Millennial parents should be the most prosperous generation of parents in history. In addition to being better educated than any previous generation and waiting longer to become parents, they are raising children in an economy that is “70 percent more productive than when Baby Boomers were the same age.”[1] Yet, as this brief shows, roughly one out of every five (20.6 percent in 2014) live below the federal government’s outdated and increasingly austere poverty line ($24,000 for a married couple with two children). This is about twice the rate of their counterparts in 1979.

How is TANF working for these parents? The short answer is very poorly, at least as far as we can tell based on the available objective evidence. Compared to better designed federal programs targeted to low-income working parents—including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid—TANF is reaching relatively few struggling millennial parents. More parents received employment services and financial assistance under the AFDC-JOBS program two decades ago than do today under TANF.[2] Moreover, the program has heightened inequalities of opportunity and treatment based on where parents and their children live.

Economic Hardship among Millennial Parents

There is broad agreement that millennials are faring worse economically than earlier generations did when they were in their 20s and early 30s, especially once one takes their higher level of educational attainment into account.[3] Figure 1 tracks the official poverty rate since 1979 for parents ages 20-34 living with one or more of their own children.[4] As the black line in the figure shows, the poverty rate for parents ages 20-34 overall increased from 11.2 percent in 1979 to 18.7 percent in 1995. Two decades later, in 2013, it was 20.6 percent. (All three time periods are comparable in that they represent a point four years into an economic recovery; however, the national unemployment rate was higher in 2013 (7.6 percent) than in both 1995 (5.4 percent) and 1979 (5.8 percent)).

Fremstad Fig 1

This increase in poverty happened despite increases in educational attainment and mothers’ employment during this period. As figure 2 shows, in 1979, just under half of poor parents under age 35 did not have a high school diploma (46.7 percent), and only about 13 percent had education beyond high school. By 2013, one in three had post-secondary education beyond high school, and only 26 percent had less than a high school diploma.

Some may argue that this increase in poverty is due solely to an increase in single-parent families. Single parenthood has contributed some to the increase in poverty among parents under age 35 since 1979, but most likely only modestly. In 1979, about half (52 percent) of poor young parents were married, compared to 45 percent in 1995 and 40 percent in 2013. But over the same time period, the share of poor parents under age 35 who were living with unmarried parents has increased. Today, about one-third of millennial unmarried parents are living with partners. Under the official poverty measure, unmarried couples, even if they are both living with a shared child, continue to be treated as separate units for purposes of determining whether they are poor.[5] If unmarried parents living with partners were treated as a single unit for poverty measurement purposes, the poverty rate for unmarried parents would be lower than currently reported. However, it probably wouldn’t be that much lower, because unmarried-couple families are more disadvantaged than married ones. Laryssa Mykyta of the U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated the child poverty rate would only be about 1-2 percentage points lower if unmarried parents and their partners were treated as living in the same poverty unit.[6]

Fremstad Fig 2

Moreover, the poverty rate for married parents under age 35 is higher today (11.7 percent) than it was in 1979 (6.7 percent). And, like the overall trend in educational attainment among poor parents, millennial married parents with incomes below the poverty line are much more likely to have education beyond high school than their baby boomer-era counterparts (about three in 10 have education beyond high school today, almost twice as many as in 1979).

TANF and Millennial Parents

Under TANF, the federal government distributes funds to the states from a $16.5 billion-per-year block grant. States must use their portion of these funds to provide “assistance to needy parents” as well as other benefits and services that states can claim are “reasonably calculated” to further the program’s other three purposes: “ending the dependence of parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage”; “preventing and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies”; and “encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.” All states combined must contribute $10.4 billion per year of their own funds under a maintenance-of-effort (MOE) requirement based on what they spent in the early 1990s on AFDC-JOBS.

How many millennial parents receive temporary financial assistance for basic needs from TANF? In FY2013, about 504,000 parents age 20-29 received TANF assistance, as did about 287,000 parents age 30-39. (HHS only breaks out the ages of adult receiving TANF assistance in 10-year bands, so 35-39 year olds don’t technically meet my narrower definition of millennial parents). As Table 1 below shows, this means that relatively few millennial parents living in poverty receive TANF assistance. In 2013, only 21 percent of poor millennial parents ages 20-29 received TANF assistance, and only about nine percent of poor parents ages 30-39 received TANF assistance. SNAP, by contrast, reaches considerably more struggling millennial parents.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.47.37 AM

Why do so few poor millennial parents receive TANF assistance? In general, states have not imposed stricter income and asset limits than were in place under AFDC in the early 1990s. However, under TANF, states must impose additional eligibility requirements that were not allowed under AFDC, and have free-rein to impose even more restrictive rules than are required under federal law, as described also by Stephanie Coontz. For example, under the federal TANF law, states must deny TANF assistance to otherwise eligible families that include an adult who has received more than 60 cumulative months of assistance. Many states impose time limits that are more restrictive than this. Just recently, Arizona became the first state to limit assistance to one single year over a parent’s lifetime.

Fremstad Fig 3

The information we have on participation in TANF by parents who are financially and otherwise eligible for TANF shows that time limits and similar restrictions are not the primary problem. The top line in figure 3 tracks the number of families who were eligible for TANF (and for AFDC before TANF was implemented by individual states) and the bottom line tracks the number of poor families who actually received TANF. In the 1980s and first half of 1990s, about 80 percent of eligible families participated in the AFDC program. TANF was enacted in August 1996 and mostly implemented by states between then and 2000. During this early implementation period, participation by eligible families fell from about 80 percent in 1996 to about 50 percent in 2000. It stabilized briefly above that level in the early 2000s but then started falling again in 2003 until it stabilized again at about 33 percent between 2008 and 2012. This means that in 2012, some 3.8 million families, the majority of whom are likely millennial parents, were poor enough to be eligible for TANF, but were not participating in it.[7]

While time limits and other restrictions have reduced the number of millennial parents who are eligible for TANF assistance, the decline in participation among those eligible is likely due to a broader range of factors. These include: the use of diversion tactics by states and local TANF agencies that aim to prevent eligible families from receiving regular TANF financial assistance as well as unrealistic and overly burdensome work-related requirements that don’t take family obligations and other considerations into account. Finally, most states have very low benefit levels. According to the Congressional Budget Office, “when adjusted for inflation, the value of [the average TANF monthly payment] declined by 30 percent, from about $540 to about $380 in 2013 dollars.”[8] Even for desperate families, the time and other costs involved in obtaining TANF assistance and maintaining eligibility may often outweigh the very modest assistance on offer in most states.[9]

TANF and Regional Inequality

Although often misleadingly described as an “entitlement” program like Social Security or Medicare, states had complete discretion over where they set their AFDC benefit. In most states, benefit levels were rarely adjusted to keep pace with inflation or housing costs.[10]

During his first administration, President Richard Nixon proposed reforming AFDC and the Social Security Act’s means-tested programs for the aged and disabled by creating a national benefit structure. As he put it in a national address: “benefit levels are grossly unequal—for a mother with three children, they range from an average of $263 a month in one State, down to an average of only $39 in another State. Now such an inequality as this is wrong; no child is ‘worth’ more in one State than in another State.”[11] He called it a “new approach” that “aims at ending the unfairness in a system that has become unfair to the welfare recipient, unfair to the working poor, and unfair to the taxpayer” and “aims to make it possible for people—wherever in America they live—to receive their fair share of opportunity.” Nixon’s overall reform failed to get Congressional approval, but Congress did agree to federalize the aged and disabled programs, merging them into SSI in 1972.

Under TANF, the pendulum has swung sharply and much further in the opposite direction. The gross inequalities between state TANF programs go far beyond benefit levels and now extend to a long list of eligibility and program requirements. The impact of these inequalities on millennial parents can be seen in Table 2, which compares poverty and TANF participation among millennial parents in the South (the 16 states and the District of Columbia in the Census Bureau’s South region) with the rest of the United States.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.48.27 AM

Nearly half (44 percent) of poor millennial parents live in this Southern region, but poor millennial parents living in the South are much less likely than parents living in the rest of the United States to receive TANF assistance. For example, among poor parents age 20-29, only 8.4 percent living in the South receive TANF assistance, compared to 31 percent living in the rest of the United States. This grossly unequal state of affairs is due to at least three factors: 1) the lack of any provisions in TANF establishing a national floor for financial assistance or other national standards for eligibility and treatment; 2) a flawed design that incentivizes states to shift TANF funds from financial assistance to other uses, including ones that are not means-tested or are only loosely related to TANF’s core purpose; and 3) a flawed funding formula that short-changes poorer states, including nearly all of those in the South relative to other states. A related factor is historical and ongoing structural discrimination within states. Nationally, about 26 percent of poor millennial parents are black, but in the South, just over half (53 percent) are black.[12]

The case of Massachusetts versus Mississippi

The current allocation of the $16.5 billion in TANF funds among the states bears little relationship to how funding for a program designed to increase work, family stability and child well-being would be distributed if rationally based on objective indicators. The Annie Casey Foundation ranks states on child well-being using objective data across four domains: economic well-being; education; health; and family and community. In the most recent ranking, Massachusetts ranks first and Mississippi ranks last. A reasonably designed federal program would aim to improve child well-being in both states, but would aim to narrow the gap by delivering greater resources to Mississippi. Yet, even before adjusting for economic and other differences, Massachusetts receives over 2.5 times the amount of TANF funding per poor child ($1,100) than Mississippi ($410). Housing costs are lower in Mississippi than in Massachusetts, but Massachusetts also provides more amenities, including better public schools, to its residents than Mississippi. Even if one takes differences in living costs into account, the magnitude of inequities in funding are indefensible, especially in a program that should be aiming to reduce inequalities of opportunity that exist across states.

Reforming TANF

Some of what TANF should be doing for struggling parents and their children would arguably be better accomplished through expansions of child care, the Child Tax Credit, and other social insurance programs, as well as strengthening labor market institutions in ways that improve the bargaining position of poorly compensated workers. For example, my colleagues at the Center for American Progress have proposed making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, so that all working-class parents receive the $1,000 it currently provides to nearly all upper-middle class parents.[13] They also propose establishing an additional Young Child Tax Credit for children under age three. And, in partnership with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Employment Law Project, they have proposed a series of reforms to strengthen the Unemployment Insurance system, including the creation of a Jobseeker’s Allowance that would provide financial assistance to job seekers who are ineligible for UI.[14]

But even if reforms are made in these areas, we will continue to need a well-functioning and fair program that provides temporary financial assistance and employment services to disadvantaged parents who are struggling to get a foothold in the job market or improve their skills, as well as ones who are unable to work or would be better off not working for a time for family reasons.

Among the structural reforms that should be considered: splitting TANF into two completely separate federal programs: one dedicated to providing financial assistance to struggling families according to national standards that treat families fairly, and a second that provides funding to states for effective social services based on an equitable funding formula.

Real reform of TANF may take a while, but there are at least two reasons to be optimistic. First, we have a set of national programs, including EITC, the Child Tax Credit, and SNAP, that provide a strong foundation to build on. Second, there is good reason to think that the diverse millennial generation of policymakers will bring a new mindset to the task of reform.[15]


[1] Brendan Duke, When I was Your Age: Millennials and the Generational Wage Gap, Center for American Progress, March 3, 2016,

[2] In FY2014, 490,000 adults receiving TANF were working or participating in work-related activities in one or more hours. Table 7B in Work Participation Rates—Fiscal Year 2014. By comparison, in FY1994, 593,000 adults receiving AFDC were participating in work-related activities in AFDC’s JOBS program (Table 8.9 in 1996 Green Book). These numbers aren’t strictly comparable, but taking these differences into account would only increase the number of parents participating in work or work-related activities under AFDC compared to TANF. For a detailed analysis of trends in participation in work and work-related activities under AFDC and TANF, see Peter Germanis, TANF is Broken!, July 2015,

[3] See, e.g., Pew Research Center, The Rising Costs of Not Going to College, February 2014,

[4] The federal poverty measure is a very imperfect measure of economic hardship. Because it has only been adjusted for inflation and not for increases in median or average family incomes since the 1960s, it has fallen further and further below the amount of family income needed to have a mainstream or middle-class standard of living. Moreover, it uses a pre-tax measure of income that doesn’t include some important transfer programs, such as SNAP and the EITC, or needs like child care, education, and health insurance. As a result, it likely undercounts economic insecurity today compared to 1978 because it has not kept pace with increases in mainstream living standards. At the same time it undercounts economic insecurity in other ways because it doesn’t count the EITC or SNAP, which have become increasingly important. See Shawn Fremstad, A Modern Framework for Measuring Poverty and Basic Economic Security, Center for Economic and Policy Research (2010), Still it does provide a commonly used measure of economic hardship that takes earnings and income from programs like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, TANF, and SSI into account.

[5] A family consisting of two unmarried parents living with their shared child is split into two units: a two-person unit consisting of one of the parents and the child, and a separate one-person unit consisting of the other parent. Each unit has its own poverty threshold and their income is not counted together. If the income and needs of unmarried partners were counted together, some millennial parents currently classified as poor would no longer be counted as poor (because the partner’s income lifts the unit above the higher poverty threshold), while other partners of millennial parents classified as not poor would be now be counted as poor (because any income they have does not put the unit above the higher poverty threshold).

[6] Laryssa Mykyta, All Our Kin? Measuring Poverty using Alternative Family Definitions 2007-2015, Presentation at CPS Forum on Poverty and Family, July 8, 2016. Other research suggests that unmarried couples with children generally have very high poverty rates—roughly midway between married couples and single parents—even when income and needs are counted together. See Shawn Fremstad, Partnered but Poor, Center for American Progress, 2016,

[7] Although we don’t have estimates of TANF participation that are limited to eligible millennial parents, there is little reason to think that they would look much different. Most parents who do receive help from TANF today are millennials. Under AFDC, most parents who received help were in the same age range as millennials today. On balance, the age distribution of parents who receive help from TANF skews a bit younger than that of parents who received help from AFDC, but the difference isn’t big enough to make a real difference. Millennials may be less negatively impacted than older parents by some TANF policies (like TANF limits), but more negatively impacted by other ones (like restrictions on pursuing post-secondary education).

[8] Congressional Budget Office, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options, January 2015,

[9] See, e.g., Chico Harlan, “Lonely road: For the poor in the Deep South’s cities, simply applying for a job exposes the barriers of a particularly pervasive and isolating form of poverty,” The Washington Post, December 28, 2015, and Robert Moffitt and others, A Study of TANF Non-Entrants, Final Report to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Department of Health and Human Services, November 2003, (finding disadvantaged families “diverted” from entering by TANF agencies in three major cities were non-entrants were significantly more likely to be disabled or have other health problems than TANF entrants).

[10] The characterization of AFDC as an “entitlement” is also often used pejoratively in a way that implies parents who received AFDC had a “right” to it without any reciprocal obligations. But after the passage of the Family Support Act of 1988, AFDC-JOBS had meaningful job training and work requirements for most adults who had received benefits for more than a short period of period, although these varied somewhat from state to state.

[11] President Richard Nixon, Address to the Nation on Domestic Programs, August 8, 1969,

[12] On race and TANF, see, e.g., Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (2011) and Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (1999).

[13] Rachel West, Melissa Boteach, and Rebecca Vallas, Harnessing the Child Tax Credit as a Tool to Invest in the Next Generation, Center for American Progress, August 12, 2015,

[14] Rachel West and others, Strengthening Unemployment Protections in America: Modernizing Unemployment Insurance and Establishing a Jobseeker’s Allowance, Center for American Progress, Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and National Employment Law Project, June 2016,

[15] See, e.g., Sean McElwee, Millennials are significantly more progressive than their parents, The Washington Post, March 24, 2016,


Shawn Fremstad is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The views expressed are his own. For more information, Fremstad can be reached at:

Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.
Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.

On the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform, it is worthwhile considering the economic conditions facing today’s low-income individuals and families, and the welfare programs they can utilize for assistance. By many accounts, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the nation’s primary welfare program for the poor resulting from Welfare Reform—was unresponsive during the 2001-2003 recession as well as the Great Recession. For families facing instability in today’s job market, cash welfare could provide an income floor during difficult economic times, but for most it does not. Instead, today’s TANF program funds areas including job search, state refundable tax credits, and even marriage promotion activities. Meanwhile, spending on cash assistance has fallen dramatically since 1996—the beginning of the TANF program. Amid these spending changes, my research suggests that socio-economically disadvantaged families differ from the “typical” American family in that their incomes are, on average, not only lower but highly unstable between weeks, months, and years. This “income volatility” tends to rise during recessions, and is attributed to short-term economic shocks such as job loss as well as permanent structural changes throughout the economy (e.g. the decline of blue-collar manufacturing jobs) and the emergence of part-time and contingent work arrangements.

For such families, there is often no adequate substitute for cash assistance to pay bills—near-cash programs providing important food and housing assistance will not buy a coat, bus fare, or emergency auto repairs. Other programs providing cash are, while effective on some grounds, ill-equipped to serve as an income buffer for America’s poor families. For example, many policymakers agree that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lowers poverty, providing large cash refunds subsidizing earnings for the working poor during tax season. That said, the EITC is not designed to address the needs of the jobless poor. Collectively, this is less of an indictment of the EITC, food stamps (SNAP), and housing assistance, but instead an acknowledgement that TANF could do more to provide a basic income floor for families in need—families with low and fluctuating income throughout the year.

I close with three points as we consider the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform:

  1. First, my work confirms that the poorest families generally face the highest income volatility over the past 30 years. While TANF could perform better, the full set of transfer programs aid low-income families by reducing poverty and income volatility. Still, today’s poor families receive far less direct cash assistance than in 1996.
  2. Second, many poor families have limited credit market access and savings. In the absence of TANF, many low-wage workers and their families also lack access to savings and face limited access to loanable funds. Such families may be denied loans or credit cards that allow households to absorb a drop in earnings—perhaps the first solution many households pursue when faced with an unanticipated expense or income shortfall. Whether due to displacement from employment altogether or unpredictable hours, credit and loan denials can lead to far costlier alternatives such as payday lenders. Such financial streams provide financial assistance for low-income families facing liquidity constraints, but they do so at interest rates that can exceed 100 percent and cause longer-term damage to borrowers.
  3. TANF reform resulted in a weakened cash-based safety net. Low-income workers with children face higher income volatility on average and are less likely to have affordable access to credit markets. These families are underserved by TANF in that they generally receive little if any cash assistance today. The evidence suggests that Welfare Reform and the resulting TANF program likely reduced the effectiveness of the safety net to insure and buffer families from negative economic shocks. The reform occurred amid a strong economic expansion, and today’s program should reflect new realities—namely by providing greater cash benefits and support for those who wish to gain additional skills and training within a riskier labor market.


Hardy, B. (2016). “Income Instability and the Response of the Safety Net.” Contemporary Economic Policy doi:10.1111/coep.12187.

Hardy, B., and J.P. Ziliak. (2014). “Decomposing Trends in Income Volatility: The ‘Wild Ride’ at the Top and Bottom.” Economic Inquiry 52(1): 459-476.

Bradley Hardy is a professor of public administration and policy at American University. For more information, Dr. Hardy can be contacted at

Welfare reform hit 20 last month. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has done much work examining how full employment in the 1990s shaped employment, income, and poverty. In observation of this 20th anniversary, CEPR prepared a graph that tells an important, often neglected, piece of the story:

CCF Barber Rutter Fig 1

Using data from the Current Population Survey and Department of Health and Human Services TANF Caseload report, the figure tells a simple story. Never-married mothers with a high school degree or less increased their rate of work from the early to the late 1990s by nearly 30 percentage points. As Philip Cohen also discusses, this trend began well before the 1996 welfare reform, suggesting that the policy was not the source of the rise, but that other macroeconomic forces were helping these families do better.

As the graph also demonstrates, the rise in employment is associated with a decline in reliance on the welfare program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). The line at the bottom of the chart shows a steady decline in the late 1990s that corresponds to the rise in women’s work in the line above.

Here’s the catch: Employment stopped rising, and began to fall by the early 2000s. Yet, TANF, as part of the so-called safety net, did not move upwards as less-skilled jobs disappeared. Instead, the TANF rolls continued to decline, as Shawn Fremstad details in his report on millennial parents.

What does this mean? CEPR director Dean Baker has written extensively about how to fight poverty through full employment. This chart suggests that the current system of welfare is not part of the solution, and stands as a reminder that data, not ideology, will help us reduce poverty.

Alan Barber is the Director of Domestic Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Virginia Rutter is a sociologist at Framingham State University. For more information, please contact Dr. Barber at

Marriage promotion doesn't fix poverty. More usefully, classes might focus on couples' strategies to handle the chronic stress of economic deprivation and insecurity on families. Image by Bill Strain/Flickr CC.
Marriage promotion doesn’t fix poverty. More usefully, classes might focus on couples’ strategies to handle the chronic stress of economic deprivation and insecurity together. Image by Bill Strain/Flickr CC.

“Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”

“Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.”

These were the assumptions that most members of Congress made as they designed the 1996 law that became the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Welfare reform’s strategy to decrease poverty involved increasing the number of children raised in two-parent, married families.

In the 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed that bill into law, Congress has earmarked $150 million of welfare money annually for marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood programs. Federal funding has been continuously renewed through 2016. That’s almost a billion dollars spent on marriage programs alone since welfare reform. Funding continues to mount through current “Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education” and “New Pathways for Fathers and Families” grants. These grants support state, local government, and community-based programs that provide marriage/relationship and parenting education and services believed to increase the economic stability of participants, mostly low-income parents.

Did the marriage and responsible fatherhood programs work?

Cumulative studies from two decades say no. Considerable research indicates that the low marriage rates of impoverished individuals are rooted in their economic insecurity and that teaching relationship skills does not increase marriage rates. Government-sponsored evaluations of healthy marriage programs have found that couples who took government-funded relationship skills classes were neither more likely to marry or stay together nor to improve their financial situations. In many cases, the classes did help improve couples’ communication and relationship satisfaction and fathers’ engagement with children. Ironically, however, most of their successes came not because they taught impoverished couples middle-class values but because they helped such couples realize that the challenges they faced were triggered more by their chronic stress than by their own or their partners’ inadequacies. Simply put, even when relationship skills classes improve low-income couples’ relationship experiences, they do not affect marriage or poverty rates.

The way forward

Is this a condemnation of marriage and fatherhood classes? Should we avoid publicly funded interventions that seek to help impoverished families function better? No; there are real benefits of some interventions, but to build on these, policymakers need to understand that couples’ relationship problems are more often a consequence rather than a cause of their poverty. Twenty years of research makes it clear that economic deprivation undermines relationship quality and stability in ways that are far more difficult to root out than the communication problems and other issues that middle-class couples often bring to counseling. Classes designed to teach people to mimic the relationship dynamics of financially stable middle-class, married couples do not help poor couples address the toll that economic stress takes on their family relationships.

Rather than teaching poor couples about the benefits of marriage—which exist only under specific social and economic circumstances not typically experienced by poor parents—relationship programs could take these lessons from couples themselves to focus classes on how chronic stress from economic deprivation and insecurity impact family experiences. Offering couples skills for working together as a unified team, rather than as adversarial individuals, can give partners a boost for confronting these shared challenges.

When couples have problems, this approach suggests, it is often something that is happening to them, rather than something that they are doing to each other, to borrow from the framing psychotherapy researchers Neil S. Jacobson and Andrew Christensen developed for use in empirically-validated couple therapy. The problem happening to low-income couples is inequality—not personal failings or interpersonal incompatibilities. Solving that problem entails shifting from promoting marriage as an (unsubstantiated) anti-poverty strategy to one of directly reducing poverty through job and income-support policies to promote more stable families—which evidence shows does work.

Better job opportunities promote marriage: Unmarried parents are more likely to marry when they are employed and when their income rises. Work and more generous family benefits, such as public subsidies for child care, have reduced childhood poverty in families headed by single mothers significantly more than marriage has since welfare reform.

Fathers overcoming obstacles

My in-depth interviews with low-income Latino and African-American fathers who participated in a federally-funded responsible fatherhood program revealed ways to help disadvantaged men overcome obstacles to the paternal involvement that is core to being a successful father. Fathers in this program, which I call “DADS,” had access to high school completion and college courses that were combined with job training programs that paid. The program helped men demonstrate to co-parents, extended family members, and judges—those who might have doubted them and had power to grant access to their children—that they were working hard to improve their children’s lives. Program incentives, including bus tokens, bicycles, diapers, baby clothes, car seats, and food, allowed fathers to see their children and not show up empty-handed. The relationship and fathering skills classes offered by DADS did not focus on encouraging marriage; instead they emphasized the importance of effective co-parenting and confirmed that directly caring for their children was as valuable as providing financially.

Fathers told me that they appreciated how the program provided the opportunities, resources, and social support they needed to be there for their children, and didn’t just lecture them about financial responsibility. But their experiences also revealed why welfare and family policies need to do more than offer short-term, low-wage employment. As Christopher, a 22-year-old, African-American father of one young son, told me following the completion of the DADS program: “There was nothing else after. It’s not like we finish the program and get an interview or start another program. Other guys went back to the street after the program, just doing what they can to make a dollar…. We went from being on this block every day, to making it to class every day. It became a priority for us. We’re trying to better ourselves, but what are we supposed to do now? We got a certificate, now what?

Now what?

To promote stronger families, policymakers must answer Christopher’s question. We have had 20 years of marriage promotion as poverty prevention, and it has not worked. Two decades of evidence—including my studies on what low-income parents found useful in government marriage classes, how marriage classes have promoted responsible fatherhood, and messages about gender in healthy marriage curricula—point to how we can really help families. Going forward, welfare policies and programs to assist families should aim to mitigate the class, race, and gender inequalities that prevent marriage, undermine co-parenting relationships, and impede paternal involvement. Healthy relationship and responsible fatherhood programs are an important part of our welfare policy. But they will only be successful to the extent that they help families overcome the numerous social and economic challenges that undermine impoverished parents’ best relationship and parenting intentions.

Jennifer Randles is a sociologist at California State University–Fresno. For more information, contact Dr. Randles at or 559-906-9842.

Photo by John W. Schultze, Flickr CC.
Photo by John W. Schultze, Flickr CC.

Part 2 of the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium on Welfare Reform at 20

Twenty years ago this month, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which repealed the cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

Myths about welfare at the time

Hostility toward AFDC had been building since the early 1980s, as Philip Cohen explains. While some of the criticisms were legitimate, much opposition was spurred by myths about the history of poverty programs. As President Reagan memorably summed up those myths, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

The reality is that the War on Poverty was remarkably successful, even though successive administrations fought it with one arm tied behind the back and retreated in the face of economic challenges that should have elicited heightened efforts, such as the oil crisis of 1973, the stock market crash of 1974, and the 1979 energy crisis.

Between the mid-1960s and 1980, poverty rates were almost halved. Poverty rose again in the 1980s in response to deteriorating economic conditions and Reagan-era cutbacks, but economists calculate that in the early 1990s poverty would have been nearly twice as widespread if government programs had not been available.

Racism as well as historical misrepresentation fueled the attack on AFDC. Most Southern states and many Northern ones had successfully excluded Blacks from New Deal jobs and postwar economic assistance programs. As the Civil Rights movement gained clout, this became harder to do and African-Americans, who had long been more likely than whites to experience poverty, now became highly visible on the welfare rolls.

As marriage rates fell and out-of-wedlock births rose, opponents of welfare promulgated a new myth. Unmarried poor women, they argued, were literally reproducing poverty, having babies in order to collect welfare checks. This despite the fact that a year before the repeal of AFDC, a rigorous state by state examination found “no” evidence that welfare was behind the increase in female-headed households. Other studies also refuted the claim that welfare caused the rise in unwed births.

In fact, other countries and American states with the most generous income assistance programs have lower rates of out-of-wedlock births than the US states with the most miserly ones. Recent research shows that unwed births are largely driven by the dynamics of joblessness and inequality, along with the chaotic life situations produced by intense economic insecurity.

Some truths about AFDC

Photo by Mike Liu, Flickr CC.
Photo by Mike Liu, Flickr CC.

Aside from these falsehoods, however, many observers began to question the AFDC in light of the transformation in the marriage arrangements of the non-poor, as described by Philip Cohen. Originally, cash assistance to families with children was designed to help “deserving” single mothers – mostly widowed or abandoned women – stay home with their children. But as more mothers entered the workforce in the 1980s and early 1990s, it became difficult to justify paying poor mothers to stay home when so many married moms could not afford to do so.

Another problem was that AFDC tended to penalize work and encourage under-the table ways of earning money because the grant was reduced if a recipient earned or reported any extra income. The work deterrent was much more modest than often assumed, but it was real.

One solution would have been to provide a minimum income floor that would not be cut if recipients started taking steps toward full independence. Instead, the 1996 law abolished AFDC’s guarantee of cash assistance to all eligible poor families, giving states a fixed pool of money for income support and work programs, and considerable leeway about how – or whether — to spend that money. The act also imposed strict lifelong limits on the amount of aid a family or individual could receive, no matter how long a person worked in between spells of hardship.

The rise of TANF

Opponents predicted the cuts would lead to “children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen.” But the first four years of the program seemed to contradict their forebodings. Welfare caseloads fell sharply, and in the context of the expanding job market that America experienced from 1996 to 2000, the majority of adults leaving public assistance found jobs. Few of those jobs paid enough to move a family out of poverty, but the number of families with children in poverty did fall, largely thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a program that puts extra income back in the hands of low-wage workers.

To the surprise of many conservative as well as liberal skeptics of mandatory work requirements, sending single mothers of young children to work didn’t have the ill effects that many had predicted. Researchers found that mothers’ transition to employment had several positive effects on young children’s cognitive achievement and behavior. And a 2016 study of employed and unemployed single mothers confirms earlier research showing that employed single mothers reported less sadness and stress, and no more fatigue, than non-employed single mothers.

U.S. Government work.
U.S. Government work.

Ominously, however, there were some negative effects of maternal employment on teenagers’ school achievement and behavior, probably due to reduced parental supervision in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Furthermore, the positive impact of maternal employment on children was found only in conjunction with jobs that provided more income than the women had formerly received. Maternal employment coupled with increased income had more positive effects than increased income from welfare alone. But maternal employment that did not increase income over previous assistance levels did not produce positive results.

Under the George W. Bush administration, promoting marriage as a solution to poverty became a more important component of welfare policy. But increases in economic insecurity since then have actually been associated with further decreases in marriage rates, and rigorous evaluations of “healthy family” programs have shown no effect on marriage rates and mixed effects on couples relationships, as Jennifer Randles describes.

TANF’s gaps showing

When the job market weakened after 2000, the holes in the TANF program became more obvious. For individuals unable to find or hold full-time jobs, as well as for people who become unemployed again after using up their lifetime TANF limits, the EITC is no use because one has to earn income to collect benefits. The end of cash assistance has created serious hardship for families where lack of child care, poor education, mental or physical issues, or simply a depressed job market prevents a parent from working.

Furthermore, Congress has not changed the funding of the basic grant since 1996, causing its real value to fall by one-third. By 2013, moreover, spending on child-care assistance had been falling for 11 years, and fewer than 20 percent of families eligible for child care subsidies were actually receiving them.

Worse yet, many states used the latitude granted them under the act as a license to divert money from actual assistance to the poor toward other priorities. Louisiana used some of the money to fund anti-abortion pregnancy centers, while Michigan spent part of it on college scholarships. Georgia actually sent letters to welfare applicants saying “we believe welfare is not the best option for your family,” and “TANF is not good enough for any [emphasis added] family.” Those who applied anyway were often rejected for such things as failing to file 24 or more job applications a week.

In June 2015, the Missouri state legislature voted to cut thousands of families off the state’s cash assistance program, reduced the life-time limit for assistance from 60 to 45 months, slashed cash benefits by half for those unable to find jobs, and redirected a significant proportion of welfare funds to pro-marriage and anti-abortion programs.

Real talk: Movement in the wrong direction

Nearly half of all Americans receive some form of government benefits, such as Social Security, food stamps, housing subsidies, the earned-income tax credit, or the child tax credit. Such social welfare programs have reduced poverty by 40 percent since the 1960s and given many low-to-middle-income Americans a higher standard of living than their earnings alone could ensure.

But over the past several decades a declining portion of these benefits have gone to the poorest families. In 1995, the AFDC program lifted more than two million children out of deep poverty, accounting for 62 percent of children who would otherwise have been classified as such. By 2010, TANF lifted only 629,000 children — just 24 percent — out of deep poverty.

Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.
Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.

Two researchers recently calculated that the number of families living for at least part of the year on incomes of just $2 a day per person grew from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.46 million in early 2011, an increase of 130 percent. If we include in-kind benefits, the number of people living on $2.00 a day or less increased to “only” 67 percent in that period, but that’s still a dramatic example of movement in the wrong direction. As Christopher Jencks writes in a carefully balanced evaluation of the research, “the poorest of the poor are… worse off today than they were in 1969.” And a sizable number of those poorest of the poor are children.

Most Americans want people who cannot work to get assistance and people who can work to earn enough to keep them out of poverty. And almost no one wants children to be scarred by the kind of economic deprivation that our current welfare system perpetuates. As Randles argues, there are programs that can help individuals cope better with poverty, both as parents and partners. But 20 years of history demonstrate that few of these have long-term effects on family stability or child outcomes in the absence of improved employment opportunities, wage levels, and social safety nets, including affordable child-care that allows mothers to earn income without leaving their children in dangerous situations.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State college. She is director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Illustration by Bill Strain, Flickr CC.
Illustration by Bill Strain, Flickr CC.

Part 1 of the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium on Welfare Reform at 20

The welfare reform bill that emerged in 1996, after a back-and-forth struggle between President Bill Clinton and the Congress (both houses of which were controlled by Republicans), imposed a two-year continuous term limit, and a five-year lifetime limit, on poor cash welfare recipients. It ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), an entitlement program, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a state block-grant program. The policymakers who engineered this change took advantage of a growing popular expectation that mothers should be in the labor force. There was widespread resentment against those (perceived to be mostly Black) who used welfare payments to shirk the obligation to work, choosing dependence on the state rather than getting married or refraining from childbearing.

This policy reform, motivated and supported at least in part by racist ideas and stereotypes, set out to fundamentally alter the relationship between work, parenthood, and marital status for U.S. women. Instead, despite some increase in employment rates, it mostly increased the hardship – and reduced the support – for poor families and their children, who are disproportionately people of color. Reflecting on this anniversary, it now appears this was a tragic misdirection, and we lost an important opportunity to change work family policy for the benefit of all women and poor families.

Politics and the rise of welfare reform

In 1994, the percentage of Americans telling the General Social Survey the government was spending “too much” on welfare peaked at 62 percent, having jumped almost 20 points around the 1992 election that brought Bill Clinton to power. We can now see this as a cyclical pattern, in which the presence of a Democrat in the White House is associated with a tilt against welfare in public opinion (see figure). Aware of the negative implications of that pattern for his political fortunes, Clinton twisted arms in his party, and the reform ended up passing with a large majority – possibly a key factor saving Clinton’s chance for re-election in 1996.

cohen fig 1 we spend too much on welfare
Source: Chart by Philip Cohen from General Social Survey data. Shaded areas show the party of the president in office (pink=Republican; blue=Democrat). The average is 44 percent when Republicans are in office and 53 percent when it’s a Democrat.


Public opinion was very strongly against welfare as we knew it. If there was one thing the majority of Americans could agree on in 1996, it was that people on welfare were a big problem. The specifics were foggy, but on that much the majority seemed clear. In April 1996, 77 percent of Americans told the Gallup poll that taking action on welfare was either “very important” or a “high/top priority.” Seventy-one percent said they were for “cutting off federal welfare benefits to people who had not found a job or become self-sufficient after two years.”

After the bill passed, in August, 68 percent told Gallup they favored it, with just 15 percent opposed. Forty-nine percent said the “cuts in benefits to welfare recipients” were “about right,” and another 25 percent said they “do not go far enough.” That fall, 55 percent agreed with the statement, “Government should limit the amount it spends on welfare programs, even if some poor people do not receive assistance.”

Work versus laziness, self-sufficiency versus dependence, these were the popular themes tapped to build support for the bill. These long-standing tropes in the dominant American culture were reinforced at the time by panic over high urban crime rates and Black violence (the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles occurred in 1992). Poverty, welfare, and crime, were bound up with race and racism by a tight web of highly-charged code words and concepts. For example, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in 1995:

No civilization can survive for long with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing one another, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t read.

In this popular view, the threat to America came from the urban Black poor. Cutting benefits to poor people who were perceived as Black, and discouraging (or punishing) what were perceived as their dependent and – frankly – crime-producing ways, was very popular. A 1995 New York Times poll found 79 percent agreed with the statement, “most people on welfare are so dependent on welfare that they will never get off it.”

The most fundamental reform idea – make them work

The marriage promotion components of the welfare reform – some of which were added after a few years – were not big parts of the debate at the time. That is surprising, given that the bill itself opened with a 1,200-word section titled Findings, which began, “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society,” and ended:

Therefore, in light of this demonstration of the crisis in our Nation, it is the sense of the Congress that prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reduction in out-of-wedlock birth are very important Government interests and the policy [here] is intended to address the crisis.

But marriage was only a signal of virtue, unmarried childbearing was its absence, and requiring work was a punishment for failure to abide by this norm. Work was not mentioned in the introduction to the bill, but it emerged as a key rationale. In a 2006 interview looking back at the welfare reform on its 10-year anniversary, Ron Haskins, a conservative policy advocate working at the Brookings Institution and an architect of the reform, did not mention increasing marriage rates as a goal of the policy. He said, “The most fundamental reform idea was that mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”“The most fundamental reform idea was that mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”

An under-appreciated factor in the shifting public opinion on single mothers and work was the massive increase in employment rates among married mothers in the three decades leading up to 1996. In an article Suzanne Bianchi and I wrote in 1999, we argued that there had been a major change in the popular view of women’s work accompanying that trend. Whereas welfare from the time of the New Deal had sought to help mothers remain out of the labor force – so they could raise their children – by the late 1990s mothers were increasingly expected to work for pay while their children were in paid childcare. And suddenly single mothers not “working” looked lazy compared with married mothers – especially middle-class married mothers, a rapidly growing and politically influential group – who increasingly were in the labor force.

Held up to the light of the trend, single mothers not employed became the object of newfound resentment. “Although welfare reform has concentrated attention on single women with children,” we wrote, “married mothers’ allocations of time to paid work also are central to the welfare debate, as these women often appear as a de facto comparison group.” The figure below illustrates the tension of that moment, showing the rapid convergence in employment rates between married and single mothers. (In the figure I show raw employment rates as well as rates at the mean of controls for age, education, race/ethnicity, and the presence of young children; this is to illustrate the trends are mostly not driven by changes in the composition of the two groups.)

Source: Chart by Philip Cohen using data from the Current Population Survey via The sample includes women living in their own (or their spouses’) households, with their own children, in the ages 18-54. The dotted lines are unadjusted employment rates, the solid lines are adjusted for age, education, race/ethnicity, and the presence of children under age 5. Details provided at:
Source: Chart by Philip Cohen using data from the Current Population Survey via The sample includes women living in their own (or their spouses’) households, with their own children, in the ages 18-54. The dotted lines are unadjusted employment rates, the solid lines are adjusted for age, education, race/ethnicity, and the presence of children under age 5. Details provided at:

Increasing hardship more than work

Although the number of single mothers was indeed increasing, it’s not that they were increasingly exhibiting laziness or dependence – leading to public scorn – it’s that married mothers were increasingly employed, making a non-employed mother appear outside the norm. With the White majority perceiving poor single mothers as mostly Black, this norm violation was received with outrage and condemnation.

The reform was successful at reducing the number of people receiving cash welfare, and as a result it probably did contribute to the increase in employment rates for single mothers – along with, of course, the very strong economy at the end of the 1990s.

Note that the rise in single mothers’ employment starting in 1994 predates the reform, which took several years after the 1996 passage before being fully implemented. And then when fully implemented, the welfare reform era saw an eight-year slide in single-mothers’ employment rates from 2005 to 2013. The timing of single mothers’ employment surges and declines undermines the idea that the welfare reform fundamentally altered the relationship between work, parenthood, and marital status for U.S. women.

Unnoticed at the time, married mothers’ employment rates stopped rising in the late 1990s after all, running into the barriers erected by poor work-family policy, men’s resistance to adopting women’s traditional roles, and a cultural shift toward “egalitarian essentialism” – the idea that women should be free to “choose” non-employment among other non-traditional options (as I argued in this essay).

There is a sad irony here, one that is familiar to students of racial conflict in U.S. history. We had a moment in which single and married mothers – all moving toward higher employment rates – might have benefited from improvements in work-family policy for all families. This might have improved child well-being and reduced gender inequality at a time when women’s rising employment was reaching a limit under the existing policy regime. Instead, however, we ended up with a punitive policy directed at poor single mothers – and little progress on work-family policy for the next two decades.

If employment rates were not permanently raised, one lasting change produced by the welfare reform nevertheless was to increase the hardship and struggle for the poorest families, as has been demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer in their 2016 book, $2 a Day; and by Robert Moffitt in his 2015 presidential address to the Population Association of America. In the end, the reform may tell us more about dominant American attitudes toward poor people and their children – especially those who are Black – than it does about crafting social welfare policy for their benefit.

Philip Cohen is a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the co-editor of Contexts magazine.

Overview to a six-part series examining the origins, progress, and future of welfare reform. Over the next six weeks, The Society Pages will publish the individual reports.

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton proposed to “end welfare as we know it,” and, on August 22, 1996, he did just that when he signed into law The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This welfare reform repealed the cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

This wasn’t just an alphabet soup change-up; it effected a significant transformation in policy, based on an amalgamation of old racial prejudices and new expectations about families, women, and self-reliance. That is the conclusion of six new papers presented to the Council on Contemporary Families for their Welfare Reform at 20 Online Symposium. As University of Maryland demographer Philip Cohen demonstrates, the PRWORA reflected changing norms about the employment of mothers along with an abiding hostility towards black women. Stephanie Coontz of The Evergreen State College points out that it also embodied several myths about the history of the War on Poverty. One result of these myths was a growing diversion of welfare funds to programs designed to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood. But as Cal State-Fresno sociologist Jennifer Randles’ in-depth study of these programs reveals, they did not increase marriage rates or relieve poverty. Indeed, the few benefits they conferred came despite their out-of-touch condescension towards poor families, not because of the middle-class values and skills they tried to teach.

The Act succeeded in reducing the number of families receiving assistance: In 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4.4 million families received aid, and in 2012, 1.9 families received aid. Yet it failed at reducing the need for assistance, as documented in legal scholar Shawn Fremstad’s examination of the state of millennials. In 1996, 5.6 million families were in need; in 2012, 5.7 million families were in need.

The Act was initially deemed a success because more single moms found paid employment and the employment rate reached historic highs, CEPR’s domestic policy director Alan Barber and Framingham State University sociologist Virginia Rutter report. This employment surge, though, started in the early 1990s, well before welfare reform. Furthermore, the job losses starting in the 2000s have not been mitigated by this program, leading to intensive instability, especially for very poor families, per American University economist Bradley Hardy. Notably, child poverty today is as high as it was when President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964.

Bill Clinton signs the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite via JacobinMag)
Bill Clinton signs the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite via JacobinMag)

Why reform? It’s the attitudes.

As Philip Cohen reports: “If there was one thing the majority of Americans could agree on in 1996, it was that people on welfare were a big problem…. In April 1996, 77 percent of Americans told the Gallup poll that taking action on welfare was either ‘very important’ or a ‘high/top priority.’” In Welfare Reform Attitudes and Single Mothers’ Employment after 20 Years, Cohen documents how married mothers’ growing employment rates interacted with racism to cultivate negativity toward the cash assistance program for single mothers that had been expanded by Presidents Johnson and Nixon.

Ironically, while welfare programs are seen as a pet of liberals, Cohen charts how hostility against welfare has been lower in years when a Republican is in the U.S.’s highest office, and higher when a Democrat is president. Fremstad notes that President Richard Nixon even supported a minimum national income and advocated ending unequal benefits across states, arguing that “no child is ‘worth’ more in one State than in another State.”

The way we were and could have been.

The negativity of the 1990s, according to historian Stephanie Coontz in Welfare Reform’s 20th Anniversary, also reflected a revisionist history of the anti-poverty measures passed under Johnson and Nixon. President Ronald Reagan fanned the skepticism of the 1980s: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” In fact, the 1965 war on poverty programs reduced poverty by nearly half.

Some criticisms of the old model were legitimate. “AFDC tended to penalize work and encourage under-the table ways of earning money because the grant was reduced if a recipient earned or reported any extra income,” explained Coontz. “The work deterrent was much more modest than often assumed, but it was real.” Still, the solution was draconian: The 1996 law abolished AFDC’s guarantee of cash assistance to all eligible poor families. It gave states a fixed pool of money for income support and work programs, along with “considerable leeway about how – or whether — to spend that money.” Louisiana, Michigan, and Missouri are among the states that cut direct benefits and diverted funds to other uses. The federal government also allocated new funds for programs to promote marriage as a solution to poverty, an agenda that became increasingly central to welfare policy in the early 2000s.

Photo by Caitlyn_and_Kara, Flickr CC.
Photo by Caitlyn_and_Kara, Flickr CC.

Marriage promotion didn’t reduce poverty.

Over the past 20 years, one billion dollars (total) of welfare funds have been directed at programs aimed to increase marriage rates and thereby reduce poverty. In The Frontlines of Welfare Reform: Why Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Programs Succeed or Fail, sociologist Jennifer Randles reviews studies of welfare-funded couples workshops that targeted poor families.

As Randles points out, none of these programs has been shown to reduce poverty or increase marriage rates. Couples did experience some benefits from some of the programs, but not for the reasons the organizers originally thought. “Instead of being magically transformed by mentors or experts into stable middle-class partners, couples in these classes ended up learning from each other that their relationship and parenting challenges are shaped by economic stress and race, class, and gender inequalities, not just their own or their partners’ shortcomings,” explains Randles.

Fathers appreciated programs that gave them the “opportunities, resources, and social support they needed to be there for their children, and didn’t just lecture them about financial responsibility.” But Randles quotes Christopher, a 22-year-old, African-American father of one young son: “There was nothing else after. It’s not like we finish the program and get an interview or start another program. Other guys went back to the street after the program, just doing what they can to make a dollar…. We went from being on this block every day, to making it to class every day. It became a priority for us. We’re trying to better ourselves, but what are we supposed to do now? We got a certificate, now what?

Photo by AfroDad, Flickr CC.
Couples who saw benefit in welfare-funded couples programs didn’t point to the benefits policy makers had hoped. Photo by AfroDad, Flickr CC.

Let’s try a little economic and policy research.

CEPR’s Alan Barber and sociologist Virginia Rutter offer a targeted report on the employment dynamics of single mothers without a high school degree. A single graph in TANF didn’t fight poverty. Full employment did, tells all. The rate of work among single mothers—who were disproportionately African American—rose prior to welfare reform, and continued into the late 1990s. In that period of time, TANF use declined. When jobs began to disappear in the early 2000s, welfare dependence remained low, but poverty and hardship began to rise again because welfare was not acting as a safety net.

The safety net for the poorest of the poor is the focus of economist Bradley Hardy, assistant professor of public policy at American University. In examining family stability in the past two decades, Hardy notes that poor families don’t just have low incomes, they have volatile incomes, with no savings or wealth to buffer them against layoffs or emergencies. TANF reforms, which removed any kind of income floor, “resulted in a weakened cash-based safety net….For such families, there is oftenno adequate substitute for cash assistance to pay bills—near-cash programs providing important food and housing assistance will not buy a coat, bus fare, or emergency auto repairs,” he notes in TANF Policy to Address Low, Volatile Income Among Disadvantaged Families.

What about the Next Generation?

Millennial parents should be the most prosperous parents in history,” writes Shawn Fremstad, who has worked on TANF, labor market and related policies since the 1990s. “In addition to being better educated than any previous generation and waiting longer to become parents, they are raising children in an economy that is 70 percent more productive than when Baby Boomers were the same age. Yet, roughly one out of every five (20.6 percent in 2014) live below the federal government’s outdated and increasingly austere poverty line ($24,000 for a married couple with two children). This is about twice the rate of their counterparts in 1979.”

A young family interviews for assistance at a USDA food bank in San Antonio, TX. Photo via USDA.
A young family interviews for assistance and applies for TANF at a food bank in San Antonio, TX. Photo via USDA.

Yet only 21 percent of poor parents aged 20-29 were receiving TANF in 2013. In Is TANF Working for Struggling Millennial Parents? Fremstad shows how TANF has whittled away needy parents’ access to resources. Those fragmented policies have led to just the disparities that Nixon sought to eradicate back in the 1970s: because of variations in services and generosity, Massachusetts ranks first, while Mississippi ranks last in Annie Casey Foundation child well-being ratings.

Now what?

As Coontz argues, several policies initiated in the 1990s have been effective in reducing material hardship among those able to find and hold on to jobs. But high unemployment rates, low wages, and the inaccessibility of childcare means that many poorly-educated parents, especially single mothers, cannot work enough to take advantage of programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. And the end of cash assistance for these families has greatly increased the hardships of the poorest of the poor. Cohen sums up: “There is a sad irony here, one that is familiar to students of racial conflict in U.S. history. We had a moment in which single and married mothers – all moving toward higher employment rates – might have benefited from improvements in work-family policy for all families. This might have improved child well-being and reduced gender inequality at a time when women’s rising employment was reaching a limit under the existing policy regime. Instead, however, we ended up with a punitive policy directed at poor single mothers – and little progress on work-family policy for the next two decades.”

For more information, contact:

  • Alan Barber, Director of Domestic Policy, Center for Economic and Policy Research,
  • Philip Cohen, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland,
  • Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College,; 360-556-9223
  • Shawn Fremstad, J.D., Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress and Senior Research Associate, Center for Economic and Policy Research,
  • Bradley Hardy, Assistant Professor, Department of Public Policy and Administration, American University,
  • Jennifer Randles, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, California State University, Fresno,; 559-906-9842
  • Virginia Rutter, Professor, Department of Sociology, Framingham State University,

Virginia Rutter is a sociologist at Framingham State University.

New Findings on Hooking Up, Dating, and Romantic Relationships in College

Photo by Joyce Cory, Flickr CC.
Photo by Joyce Cory, Flickr CC.

A Briefing Paper Prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Arielle Kuperberg, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Joseph E. Padgett, M.A., Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, University of South Carolina.

For more than 100 years, Valentine’s Day has been a time for romantic candlelit dinner dates. But today, many observers worry, romance and courtship are falling out of favor. According to the New York Times, “traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up.’” With women outnumbering men on most college campuses, we are told, women can’t attain the long-term relationships they really want, because there aren’t enough men to go around. Men, “as the minority, hold more power in the sexual marketplace,” and they use it to promote a culture of casual sex on campus. Instead of going out on dates, young adults are supposedly meeting up at their homes to “Netflix and chill” or hooking up at big parties, then moving on to the next in a long series of casual sex partners. This is said to harm their chance of entering long-term romantic partnerships.

How accurate is this picture? We recently analyzed a survey of over 24,000 college students, collected at 22 colleges and universities around the United States between 2005 and 2011, and found that reports of the death of dating are greatly exaggerated. College students have essentially equal rates of hooking up and dating. Since beginning college, approximately 62 percent reported having hooked up, while 61 percent said they had gone out on a date. Only 8 percent of all students had hooked up without ever going on a date or being in a long-term relationship. More than 3 times as many students – 26.5 percent — had never hooked up at all, but instead had dated and/or formed a long-term relationship. So while it is clear that hookups are widespread, they have certainly not replaced the traditional date.

Men’s rate of hooking up was 3.5 percentage points higher than women’s – a difference that is statistically significant but very small. However this was not necessarily because men preferred more casual relationships. In fact, 71 percent of the men, compared to just 67 percent of the women, said they wished they had more opportunities to find a long-term romantic relationship. And almost two-thirds of the men expressed the desire for more chances to date, compared to less then half who reported wishing they had more chances to hookup.

The idea that men are leveraging their scarce presence on campus to avoid long-term relationships and force women to settle for unsatisfactory hookups is also called into question by a number of other findings in the survey. Women were not substantially more likely than men to regret their last hookup; only 14.5 percent of women, versus 12.5 percent of men, regretted their last hookup. Overall a similar number of men (48 percent) and women (45 percent) instead reported being glad about their most recent hookup encounter (the rest were neither glad nor regretful). Other recent research finds that even though men are more likely than women to have an orgasm during hookup sex, men and women are almost equally likely to report enjoying their most recent hookup. Our research also revealed that on campuses with a higher proportion of women, women were not more likely to hookup with men or less likely to form long-term relationships with them. They were instead more likely to have dated other women.

While hookups certainly do not carry the expectation of a lasting commitment, many do in fact lead to one. A recent report found that one-third of recent marriages that they studied began in a hook-up context. And despite the prevalence of hookups during their college years, female college graduates are in the long run more like to marry than women with less education. Since women now earn more degrees than men, this means that many marriages are between a woman and a less educated husband, but contrary to widespread concerns, recent research finds this is no longer a risk factor for divorce.

Our survey did find some problematic behaviors associated with many college hookups. A full half of all men and 46.5 percent of women reported engaging in binge drinking (defined as 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more for men) during or right before the hookup. Students who were binge drinking (male as well as female) faced a higher risk of sexual assault. And even when sex was consensual, each additional drink during or right before a hookup was associated with lower sexual enjoyment from the hookup for both men and women. Other recent research confirms that women in particular are more likely to feel discontented with their hookups when they drink beforehand. In fact, 31 percent of women and 28 percent of men report they would not have hooked up with the partner at all had they not been drinking.

Most students who described themselves as having ‘hooked up’ either didn’t have sex during their last hookup or used a condom when they did. Overall, 42 percent of hookups included vaginal or anal sex. Of these, only 13.3 percent included unprotected vaginal or anal sex. In other words a majority of hookups did not end with sex, and more than two-thirds of students who did have sex during hookups used a condom. Students who had sex on dates also used condoms two-thirds of the time, but since only 22 percent of dates included sex, that meant that only 7 percent of all dates included unprotected sex. So the chance of having unprotected sex was almost twice as high in a hookup as on a date.

Students who were intoxicated were more likely to have unprotected sex during a hookup. Binge drinking increased the likelihood that students would have unprotected sex during their hookup by around one-third, and using marijuana during a hookup (which 11 percent of students reported) was associated with nearly double the risk of unprotected sex.

Surprisingly, truly casual hookups tended to be safer than others. Women who reported knowing their partner ‘very well’ were almost 60 percent more likely to have unprotected sex during a hookup, despite not having an exclusive relationship with that partner, than women who only knew their partner ‘somewhat.’ When students had repeated hookups with the same non-exclusive partner, they were more likely to have unprotected sex in later hookups; each additional hookup with the same partner increased the risk of unprotected sex by 17 percent. These students may feel a false sense of security with that partner, leading them to take unnecessary risks. Also, women may worry that asking their partner to use a condom would be seen as mistrustful and, as a result, avoid the issue when hooking up with a friend or otherwise well-known partner.

Hookups were most common among fraternity and sorority members, who were more than twice as likely as non-members to have hooked up but were no more likely to form a long term relationship while in college, despite the fact that sorority members were about 50 percent more likely than non-members to want more opportunities to form long-term relationships in college, and not more likely to want hookup opportunities. Fraternity and sorority members were also both about 50 percent more likely to binge drink while hooking up compared to non-members. On the other hand, sorority members were less likely than other college women to report unprotected sex during their last hookup.

Religious service attendance was also related to whether or not students hooked up, but in distinct patterns for men and women. Women who attended religious services at least once a month were significantly less likely than women who attended services less frequently or never attended services to have ever hooked up in college, and when they did hookup they were less likely to have unprotected sex, or any sex.

For men, a different pattern emerged. Men who attended services a few times per year but less than once per month were the most likely to have either hooked up or dated in college – more likely than men who never attended services. And college men who attended services most frequently – at least once a month – had hookup rates similar to those who never attended. Religious service attendance also had no impact on the likelihood of a man engaging in unprotected sex during hookups. Religious standards of sexual morality seem to constrain the behavior of very religious women; men, on the other hand, may be using religious social networks to find casual sex partners, counteracting any suppressing effect religious doctrine may have on casual sex.

Three groups stood out as having significantly lower rates of unprotected sex during hookups compared to other students: men hooking up with men, women who were members of sororities, and students who met hookup partners in dormitories. What do these groups have in common? Each has been the target of accurate, non-judgmental public health and sexual education campaigns.

Spreading accurate information about risks related to binge drinking during hookups and emphasizing clear, honest communication with partners about condom use, even with trusted partners, could mitigate the many risk factors found in our research. In the absence of these risk factors, hooking up does not appear to have the bad results that are often attributed to it. Rather than panicking about the death of romance on campus, accepting hooking up as part of the normal campus scene while educating about the specific behaviors that make it risky or unpleasant can more effectively protect college youth.

Research discussed in this report appears in:

Kuperberg, Arielle and Joseph E. Padgett. Forthcoming. “Partner Meeting Contexts and Risky Activity During College Students’ Other-Sex and Same-Sex hookups.” The Journal of Sex Research.

Kuperberg, Arielle and Joseph E. Padgett. 2015. “The Role of Culture in Explaining College Student’s Selection into Hookups, Dates, and Long-term Romantic Relationships.”Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Published Online in Advance of Print.

Kuperberg, Arielle and Joseph E. Padgett. 2015. “Dating and Hooking Up In College: Meeting Contexts, Sex, and Variation by Gender, Partner’s Gender and Class Standing.” The Journal of Sex Research, 52(5): 517-531.

Arielle Kuperberg is Assistant Professor of Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Joseph E. Padgett, is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, University of South Carolina.

Photo via VelvetTangerine, Flickr CC.
Photo via VelvetTangerine, Flickr CC.

Reprinted from Beggruen Insights, Issue 4, with permission.

Nostalgia often arises out of a real experience of loss. It needs to be addressed and redirected, not ridiculed or denounced. And that applies to the nostalgia that motivates a considerable number of Trump supporters.

I have spent most of my career pointing out the dangers of imagining a Golden Age in the past that we should try to recapture. Nostalgia offers a warped explanation of what actually did work in the past and airbrushes out what did not. It leads to the scapegoating of those who supposedly ruined “the good old days” while providing no tools for coping with the new realities that underlie contemporary challenges.

That said, nostalgia often arises out of a real experience of loss. It needs to be addressed and redirected, not ridiculed or denounced. And that applies to the nostalgia that motivates so many Trump supporters.

True, the Trump campaign has mobilized the crudest alliance of racists, nativists, misogynists, and “know-nothings” that America has seen in any national election since before World War II. Winning over most of his supporters is probably impossible. Half of those who voted for Trump in the primaries favor a return to “traditional” gender roles; and although ethnocentrism is widespread among white voters of most persuasions, it is especially strong among Trump backers.

But many have been deeply wronged by the system that Trump claims to attack and understandably infuriated by how politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have ignored their needs. Their grievances are real and we should not ignore their pain in our distress at their misdirected anger.

Take the strong support Trump enjoys among older white voters without a college degree. Moderates and liberals often write such people off as a lost cause, counting on African-Americans, college graduates, and young millennials to outvote them. According to Conventional Wisdom, African-Americans and Latinos ensured Obama’s victory in the last presidential election.

But ignoring white voters without a college degree would be a mistake on many levels. For one thing, there are far more of these voters than were tallied in the 2012 exit polls, making it essential to win over a significant portion. For another, in 2012 more of them were willing to vote for a black man than experts initially realized. In fact, more than one-third of Americans who voted for Obama were whites without a college degree. According NYT pollster Nate Cohen, even if the electorate in 2012 had been “as old and as white as it was in 2004, Mr. Obama would have won, because of the gains he made among white voters in states like New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa.”

That some of these same voters have now turned to Trump says as much about the failure of liberalism as about the strength of racism.

In recent years politicians have belatedly discovered the issues of income inequality and job insecurity. But the housing bubble, financial meltdown, and Great Recession of the past decade were merely symptoms, not causes, of an economic, political and technological upheaval that started more than 40 years ago, overturning the arrangements that governed relations between capital and labor during the postwar era. The “turbo-capitalism” that emerged from that upheaval has created unprecedented opportunities and new sources of wealth for individuals with the professional credentials, personal flexibility, or financial resources to take advantage of them.  But it has progressively dismantled the workplace compacts, business practices, and regulatory frameworks that for the previous 30 years had protected the job security and wage gains of workers and sustained stable middle class communities.

To effectively combat the racism that Donald Trump plays upon, we need to understand that white blue-collar workers only began to achieve economic advancement and social respect in the aftermath of the New Deal and World War II. For centuries, white manual laborers and manufacturing workers had been looked down upon –- and held down — by American elites. While white workers were encouraged to think of themselves as better than Blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos, and given significant advantages over them, they were nonetheless disparaged by white elites, and their attempts to improve their own wages and working conditions were routinely met with violence by employers and silence by politicians.

Only after the political reorganization triggered by the New Deal and the economic boom following World War II were white blue-collar workers finally able to claim a share of the American dream. This was largely a result of the growth of the previously-persecuted labor movement  as well as of the government’s enforcement of new limits on corporate prerogatives.  That white workers came late to the American dream made it all the more precious to them and was a factor in their mistrust of the social protests of the 1960s.

From 1947 to the 1970s, blue-collar wages rose in tandem with productivity, reinforcing faith in the work ethic. In that era, each cohort of 25-to-29 year-old men earned, on average, 3 times as much in constant dollars as their fathers had at the same age.

To be sure, some of these gains for white male workers rested on the privileges they were accorded over racial minorities and women. Women’s real wages scarcely budged in the 1950s and 1960s, and until the late 1960s, racial discrimination in hiring and pay was legal and widespread. Blacks and Latinos were initially excluded from many of the unions that protected workers’ seniority and job security.

Moreover, the postwar boom in home ownership for white working-class families was accomplished through federal policies that provided low-cost mortgages in white neighborhoods while “redlining” areas populated by racial minorities. Minority families were clustered in disadvantaged areas with low housing values, greatly hampering their future ability to get ahead even after formal segregation ended.

But for the most part, the gains made by white working-class men in this era came not from their unfair leverage over minorities and women, but from their greater bargaining power vis-a-vis capital.  With the implementation of new civil rights legislation, minorities and women were also able to benefit from increases in social welfare protections and wages, although they remained substantially behind white men. Blacks’ poverty rates fell significantly in the 1960s, and their real wages rose. White women’s real wages did not start to rise until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Until then, white women could typically only participate in the rising prosperity through marriage.

Although the gains of the postwar era were not evenly divided among workers, in comparison to today’s income trends they look fairly impressive. In every economic expansion that occurred between 1949 and 1969, at least two-thirds of the income growth went to the bottom 90 percent of the population, with just 20 to 30 percent going to the top earners.

Despite ongoing inequality in that era, especially for minorities and women, there were real limits on the perks and leverage of the top 10 percent. Unions had greater clout and could offer more benefits than before or since. And with 30 percent of workers in unions, even non-union workers benefited from the shadow that cast over employer-employee relations.

Corporations and banks, facing more restrictions on their freedom of movement and disposal of assets, tended to practice what William Lazonick calls a “retain and reinvest” approach, eschewing short-term cost-cutting in favor of retaining and rewarding a reliable workforce. And CEOs were typically paid only 30 times as much as the average worker in their companies, in contrast to the 300 times as much they make today.

The rich also had fewer ways of buying political influence, since the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech protections were then interpreted to protect individuals’ right to speak their mind, not corporations’ right to spend as much as they liked to influence the outcomes of policy debates. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of business interests just 42 percent of the time, compared to more than 60 percent of the time under Chief Justice Roberts.

In the 1950s and 1960s, taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals were much higher than today, and government used those taxes to fund giant job-creating infrastructure projects, including the Interstate Highway Building Program.

The postwar limits on the autonomy of capital began to be abrogated during the Carter administration of the 1970s, a process that accelerated under Reagan in the 1980s. Deindustrialization, job exporting, and technological change wiped out the economic and social base of many traditional working-class communities. Campaigns against unions and government regulations mounted. Barriers to out-sourcing, sub-contracting, and the hiring of part-time and temporary “contractors” were overturned. More recently the spread of on-demand industries such as Uber and Airbnb has offered new conveniences to consumers and a chance for many individuals to earn extra money but further reduced the availability of secure jobs with predicable hours and regulated working conditions.

The postwar limits on the autonomy of capital began to be abrogated during the Carter administration of the 1970s, a process that accelerated under Reagan in the 1980s. Deindustrialization, job exporting, and technological change wiped out the economic and social base of many traditional working-class communities. Campaigns against unions and government regulations mounted. Barriers to out-sourcing, sub-contracting, and the hiring of part-time and temporary “contractors” were overturned. More recently the spread of on-demand industries such as Uber and Airbnb has offered new conveniences to consumers and a chance for many individuals to earn extra money but further reduced the availability of secure jobs with predicable hours and regulated working conditions.

the way we never wereThe result has been a dramatic turn-around in the fortunes of workers without advanced degrees. Since 1980, the average 25-to 29 year-old man has earned less than his father did at the same age. This isn’t solely the result of lost manufacturing jobs. The same jobs now pay less, offer fewer benefits, and are more likely to be temporary or part-time than in the past.  For example, between 1947 and 1979, the wages of the average meatpacking worker, adjusted for inflation, increased by around 80 percent, to just under $40,000 per year. But from 1979 to 2012, the average meatpacker’s wage declined by nearly 30 percent, to about $27,000.

Other contributors to the loss of workers’ bargaining power over the past four decades include the shrinking real value of the minimum wage, the passage of trade deals favoring international manufacturers and merchants over local producers, and the privatization of many state and local government functions that can be turned into profit-making enterprises through cost-cutting that hurts workers and often endangers the public.

Exacerbating these problems has been the growing size and profitability of the financial sector, and its lack of accountability. Historian Colin Gordon reports that the growth and unrestricted operation of the financial sector accounts for up to half the decline in labor’s share of national income since 1970.

Indeed, the greed of hedge-fund managers makes most CEOs look like pikers. Although corporate CEO pay has risen by 997 percent since 1978, the top 25 hedge fund managers now take home more money than all the top 500 corporate CEOs combined.

Even families that would once have been considered comfortably well off, with secure jobs and wage prospects, have been hurt by this massive sea-change in American work practices and reward systems. Since 1982 the share of national income going to the wealthiest 10 percent has soared, while the share of the bottom 90 percent has steadily shrunk. In fact, between 2009 and 2012 the wealthiest 10 percent actually captured more than 100 percent of all income growth, a feat made possible because the incomes of the bottom 90 percent of households fell.

In this context, we should recognize that there are reasons people in precarious circumstances may resent immigration –- reasons entirely different from but also vulnerable to racist lies about crime and violence. In some areas illegal immigration does displace the least-educated native workers. It can also create tensions in neighborhoods that are experiencing cutbacks in public investment even as educational resources and other community amenities multiply in the increasingly isolated enclaves of the very rich.

As economist John Schmitt points out, our current immigration policies benefit some employers by pitting US-born low-wage workers, who have few protections, against foreign-born low-wage workers who have even fewer. Rather than a wall, we need to construct labor standards that ensure decent pay and working conditions for all workers regardless of national origin.

Contrary to the rants of racists, what has crushed the dreams of so many blue-collar families over the past 40 years is not the increased access of minorities, immigrants, and women to jobs but the decreased access of all working people to steady jobs, living wages, and reliable public services. Unfortunately, when legitimate grievances are denied and dismissed for too long by political and economic elites, people become increasingly vulnerable to rogue members of those elites, such as Donald Trump, who offer them illegitimate targets for their disappointment and growing rage.

And such denial has been going on for far too long by most politicians and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum.

No wonder so many Americans are ready for something other than pious optimism. The novelist Eric Ambler once commented that in a sick civilization, “political prestige is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician but of the man with the best bedside manner.” That’s certainly been the calculation of most mainstream politicians over the years.

Donald Trump has discovered there is now a political payoff to being the angriest diagnostician. And many Americans find his rage refreshing even as they freely admit that many of his prescriptions won’t work.

Scary or off-putting as Trump’s reality politics show is to many Americans, not all of his appeal can be attributed to racism or misogyny. Rather, people who recognize how little bargaining power they have in today’s economy are attracted to a man who supposedly knows “the art of the deal,” admits they’ve been getting a bad one, and promises to get them a better one even if he has to cheat and intimidate to do so. As one of his female supporters told a reporter, he’s the bully you’d like to see beat up the people who have bullied you.

People who want to defeat Trump should not give an inch to the racism, sexism, and nativism he incites. But they do need to demonstrate the same indignation about how the system is working, which is one reason Bernie Sanders has so far polled better against Trump than Hillary Clinton. I’m not advocating a class war against the rich. But I do think a little class anger on behalf of the bottom 90 percent –- the ENTIRE 90 percent, mind you –- is overdue.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College and wrote the newly revised  The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Happiness Gap Findings Screenshot
Happiness Gap Findings Screenshot

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Jennifer Glass, University of Texas; Robin Simon, Wake Forest University; and Matthew Andersson, Baylor University

June 16, 2016

Many people now know that parents in the United States report being less happy than nonparents, but there is considerable disagreement about why parents pay a “happiness penalty,” along with conflicting reports about whether this is true in most contemporary cultures. To explore these questions, our team, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined comparative data from 22 European and English-speaking countries. We utilized two well-respected surveys (the International Social Surveys of 2007 and 2008 and the European Social Surveys of 2006 and 2008), confining ourselves to data prior to the global recession in order to avoid confusing reports of happiness in a period of relative prosperity with reports taken in a period of economic stress.

The good news is that parents are not doomed to be unhappier than non-parents. Our results indicate that the parental “happiness penalty” varies substantially from country to country, and is not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life. In fact, in some countries, such as Norway and Hungary, parents are actually happier than non-parents!

The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.

But why are parents so much less happy than the childfree in the U.S., when other countries show different patterns? This is a somewhat complicated question to answer because of cultural differences in people’s definitions, standards, and self-reports of happiness. People in the U.S. tend to say they are pretty happy overall: On a scale from 1-10, Americans hover in the 8-10 range. People in France tend to rate their levels significantly lower – in the middle of the scale from 5-7. We aren’t sure if this means the French are truly less happy than Americans, or just don’t think it is appropriate to use the extremes of any scale.

Accordingly, we focused on the differences between parents and nonparents in the same country, or the relative effects of parenting. What factors are associated with parents being less happy than nonparents, given their country’s overall average level of happiness? Is it levels of unplanned parenthood or perhaps larger overall family sizes that depress parental happiness? Perhaps countries with more unexpected births and larger families end up with more parents who are unhappy and stressed-out. We checked out this hypothesis, but our data revealed that these factors were relatively unimportant in understanding why parents are less happy than childfree individuals in many countries.

So maybe parental happiness gaps are related to the differing costs — in time, money, and energy — of raising children in the countries we studied. We looked at several specific government policies that we thought would make a difference in the lives of employed parents – the duration and generosity of paid parenting leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the cost of child care for the average two-year old as a percent of median wages, and the extent of work schedule flexibility offered to parents of dependent children. We also constructed a summary policy measure, combining all these, to differentiate countries with good parental policy “packages” from countries with weak parental policy “packages.” We gathered this policy information for all 22 of our countries, along with their Gross Domestic Product and their fertility rate, to make sure that our findings were not simply reflecting the effects of living in a richer country versus a poorer one.

What we found was astonishing. The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy “packages” had no happiness gap between parents and nonparents.

Furthermore, the positive effects of good family support policies for parents were not achieved at the expense of nonparents, as some commentators have claimed might be the case. The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not. Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children.

The same pattern held even for policies such as subsidized child care, which one might assume would only benefit parents. Countries with cheaper out-of-pocket costs for child care had happier nonparents as well as parents.

Another striking finding was that giving money to parents in the form of child allowances or monthly payments had less effect on parental happiness than giving them the tools to combine employment with parenting. Many European countries have child allowances in varying amounts, but few of these policies had a significant impact on the relative happiness of mothers or fathers compared to nonparents.

There were a few differences in what increased the happiness of fathers compared to mothers. Fathers’ happiness was slightly more sensitive to money policies (child care costs, specifically), and mothers’ happiness was slightly more sensitive to time policies (especially paid sick and vacation days). But these differences were minor. The most important predictor of higher relative levels of happiness for parents was the presence of family policies making it less stressful and less costly combine childrearing with paid work. And such policies seemed to increase the happiness level of childless individuals as well.

Jennifer Glass is the executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families. She is in the department of sociology and the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Robin Simon is in the sociology department at Wake Forest University, and Matthew Anderson is in the sociology department at Baylor University. For comment, please contact Dr. Glass at 319-621-6304.