economy was booming, which tends to pull people off welfare," noted Fitzgerald. "The earned-income tax credit expanded dramatically, which helps raise wages and keeps people off welfare. And welfare reform took place. The result of all these things is that the caseload dropped. Some people said it was due to welfare reform, but you need to try to control for all these other influences as well."

Fitzgerald said his work was not advocating a particular position on welfare reform, but described his research as "a cautionary tale ... in trying to design programs that accomplish their objectives in the best way.

"I think the conclusion of our study is that one needs to be very cautious in ascribing changes in behavior to the welfare reform policies. They made welfare more punitive than it had been, yet that didn't seem to produce measurable impacts in these demographic decisions."


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