Clinton Postures to Keep Teen Welfare Mothers In School, At Home

Heather Szerlag
July 1, 1996

"We have to make it clear that a baby doesn't give you a right and we won't give you the money, to leave home and drop out of school. Today we are moving to make responsibility a way of life, not an option." —President Bill Clinton announcing a new executive order concerning welfare benefits to teen mothers

President Clinton announced a series of actions designed to keep teenage mothers at home, in school and preparing for a job. The directive, announced during his May 4 radio address, was aimed at ending what is perceived to be a major abuse of the welfare system — the payment of benefits to young, unmarried mothers who move out of their homes, stop going to school and fall into long-term welfare dependency. But perhaps more importantly, Clinton's announcement will help stave off Republican charges that he failed to make good on a 1992 campaign promise "to end welfare as we know it."

Many child advocates worry, however, that requirements of this sort that are already in place in many states put teen mothers and their children in danger.

Clinton told his radio audience that the Department of Health and Human Services would require states to have plans to keep pregnant and teen mothers on welfare, in school or working toward a general equivalency degree (GED) and to take steps to educate those who've dropped out — including the use of sanctions such as reductions in welfare benefits. Teen mothers who had dropped out would be required to sign 'personal responsibility plans' detailing how they were going to put themselves back on track, either through GED work, high school completion or a job training program.

The order also gives states the option to raise benefits for teen mothers who stay in school without first receiving a federal waiver. Finally, Clinton encouraged states to use their right to require teens to live with their families or lose benefits — unless there is "an abusive situation at home."

Clinton had proposed similar sanctions in 1994. But in an election year in which welfare reform is likely to figure prominently, the new directive along with Clinton's recent approval of Wisconsin's radical welfare overhaul improves Clinton's relative position on the issue in the presidential race.

The President's recent tough public stance on welfare appears to be aimed at defusing Congressional Republican charges that Clinton took the side of big government in refusing to sign their wide-ranging welfare reform measure. The bill would have replaced the 60-year-old federal guarantee of assistance for poor children with block grants with which states could design their own programs. The President vetoed the measure, stating that the Republican overhaul made excessive spending cuts that were harmful to children and that it didn't do enough to move people from welfare to work.

Instead of signing onto the Republican reform plan, the President noted that his Administration has given 37 states the right to experiment with their welfare systems. "State by state we are building a welfare system that demands work, requires responsibility and protects our children," he said.

Political benefits aside, the impact of the order remains uncertain. According to David Super, an analyst with the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy, "[the executive order] will narrow eligibility for benefits and so some money will be saved, but the number of people involved is not very large, so savings will not be large. And whether there will be higher costs in other areas is unclear — we don't have any data on that yet."

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) statistics, out of the 4.8 million families receiving benefits through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, 300,000 are headed by teen mothers. It is unknown how many are currently high school dropouts or not living with their parents.

“There is this perception that the AFDC caseload is peopled by teen mothers and it isn't. The average age of a welfare recipient is approximately 30 and only eight percent of AFDC families are headed by a teen parent currently," noted Children's Defense Fund (CDF) policy analyst Deborah Weinstein.

But half of all women on welfare had their first child when they were teenagers and 80 percent of children born to teen drop-outs live in poverty countered Michael Kharfen of the US Department of Health and Human Services. "The measures have been created to help make teen mothers better providers," said Kharfen.

To many states, the provisions of Clinton's executive order are nothing new: 21 states have implemented some form of the live-at-home rule and 26 already require teen parents to stay in school in order to receive assistance. Ohio's Learning, Earning, and Parenting (LEAP) program in particular was singled out by President Clinton as successful in keeping teen mothers in school and even in reducing their numbers on welfare.

Operating since 1989, LEAP requires welfare recipients who are pregnant or parents and under twenty to attend school or to be working toward a GED. Teens who meet the requirement receive an extra $62 a month, those who don't have $62 deducted.

An evaluation conducted by the New York-based social policy research organization, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), found that 45 percent of eligible teens under the LEAP program were enrolled in school or a GED program and that half of those graduated — 30 percent more than those not enrolled in the program. A quarter of LEAP teens both graduated and became employed, 50 percent more than non-LEAP participants.

But for teen drop-outs, there were no increases in the number of those graduating or becoming employed, despite large reductions in welfare payments. And MDRC found that of those who received sanctions, 34 percent bought less food and 24 percent were forced to delay payment on rent.

"The results show that financial incentives can be quite effective when teen parents are exposed to them while still in school," said the MDRC study's lead researcher, David Long. "Greater changes in the welfare system, the public schools or both may be needed to succeed with school drop-outs," he added.

It is Clinton's push for more states to enact a live-at-home requirement for teen mothers, however, that has raised the most concern among child advocates. According to a 1994 Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) study, which surveyed directors of agencies working with pregnant and parenting teens, an estimated 50 percent of teen mothers would be at risk of further sexual abuse if they were returned to their families, and 62 percent reportedly had been abused or neglected by their caregivers prior to the teen's pregnancy.

"Any minor mother's residency requirement must be implemented carefully, with meticulous attention given to each case so as to minimize risk," declared the CWLA's director David Liederman.

"We think if it is at all possible, it would be good for them to stay at home, but the vast majority of teen mothers do just that, they do stay at home because it is difficult for them to raise a baby on their own," said Weinstein of the CDF.

Asked if Clinton's call for more use of the live-at-home rule could potentially push more teens and their babies into foster care or onto the streets, HHS' Kharfen replied, "Obviously we don't want kids in abusive homes, we want them to have responsible and safe adult supervision." Kharfen added that only as a last alternative should teens be allowed to set up a household.

For now at least, states seem to be moving with caution. Michigan, for instance, has an 18-month-old policy requiring minor mothers to live with their parents or under some form of adult supervision. A Michigan HHS survey showed that of the 85 mothers who were living on their own in Ingham County last year, 74 continue to live independently. And in Arizona, out of 920 teen mothers on welfare and living independently last year, 46 lost benefits.

Weinstein noted that the law does allow for teens to live in a supervised setting like a group home or foster care, "But that costs money, whereas requiring teens to stay at home doesn't. There are incentives for states to not really do case management to figure out what the best place is [for the teen]."

Szerlag, Heather. "Clinton Postures to Keep Teen Welfare Mothers In School, At Home."Youth Today, July/August 1996, p. 30.

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