The extensive federal and state welfare reforms of the 1990s increased the possibility that welfare-to-work programs targeted at adults would indirectly affect children. During the first half of the decade, prior to federal welfare reform, states shifted to a “Work First” approach aimed at moving adults quickly from welfare to work through employment-oriented activities and imposing stiff sanctions for noncompliance. Many states instituted “personal responsibility” requirements that broadened the scope of welfare policy to include parenting (for example, through school attendance and immunization requirements). A significant provision of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), in terms of the potential effect on children, was the imposition of a 5- year time limit on families’ receipt of cash assistance. In addition, the work participation requirements in PRWORA encouraged states to increase participation in welfare-to-work programs by narrowing exemptions.
Critics of welfare reform feared that children’s environments would deteriorate in some families, if benefit reductions from time limits and sanctions exceeded any gains in earnings. They also worried that the quality of parenting and amount of supervision children received might decline when single mothers spent more time at work.
Proponents of welfare reform believed that the reforms would have positive effects on children. Increased income from work would leave the family better off. Maternal employment also might help to regularize family routines and provide better role models that would be advantageous for children. Personal responsibility provisions would lead to better quality parenting.