CHANGED LAWS, CHANGED BEHAVIOR
November 15, 2005
While welfare reform has received plaudits for a dramatic reduction of caseloads, the reduction in unmarried teen pregnancy that the 1996 legislation targeted has received dramatically less attention. Yet a study by the late Paul Offner of the Urban Institute suggests that the law's provisions mandating that unmarried teen mothers attend school and live with their parents as a condition of receiving cash assistance has yielded positive results in the behavior of low-income teens.
Offner analyzed a sample of 24,000 girls, ages 16 and 17, from the Current Population Survey March Supplement for the years 1989 to 2001, charting the high school dropout rate, the percentage living with parents, and the percentage having her own child.
- While the dropout rate remained pretty much the same among girls living 200 percent above the federal poverty level, the dropout rate among low-income girls (those living below the 200 percent threshold) declined from 13.4 percent in 1989 to 8.7 percent in 2001.
- Among low-income teen mothers the reduction was even greater, from 50.1 percent in 1989 to 22.7 percent in 2001.
- Among low-income teens, having a child out of wedlock was associated with a greater likelihood of living with a parent, although the correlation did not reach statistical significance.
- But among these same teens, the percentage having a child out of wedlock declined from 8.5 percent in 1989 to 5.8 percent in 2001.
Offner believes that his findings suggest -- contrary to those who feared that welfare reform would lead to chaos -- that "low-income young people respond to incentives, particularly when those incentives are buttressed by clear messages from society at large."
Source: Paul Offner, "Welfare Reform and Teenage Girls," Social Science Quarterly 86, June 2005.
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