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May 2000Vol. 1, No. 3Urban Institute Revisits Welfare Reform

A new brief by the Urban Institute examines the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and how it has affected two-parent families. This brief, third in the Strengthening Families series, contends that welfare reform has not encouraged the stability of two-parent families and responsible fatherhood, but rather has discouraged it.

In the upcoming reauthorization of welfare reform programs, authors Elaine Sorensen, Ronald Mincy, and Ariel Halpern urge policy makers to take into consideration demographic and social changes in the last 20 years including:

  • An explosion in nonmarital childbearing and single mothers
  • A dramatic decline in marriages among poor families
  • High paternal involvement among poor children under age 2
  • Low paternal involvement among poor older children and teens.

The authors found that the "fragile family," consisting of poor children born outside of marriage whose two natural parents are working to raise them, and married families are poorly served by public assistance programs, which primarily target single-mother families. The eligibility requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program shut out many poor children from two-parent families. They also lose out on other welfare programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and WIC (a nutritional program for women, infants, and children), which require TANF qualification. Rather than encouraging family formation, these policies provide incentives to choose single parenting over co-parenting, the authors contend.

The authors also claim that Child Support Enforcement Laws drive fathers away from their children. Since many nonresident fathers are poor themselves, they would benefit from help in finding and keeping work, rather than saddling them with debt. The Welfare-to-Work program, which ends this year, is currently the only such program.

The brief concludes with illustrative data and three specific recommendations to Congress:

  • Consider whether any distinction between single- and two-parent families is warranted within TANF.
  • Consider encouraging States to broaden their eligibility criteria within TANF to include all types of poor families, including noncustodial parents.
  • Establish a program available at or near a child's birth that helps both poor mothers and fathers overcome the barriers to staying together, regardless of marital status.

A copy of this brief is available online at: or by contacting:

Urban Institute Press
2100 M Street NW
Washington, DC 30037
Tel.: 877-UIPRESS
Fax: 202-467-5775