Study Examines Lives of Low-Income Families after Welfare Reform

Contact: Doug Gavel
Phone: 617-495-8290
Date: September 02, 2004

with more than 2,400 families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio from 1999-2001. Researchers with the Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy worked in conjunction with those from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, and Northwestern University.
Reflecting national trends, the proportion of Boston low-income families reporting they were working and not receiving benefits increased significantly from 1999 to 2001 – from 43- to 54-percent – while the proportion on welfare dropped from 25- to 18-percent. Despite those optimistic sounding numbers, however, the researchers concluded that in Boston:
Welfare recipients remain confused about the rules governing the receipt of benefits.
Many respondents who recently left the welfare system reported a worrisome drop in food stamps and WIC.
Former recipients who recently left the welfare system reported higher earnings. However, on average, these gains in income are offset by higher expenses and a reduction in the receipt of cash and non-cash benefits.
Most families report having trouble balancing the household budget that is stretched to cover such expenses as childcare and employment-related costs. When also factoring in housing costs, a large percentage of low-income households experience a severe burden trying to make ends meet.
Some of the most vulnerable families still on welfare experience additional pressures including material deprivation and poor health, which hinder their chances of transitioning off the welfare rolls.
“Our report contains both good and bad news,” said William Julius Wilson, director of the Kennedy School’s Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program who served as co-principal investigator of the study. “The good news is that some families have done better economically since leaving the welfare rolls. However, other recent welfare leavers as well as some families who have stayed on the rolls for extended periods of time are not doing so well and many working families remain in poverty.”
Wilson urges policy makers to carefully scrutinize the analysis from this and similar studies when crafting welfare policies in the future.
“In discussing the successes or failures of welfare reform, one needs to carefully consider the full compendium of supports that low-income families rely on to maintain a household while transitioning off the rolls. Similarly, as suggested in the report, given the problems faced by some adults who have remained on the rolls, welfare reauthorization deliberations aimed at increasing the work requirement for these adults should carefully consider recipients’ ability to comply,” he said.
Data utilized for the Boston report was compiled by researchers working on “Welfare, Children and Families: A Three City Study.” For more information, see the project website:
The Boston welfare report is available online as a pdf file at:
For more information on the Kennedy School’s Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program, see the website:


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