Fragile Families and Welfare Reform

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The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is designed to shift more of the responsibility for poor children from government to parents. To accomplish this goal, the new law requires welfare clients to work and limits the total number of years they can receive assistance. In addition, the new legislation requires unwed fathers to establish paternity and strengthens child support enforcement among nonresident fathers. Although many people believe that poor children would be better off if their mothers worked and their fathers were more involved in their upbringing, the scientific evidence for these assumptions is weak. We know very little about the ability of poor parents to support their children, and we know even less about their ability to cooperate with one another. Whether recent welfare reform is good public policy will depend in large part on the answers to the following questions:
• What are the conditions and capabilities of low-income parents, especially fathers?
• What is the nature of the parents’ relationships in low-income families? How many couples are involved in stable, long-term relationships? How many fathers want to be involved in raising their children?
• How are policies being implemented at the local level? How will they affect parents’ capabilities and relationships? And how will they affect child wellbeing?
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