Changes in Food Security After Welfare Reform: Can We Identify a Policy Effect?

Year: 2001

Research Center: Joint Center for Poverty Research, University of Chicago and Northwestern University

Investigator: Jencks, Christopher, and Scott Winship

Institution: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Project Contact:
Christopher Jencks
Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone: 617-495-0546
Fax: 617-496-9053


The authors investigated whether welfare reform has altered single mothers’ standard of living relative to that of married couples with children. Welfare reform is broadly defined to include the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit that provides a subsidy to earned income up to a certain threshold. Much previous research attempted to track the wellbeing of welfare leavers, and many studies used income measures as proxies for material well-being. The studies of former welfare recipients, however, suffered from low response rates and did not examine how welfare reform affected nonenrolled families who face greater barriers to enrolling in Federal cash assistance programs. Focusing on income is also problematic in that employment involves new expenses as well as income; newly employed former welfare recipients face transportation, clothing, and childcare expenses, and often lose their Medicaid coverage. To address these shortcomings, the authors considered all single mothers and used direct measures of material wellbeing. They focused on changes in food-related problems, using data collected in the annual Food Security Supplement to the Current Population Survey between 1995 and 1999. To distinguish the effect of welfare reform from that of the strengthening economy during this period, the authors compared trends in food-related problems among single mothers with trends among married mothers relatively unaffected by welfare reform.

The authors examined about 50 food-related problems. All these problems declined between 1995 and 1999 among single and married mothers, and the proportional declines were approximately equal for the two groups. Single mothers started with more food-related problems than married mothers, so equal proportional declines signify larger percentage point declines among single mothers. Multivariate analysis shows that single mothers and married mothers saw improvements from 1995 to 1997 and that problems declined among single mothers at least as much as among married mothers. After 1997, improvements appeared to cease among both groups. But, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report on its September 2000 survey showed significant improvement among female-headed households between 1998 and 2000, the absence of measurable progress between 1997 and 1999 may well be due to random sampling error or some other methodological artifact.

The interpretation of these findings depends upon how the strong economy of the late 1990s would be expected to affect single mothers relative to married couples with children. If one believes that prosperity would have reduced food-related problems by the same proportion among single mothers as among married couples with children even in the absence of welfare reform and the EITC, the authors’ findings imply that welfare reform in itself had no effect on single mothers’ living standards. If one believes that prosperity would have helped families with high labor force participation rates more than families with low labor force participation rates, then the fact that food-related problems fell by the same proportion among single mothers as among married mothers implies that single mothers did better under welfare reform and the EITC than they would have done in their absence.