Are Children Whose Parents Left Welfare Better Off?

Washington, DC – Research released today indicates that children’s risk for poor developmental outcomes was not alleviated when their parents left welfare. The research has not supported either side in the 1996 welfare reform debate – those arguing that children would be at greater risk or those arguing that policies such as work requirements and time limits would benefit children. What the research continues to conclude is that poverty and the disadvantages associated with poverty are key risk factors for children, whether their parents have left welfare, remain on welfare or have never entered the welfare system.

“Children whose families transitioned off welfare are not consistently better or worse off,” said Dr. Kathryn Tout, senior research associate at Child Trends. “We only found two differences between these two groups of children on the health, education and behavior measures we analyzed. One showed a positive trend for children leaving welfare, while the other was negative. What we continue to find is that both groups of children are at substantially higher risk than children in higher income families.”

Specific findings include the following:

  • On six out of eight measures of well-being, children whose families have left welfare do not look significantly better or worse than children from families currently on welfare.
  • However, 41 percent of the adolescents of welfare leavers were suspended or expelled from school in the past year, compared to 31 percent of adolescents of current welfare recipients and 21 percent of other poor children.
  • Also, 21 percent of the children of current welfare recipients had a limiting condition (physical, learning or mental health), compared with 14 percent of the children of welfare leavers and 12 percent of other poor children.
  • Children in both welfare groups were more than twice as likely as children from other poor families to have high levels of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Most clear was the economic distinction. Children from all three groups of families with low incomes showed markedly poorer outcomes on all eight measures studied than children in more affluent families.


These findings are detailed in a new Research Brief from Child Trends, Children of Current and Former Welfare Recipients: Similarly at Risk, available online The authors of the brief are Kathryn Tout, Juliet Scarpa and Martha J. Zaslow.

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.