Intensive Intervention Needed

Joyce Dryfoos
January 1, 1998

Guess what? (my granddaughter starts out every conversation that way). A major demonstration project, New Chance, was carefully evaluated and found to have little effect on the lives of very disadvantaged teenage welfare mothers. According to press reports, these poor moms were “showered” with education, training, child care, parenting classes, health care and counseling at an average cost of $9,000 per case. A follow-up more than three years after the 18-month long intervention found that the program participants in the 16 sites across the country were only slightly more likely than a control group to have gained in educational outcomes. But, this improvement did not carry over into getting off of welfare, finding employment or preventing repeat pregnancies.

The conservatives have jumped on these findings with glee. Patrick Fagan, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says this proves the insanity of people like me who want to use public funds to encourage welfare recipients to voluntarily leave the welfare system through educational, employment and family planning programs. He uses New Chance as an exemplar of the failure of comprehensive programming that doles out money and cites several similar programs that have not worked.

No one seemed to have taken a close look at the actual program. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation has produced a careful documentation and evaluation report, recommended reading for those interested in welfare reform. First of all, the average length of stay in the 18-month program by participants was six months, with exceedingly high rates of absenteeism. Some of the moms just never made it to the sites. They were bogged down with problems related to child care, transportation, dealing with the welfare system, being pregnant, homelessness, depression, substance abuse and domestic violence. The so-called case managers in many of the programs were expected to take care of 40 to 70 cases and were not able to see the women biweekly as required in the guidelines. Although family planning was emphasized in the program prospectus, it was not given strong support by some of the case managers. They did not counsel participants about contraceptives because they felt uncomfortable dealing with the subject of sexuality or did not have the time. Child care was provided at more than half the sites, but the quality may not have been good enough to affect the development of seriously at-risk children. In sum, the level of participation was just too minimal and the intensity of the interventions too low to create real changes in participants’ lives.

Why would anyone expect to turn around the life of a poor under-educated teen mom in six months? Compare these results with our knowledge of the Quantum Opportunities Program. This is a four-year long intensive intervention focused on random samples of very high-risk kids beginning in the ninth grade. They are just like New Chance moms, except that they are still marginally connected to a school. Every day they come to a site where they receive daily hands-on, wrap-around support. Four full-time youth workers are available for 50 students. Every participant must spend time on school remediation, community service, recreation and cultural events. Each is paid an hourly incentive wage for attendance that accumulates for college. After four years, participants were much more likely to go to college, or work, and less likely to become parents and stay out of trouble.

QOP is the “before” and New Chance is the “after.” Yes, you do have to “shower” high-risk kids with comprehensive services, but you have to do it before they are so burdened and so disadvantaged that they cannot overcome the odds. The documentation of both programs shows that it is difficult, indeed, to turn the lives around of young people who have never lived outside of trouble and want. Difficult, but not impossible. Even the New Chance moms moved ahead with their educations, and might have done better in the job market if jobs had been created for them.

We are not insane if we believe that public funds should be used to create more comprehensive programs. However, we are naive if we think it can be done with mirrors. Adequate, well-trained youth workers cost a lot. Youth development work at its best calls for enormous concentration, commitment and intensity. Welfare reform will never work without paying attention to these principles.

Joy Dryfoos is an independent researcher and writer based in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Dryfoos, Joy. "Intensive Intervention Needed." Youth Today, January/February 1998, p. 29.

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