Depressive Symptoms Among Welfare Recipients Can Jeopardize Children, Impede Maternal Employment

WASHINGTON D.C. (January 3, 2002) – Mothers currently or recently receiving welfare are more likely than others to suffer from depressive symptoms, a condition that can adversely affect parenting and increase the likelihood of behavior and academic problems among their children.

These are among the findings in a new research brief from Child Trends that explores the prevalence of symptoms of depression in welfare populations and discusses why this may be a barrier to employment for some mothers and a risk factor for their children.

The authors of the brief (Symptoms of Depression Among Welfare Recipients: A Concern For Two Generations) are Surjeet K. Ahluwalia, Sharon M. McGroder, Ph.D., Martha J. Zaslow, Ph.D., and Elizabeth C. Hair, Ph.D. They summarized depression findings from published reports of seven experimental evaluations of welfare-to-work programs established before the 1996 welfare law: the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training Program, New Chance, the Teenage Parent Demonstration, Florida’s Family Transition Program, the Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project, Minnesota Family Investment Program, and New Hope. Mathematica Policy Research conducted the Teenage Parent Demonstration evaluation, and Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) conducted the other six evaluations. Child Trends evaluated the impacts of the JOBS program on young children and their families and subsequently examined the data on depressive symptoms for this research brief.

Highlights of the findings are:

  • Among individuals currently or recently receiving public assistance, 30 to 45 percent (depending on the program) reported having depressive symptoms, compared to 20 percent in the general population.
  • Depressive symptoms combined with low literacy may hurt an individual’s ability to get and keep a job.
  • Some of the samples studied showed that enrollment in welfare-to-work programs can affect symptoms of depression, sometimes but not always negatively.

All this could spell bad news for the children of these mothers, according to the authors.

“Children receiving public assistance are already at greater risk than other children,” said Sharon McGroder, one of the brief’s coauthors. “They are hit doubly hard if their mothers are depressed because research shows that children of parents who are depressed suffer poorer outcomes in a variety of areas compared to other children.”

Mothers in one study by Child Trends were asked how their children were faring at two points in their lives: when they were between 5 and 7, and when they were between 8 and 10. The results found:

  • Children ages 5 to 7 who had mothers with more symptoms of depression were more likely to exhibit disobedient or bullying behavior.
  • When these children were 8 to 10, they themselves displayed more depressive behaviors, such as acting sad or showing low self-esteem.
  • Children whose mothers had both elevated depressive symptoms and lower literacy displayed the most depressive behaviors early on (when they were 5 to 7) and poorer academic performance three years later.

The authors suggest that the upcoming reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants may be an opportunity for policy makers and social service providers to take a fresh look at this problem. The impacts on symptoms of depression among some welfare recipients in programs before TANF may foreshadow how other welfare recipients will fare when they enter or try to enter the workforce and how their children might fare.