Effects of Welfare Reform on Adolescent Risky Health Behaviors

Wednesday, June 26, 2019: 10:30 AM
Lincoln 2 - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park Hotel)

Presenter: Hope Corman

Co-Authors: Dhaval Dave; Ariel Kalil; Ofira Schwartz-Soicher; Nancy Reichman

Discussant: Michael T. French

The U.S. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, often referred to as “welfare reform,” dramatically reduced dependence of single parents on government benefits. The key strategy was to promote maternal employment by imposing work requirements as a condition for receiving benefits in concert with a lifetime limit on receipt of cash assistance. The basic argument was that labor force participation would break a culture of dependence by connecting members of an increasingly marginalized underclass to the mainstream ideals of a strong work ethic and civic responsibility. At the same time, there were concerns that some individuals would be ill-equipped to adjust to the new regime.

An implicit assumption behind the reforms was that a work-focused regime would not only encourage mainstream behaviors of mothers, but that it would also encourage mainstream behaviors of the next generation. However, few studies have considered how the new regime has affected behaviors of teenage children who are old enough to make autonomous decisions.

This study investigates the effects of welfare reform on teenage risky health behaviors. Employment of low-skilled women increased as a result of welfare reform, but potential increases in income may not have offset increased transportation and childcare expenses and mothers may have had less time to supervise their teenage children. The lack of a long-term safety net could change youth’s expectations for the future (positively or negatively) and, as such, their cost-benefit calculus vis-à-vis undertaking risk. Overall, the expected directional effects of welfare reform on teenage risky behaviors are ambiguous.

We use annual restricted data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys from 1991-2006 for 10th and 12th grade students in the U.S. We use 1991 as the starting point because that was the year the MTF began surveying 10th graders and it also preceded welfare reform in all states. We use 2006 as the endpoint in order to allow all states to have implemented the reforms and avoid conflating our results with the effects of the Great Recession. ~16,000 students in each grade (10th,12th) are surveyed each year. We limit the sample to teens who are minors (<18 years old).

For dietary and lifestyle behaviors, we consider skipping breakfast, inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables, inadequate exercise, and inadequate sleep. For substance use, we consider alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and hard drugs. We also consider two questions that MTF asks respondents that relate to their attitude toward risk—whether they “get a kick out of danger” and whether they “like risk.”

We employ a quasi-experimental difference-in-difference-in-differences research design that exploits variation in the timing of welfare reform implementation across states, with comparisons across target and comparison groups. Models include state and month/year fixed effects, which control for time-invariant state heterogeneity, national trends, and seasonal variation in youth outcomes, as well as a rich set of time-varying state measures of population, economic conditions, and other income support and welfare programs. We conduct numerous robustness checks and sensitivity analyses and explore the potential mediating effects of maternal employment, income, and supervision.

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